Yes, Codependency Can Kill!

by Paul Chubbuck

Codependent Relationship

Codependency: A relationship in which a person is overly reliant upon another for approval and a sense of identity, compelling them to control or appease the other.  The relationship may have many unhealthy qualities including addiction, enabling another’s addiction, inappropriate surrender of ones will to another, a lack of assertion of ones desires, immaturity, manipulation, poor and indirect communication, and resentment of the other, usually expressed only indirectly.

When I was only 18, codependency nearly killed me. I had grown up in a home with a lot of dysfunction and unclear, indirect and manipulative communication. One of the main survival strategies I learned was to avoid conflict by surrender and appeasement. And why not? Confronting and arguing only made things worse on me, sometimes earning me painful disapproval from Mom or Dad or both.

At 18, I got my first real taste of independence, a coveted job in Yellowstone Park for the summer on an NPS maintenance crew. I loved it! So many new adventures, alone and with peers. I was in heaven, for sure. This was in 1969 and on July 20 that year, the US landed 2 people on the moon for the first time. President Nixon gave federal employees Monday off, and that included me!

A new male friend, somewhat older than I, invited me to go hiking that unexpected holiday. He was much more experienced than I and promptly left the trail, bushwhacking through brambles and over fallen trees. I followed, meekly, assuming he knew what he was doing even though I felt uncomfortable and was soon aware that I did not know where we were or how to get back home. After a time, we came to a deep and steep ravine. Unhesitatingly, he went scrambling down the ravine. I felt a lot of fear, but seeing his competency and confidence, I assumed “I should not be afraid. I should be like him”. I started down, fearful and facing the slope. Before long, I started sliding, faster and faster out of control.  Through some miracle and scraping my fingers into the sparse dirt and rubble, I managed to keep my head above my body, but I still slid fast and eventually came abruptly to a stop against a large boulder, impacting my foot.

Now in a lot of pain, it was only with his help and that of a makeshift branch cane that I limped my way across a fast-flowing mountain river and 3 miles back to the car. A cracked left fibula ended my dream summer in Yellowstone. Had I lost control completely and tumbled, that would’ve likely ended my life.

And why did this happen?  Because I did not communicate my needs, fears, and limitations to my hiking buddy, and because I did not listen to my own fear and good judgment and instead surrendered to another person whose experience and judgment were different. This negating of my own good instincts put me in jeopardy. And why did I do that?  Because I had been taught for 18 years to give in to others and not to listen to or to trust my own feelings. By 18, it came natural to just agree with another, even, in this case, a person I barely knew in a risky environment, rather than “make waves”.

Now here’s another very tragic story which moved me to tears a few days ago in the news.

Last week a man in Houston was attempting to escape the Hurricane Harvey flood in Houston with his Mother, Father, and 4 children in a van. They came to a bridge with water overflowing. The way his brother tells the story, “[My brother] said Dad says ‘Go, you can make it. I can see the guardrail, go!’ We were taught, ‘You listen to your Dad’. Dad was real demanding, even at 84 years old and so he [my brother] went. And like I told [him], ‘I can’t see myself doing anything different. If Dad told me to go, I would’ve tried to make it.’  The rest is tragic history. The van was washed off the bridge into deep water. The man escaped but his parents and 4 children drowned. How might this have turned out differently if he had stood up to his Father? He could’ve said, “I got a bad feeling about this Dad. I’m not willing to put all our lives at risk. We’re safe here. We’re just going to wait for rescue.” And his Dad probably would’ve yelled at him, maybe shamed him, but they’d all be alive.

Codependency is not merely a boundary issue, a lack of assertiveness, or a difficulty knowing what you want. Codependency can and does kill! Think of the teenage driving-while-intoxicated deaths where one teen says to another, “let’s see how fast your car will go!” Think of the marital murders when resentment is not communicated in a healthy way and finally erupts in violence. It’s all codependency and it’s dangerous!

My heart hurts for this man who survived his family. Such unbearable pain he must be in. I send them all my heartfelt prayers, and invite you to take any codependent tendencies you have seriously. Even if they don’t kill you, they may cause you all kinds of less dramatic and ongoing suffering. Each of us has been given our own inner guidance, our own feelings, our own sensitivities, fears, and instincts. These are there for a reason, not to be ignored or suppressed, but to help us survive difficult situations and make the best possible decisions for ourselves and our loved ones. Facing up to such unhealthy tendencies in yourself may be challenging, but there are all kinds of help available to grow in your ability to have healthier, more satisfying relationships. I can personally testify that recovery from codependency is possible. Today I can feel my intuition, fears, emotions, and instincts speaking to me quite clearly as body experiences and they contribute constantly to my decisions and life direction.

May you find that journey of recovery rewarding!

    • Do you have private questions about the body-mind connection or about recovering from trauma, loss, or abuse? Click here to leave me a private message.

      Paul Chubbuck is a practicing psychotherapist in Fort Collins, CO, using Somatic Experiencing® to help people release trauma, abuse, and loss. He may be reached at 970-493-2958 or through his website at
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