Is it Love or Codependence? - Joyful Life Institute, Inc.

Is it Love or Codependence?
These days we say we “love” anything from ice cream, diamonds, and good weather to our children, lover,
and God. The word “love” is overused and misunderstood. The overuse and misunderstandings about love
has lead many to confuse love with the related phenomena, codependence. Are you or someone you care
about “in love,” or “codependent?”
This article will define and describe the behaviors that are characteristic of love and codependence. Then it
will look at the misuses of the word love. Finally, we will discuss the relationship between love and
There are four types of love derived from the Greek words eros, storge, agape, and phileo. Eros is the
erotic or sexual love. Storge is the love that exists between parents and their offspring. Brotherly love is
called phileo. Agape is the term used to describe pure love that is selfless and without conditions. It also
encapsulates the notions of charity and altruism. There is an implied hierarchy as to which is the highest
form of love, with agape topping the list.
Love is a verb. It requires that we take action. At times, that action is what we do (e.g., acts of kindness);
other times, it is an indirect action (e.g., having mercy). This is the type of love often described at
weddings: "Love is patient [or long-suffering], love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not
proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love
does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and
always perseveres."1. In many ways, love is forgiving and self-sacrificing.
Self-sacrificing? Doesn’t that hurt? Love is not supposed to hurt, right? Isn’t that codependence? We have
heard a lot about codependence in recent years. What does it really mean be codependent? Codependence
is an unhealthy form of attachment in which one behaves in an extremely passive manner or is
preoccupied with caring for others to the point where their own needs are not a priority or are
overlooked.2 Some harshly judge the person who is labeled “codependent.” Often we fail to recognize the
reciprocal nature of the codependent relationship. A person cannot be a codependent without one or more
co-conspirators. For every codependent there is a narcissist with whom he or she bonded. Given this
definition, isn’t the type of love that Paul described co-dependent? Let’s see if an example will help us
better answer these questions.
Lori and Nick were divorced for five years. But to meet them you would not know it. Why? While divorced,
they repeatedly flipped from dating to being in an estranged relationship. They continued to sleep
together while dating other people. The ex-wife exhibited jealousy of and attempted to sabotage her exhusband’s romantic relationships. The ex-husband stated firmly he’d moved on; yet, he admitted to giving
ex-wife carte blanche in his home and wanting to remain “friends-with-benefits.” He was nonchalant about
the fact that two women were fighting over him. Their relationship was characterized by stalking, caustic
arguments, and even violence. Yet, they could not seem to let go of each other. When asked why they
remained together when things were so admittedly problematic, they gave excuses. These excuses ranged
from we don’t believe in divorce to needing to stay together for the children’s sake. When we got right
down to it, they admitted that they stayed together because they “loved each other.” Both were matterof-fact about the way their relationship functioned. The message they each sent was something is wrong
with the other person and the relationship; but he or she did not contribute to the problems and thought
the relationship was basically fine. Could this be love?
This couple’s relationship definitely exhibited the erotic, sexual love (eros). Lori and Nick said they had
the love for their children, the storge type of love. However, they argued and fought in the presence of
their offspring. Their kids probably would not have said they felt the love on those occasions. Perhaps,
brotherly love (phileo) was demonstrated in moments when they were caring and then would squabble
like siblings. It is hard to say that this couple had mastered agape, selfless love.
1 of 3
Is it Love or Codependence?
Did this couple behave in a manner consistent with love? Lori and Nick probably had and continued to
have some good times in their relationship. This was probably the glue that kept them together, the hope
that the good times would be more frequent than the challenging ones. They were hopeful they could
reconcile. However, hope must be paired with the application of healthy actions toward their goals.
Their actions had caused them to suffer for a long time. One could conclude that they were longsuffering. However, long-suffering means you will not give up easily, you’ll be patient. Patience and selfsacrifice are virtues when done in moderation. Like everything that is done in excess, it can be harmful.
