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The Five Core Issues of Co-dependence

Posted on February 1, 2022

The Five Core Issues of Co-dependence

Co-dependence is a disorder that arises as a result of a child experiencing relational trauma which prevents them from forming a healthy attachment with their parent or another primary or secondary caregiver.

Alternatively, it may develop as a result of trauma causing an already formed attachment to be destroyed, either immediately or gradually over time.

Such a breakdown in relationship development can happen for several reasons.

For a child to not form an attachment, something needs to happen which separates them from or otherwise distorts their perception of, their parent.

Examples of relational trauma that are capable of causing this change in dynamic between a child and carer include:

These causes can come at the hands of a child’s parent themselves, or spring from another source that ultimately manages to affect a child’s ability to attach and form a relationship with their carer.

For example, bereavement and grief could arise because of the passing of an extended family member, or abuse could come at the hands of a friend or stranger.

The impacts of these traumas and resulting co-dependence disorder can be life-long, and children who develop the disorder often experience severe repercussions which they carry with them into adulthood.

The five core issues/symptoms

At the heart of co-dependency disorder exists five ‘core issues’ or ‘core symptoms’ which characterise how the disorder impacts those who have experienced relational trauma.

These ‘issues’ formulate the basis for why an individual could not develop a healthy relationship as a child and why they experience difficulties in other areas of life afterwards.

Each ‘issue’ is an area of behaviour, emotion, or cognition which an individual struggles to manage or is unable to influence.

Their challenges and relationship troubles spawn from this lack of control.

The five core ‘issues’ of co-dependence disorder are:

  • Self-esteem and self-love
  • Establishing, maintaining, and respecting boundaries from others
  • Accepting personal identity and reality
  • Recognising and meeting self-care needs
  • Acting and thinking in moderation

The difficulty a child or adult with co-dependence faces in handling these five issues tends to result in them teetering between the extremes of each one. As a result, they are likely to fluctuate between some of the following states:

  • Utter worthlessness and complete narcissism
  • Invulnerable confidence and crippling anxiousness
  • Faith in personal abilities and doubting everything about oneself
  • Extreme perfectionism and passive nonchalance
  • Refusing to accept help and being totally dependent on others
  • Rigid decision-making and immature deference to others

Of course, it is also possible for co-dependent individuals to present their disorder by only exhibiting one-half of these various states of being.

For example, they may always be anxious and immature, or they may always wish to isolate themselves from others and want complete independence.

Ultimately, the lack of fundamental attachment as a child leaves an individual without a sufficient understanding of emotional niches and dynamics.

They function without a concept of what is and isn’t acceptable – causing them to struggle with the five main ‘issues’ – and so do not learn how to effectively socialise and develop relationships with others.

How can a child be relationally traumatised?

When it comes to the source of co-dependence disorder, there must be an event or sequence of events that inhibit an individual from forming a healthy attachment with their parent or carer.

While this event can be almost anything that causes some kind of change or disruption to the way a parent and child interact, there are several types that prove to be most notable.

Three examples with quite clear repercussions for later life are enmeshment, neglect, and abandonment.


In an enmeshed relationship or household, there are no solid or respected boundaries between individuals.

Children are provided with no clear identity, and so they struggle to distinguish themselves from the others they live with.

As a result, there is no clear sense of a relationship between child and parent, and therefore a distinct attachment is not able to develop. Instead, each individual forms an integrated, uniform whole where no two parts are clearly their own.

When this kind of relationship develops, individuals are more likely to be completely reliant on others and tend to have no sense of self-worth [1].

Unhealthy perceptions of mutual reliance are prevalent, and individuals struggle to imagine life without those they live with.


A child is said to have been neglected when their fundamental needs (both physical and emotional) are not met by a parent or carer.

Either deliberately or through ignorance, a parent does not provide a child with food, shelter, care, or attention, or only do so to the absolute bare minimum.

When this happens, a child does not learn to see their carer as an individual with which they need to attach and identify with.

The evolutionary objective of attachment is to secure a bond and the securities it affords, but a child is not able to do this if standards of care are not met by their parent.

When a child is neglected, they can develop depression and adopt a worthless self-image, or potentially develop a rigid belief that they are not to depend on others.

This can prove problematic when they are adults and looking for a relationship, and resentfulness can play a prevalent part in their worldview.


In the event of abandonment, a parent or carer leaves a child altogether. This can be either physical or emotional, but either way, the parent is not involved in the care and development of the child.

This disrupts attachment in the more obvious sense as the child cannot possibly attach to a carer who is not present in their life.

Similarly to neglect, abandonment can spark depression, but it can also prompt individuals to struggle with intimate emotion and to forcefully protect and prioritise their independence and self-worth.

Trusting others can therefore become an issue, so too can relinquishing control.

How is adulthood affected?

The five issues of co-dependence can leave individuals with life-long behavioural traits.

Each cause of relational trauma and the resulting issues can affect people differently, and some can experience differing effects as they age.

In addition to the impacts listed and noted above, an adult with co-dependence can exhibit some of the following traits:

  • Being over-controlling in relationships
  • Having trouble developing or maintaining healthy romantic relationships
  • Feeling angry or resentful towards parents or other people in general
  • Developing an addiction [2]
  • Developing mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety
  • Developing physical health problems, such as a weakened immune system

Treatment and support

When it comes to helping an individual manage their co-dependence, treatment looks to do two things.

It first allows them to work through the causes of their disorder – discussing their parents, childhood, and trauma – and then provides them support in managing their adult symptoms.

Through counselling and therapy sessions, treatment can do this while also providing help for other conditions – such as depression, anxiety, or addiction – which may have developed as a result of an individual’s co-dependence.

This will usually take the form of teaching techniques and encouraging routines that will help them recognise problems and respond to them in healthier ways.

Getting help

If you currently struggling with co-dependence and are finding that other mental health conditions are also becoming problematic, don’t suffer in silence.

Seek support and get the right help for your situation.

Speak to a GP, support charity, or private clinic to discuss your situation, assess your options for treatment, and determine the right path forward.





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