Self-sacrifice that includes continuous self-harm is not healthy. While they were long-suffering and
persevered in this very emotionally painful relationship, this quality has a tipping point where it becomes
toxic. Holding on too long could be harmful to the couple’s emotional well-being and in this case, also their
physical well-being. We often hear the slogan, “love doesn’t hurt.” That’s not quite true. Ask a parent who
lost a child. To love deeply and lose that loved one hurts; it’s almost a physical pain. We may be
overwhelmed by the loss of loved one even if it is the loss of a romantic relationship. Like this parent, we
can grieve the loss of a romantic bond and go on with our lives. Long-suffering does not mean you should
allow yourself to be mistreated. We should not be miserable or accept verbal, emotional, or physical abuse
in relationships. In this way, love should not hurt.
While it may have started as a love match and fumes of love may still exist, this was not love but
codependence. How do we know? Their behaviors were not kind. They were jealous of each other. While
the ex-husband did not outright boast about the fact that two women were fighting over him, there was a
sense that his ego was bolstered by this. He exhibited narcissistic tendencies. It is possible that she was
a inverted or "covert" narcissists. According to Sam Vaknin’s definition3, she might not simply have had
the misfortune of marrying a narcissist, she may have “craved” being in a relationship with a narcissist to
enact her ability to be sacrificial. She might be saying to herself and demonstrating for all who are
observing, “see how much I put up with.” Both were two proud to admit their own contribution to their
conflicts. They were rude to each other and to the people who they dated. Their love was not about
altruism. Instead, their love was about wanting the other person to fulfill their needs and fantasies about
the relationship. They were self-seeking. The couple was easily angered to the point of violence. They
keep score of the wrongs the other had done. Yet, they showed no remorse for their own problematic
behavior. I suspected that each stretched the truth with rationalizations that made this relationship all
right. Neither protected the other or was protected by the other. This relationship lacked trust.
Theirs was not the agape kind of love and they failed Paul’s criteria for love. Lori and Nick exhibited a
parasitic form of attachment that did more harm than good in the long-run. Other indicators that this was
a codependence were the denial and low self-esteem exhibited by both parties. Neither saw or believed
that they were too valuable to continue with their toxic escalation. This couple’s efforts to control each
other through arguments and violence suggested that one or both of them did not understand the
importance of their “different-ness” and separateness. They were not the same person. Lori and Nick did
not understand that they were allowed to have different wants and needs. It was okay for each individual
to make a choice for him or herself. It was not necessary to manipulate to get what you wanted. Setting
healthy boundaries and consistently applying consequences to boundary violations was sufficient to
change their relationship. This couple needed the clarity to discern what constituted an unhealthy
relationship and the fortitude to know when to break off a dysfunctional attachment.
Is it love or codependence? If your behaviors are unbecoming, unlike the love that Paul described, and
motivated by self-interest, it is probably codependence and not love. There is a difference between giving
to solely give versus giving with a motive to get. A pure sacrifice is not self-serving. True love is profound
and calls on us to grow with each interaction. It is like a delicate violet that requires that we continually
provide it with the optimal nourishment.
2 of 3
Is it Love or Codependence?
If your relationship is characterized by codependency, the first step to recovery is to recognize your selfdestructive patterns of interaction. Then develop strategies that will enable you to stop harming yourself.
If you need help doing so, there are self-help books (see below) and groups (such as Codependents
Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery), and psychotherapies.
The Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. (1973). Colorado Springs, Biblica, Inc., 1 Cor.
Anonymous. Codependents Anonymous, (1999). Phoenix: Codependents Anonymous.
Vaknin, S. (1997-2007) Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited. Republic of Macedonia: Lidija
Rangelovska, Skopje.
Beattie, M. (1987). Codependent No More. Center City: Hazelden.
About the Author:
Dr. Michelle J. Richards, Ph.D., counsels or coaches clients, executives, employees, and
businesses owners. Our services include counseling (individual, marital, family, &
group); trauma work; peak performance, and executive coaching; EMDR; hypnotherapy;
parenting coordination; and Critical Incident Debriefing. She welcomes clients who are in
crisis or need to accomplish goals. For more information, go to her website: or call 972-906-5607.
This article may be copied, printed, and shared with others as long as this box and the
copyright remain intact. This permission does not void the author's reserved copyright.
Vignettes and anecdotes are works of fiction. The names, characters, incidents,
locations, and interactions herein are fictitious. Any similarity to or any identification with
any person (living or dead), history of any person, historical figures, event, location,
product, or entity are entirely coincidental and unintentional. The descriptions of people
and their interactions are composites of many people she has met in her life.
3 of 3