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This Is Why Irrelationship And Codependency Are Not The Same Thing



This Is Why Irrelationship And Codependency Are Not The Same Thing

Key differences between irrelationship and codependency

Not even once
Did we see a light
We didn’t realize
The forecast had been revised——Tennis, “Marathon” ( is external))

“I know, I know,” said Ella, “Let go, or…

“…or be dragged,” finished her husband Jared.

Most of us know people who have left claw marks in anyone they’ve ever “let go.”  Theories about why this happens are plentiful.

The work represented in this blog is built around a perspective that varies significantly from the well-known concept of codependency developed by Melody Beattie. According to Beattie (1986), “The codependent is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior” (p. 34). According to Beattie’s analysis, people with codependency are “so absorbed in other people’s problems they (don’t) have time to identify or solve their own” (p. 5).

In contrast, irrelationship is a jointly created psychological defense system that protects individuals and couples from the fear and anxiety that are part of allowing another person to become important to them. From this perspective, many people labeled “codependent” are probably more accurately described as being affected by irrelationship.

In both cases, affected persons behave as compulsive caretakers, but with significant differences.

“I spent years in therapy working on myself,” Ella explained.  “I worked on my codependency as something inside me, something that I either invited others—especially lovers—into, or hammered them over the head with. I never even considered that it was something my boyfriends and I were creating together—especially after I finally stopped dating men with substance abuse problems.”

“Then, when she met me, the whole game changed,” put in Jared.

“Yeah. Changed in ways that baffled me,” agreed Ella. “Jared had a history of being all messed up, which, I can’t deny, definitely caught my interest.  But this was different, somehow; something about him didn’t quite fit.”

“I think it had something to do with my joining AA,” said Jared. “I had done my personal inventory and was making amends to people. I was learning to manage my life better than I ever had before. The changes were making me less and less interested in having somebody else do my work for me.”

The literature concerned with addiction doesn’t discuss codependency as a jointly created system. In fact, codependency was initially viewed as a co-alcoholism or co-addiction in which the codependent person colluded with another person’s active substance dependency. For Beattie, codependents are individual operators suffering from a disorder in which “they are made crazy by the people they live with—usually alcoholics or addicts” (p. 5) In codependency, “compulsive behaviors turn everyone affected by the illness into victims” (p. 6). In contrast, those in irrelationship are not victims, they are collaborators on the project of creating methods of effective—though isolating, limiting and stifling—anxiety-reduction. This dynamic that they create, however, is by definition not a pathology or an illness, but a jointly agreed upon interaction pattern.

Ella explained further: “Despite all the work on myself, I never looked at why I kept choosing men who needed my so-called ‘help’—until they didn’t anymore, whatever that meant. And that was the end. As if both he and I could not go on under any other conditions than helper and helped. And that’s when the fight really began. Usually…”

Jared interjected, “Yeah, well, the funny thing is that, not all that long before Ella and I met, I had been the proverbial hot mess. But when she came along, the worst was over. I had already made the grown up decision that I wanted something different from what I’d always had.”

Ella said, “I did not know what to do with someone who actually wanted to get caught. I was so used to men who ran away that I never stopped to consider that their avoidance of intimacy was my gateway to avoiding the risks—and anxieties—of love.”

“Yep. But real love was exactly what I wanted when we met,” Jared said, continuing the thought. “By the time I met Ella, I was totally done with dating just so I could have a get-high buddy; I wanted a real girlfriend.”

“Yeah.  And I probably would have kept thinking of myself as a codependent if I hadn’t met Jared. But, for some reason, from the very beginning, I knew—I don’t know how I knew, but I did—I knew that the ‘claws’ thing wasn’t what it was going to be with him. By that time, though, I was figuring out that when I first met all those guys who ended up with clawmarks, I wasn’t looking for love at all: Their fear was my protection. Now both of us know that that’s what irrelationship is and that it’s what kept us from changing.”

Here’s a breakdown of the main differences between what goes on in codependence and in irrelationship:


  • Actually “feel” the pain of loving someone in trouble (Beattie, 1986, p. 5).
  • Feel and believe they’re doing something toxic to others.
  • Accept such labels as “needy” and “victim.”
  • Believe themselves neglected, but excuse the “neglectful” behavior of others despite their own pain.
  • See their codependency as their own problem, which they’ must “solve” themselves. (Beattie, 1986, p. 16).

People affected by irrelationship:

  • Don’t “feel”: the jointly created roles and behaviors of irrelationship, i.e, their “song-and-dance routine,” are designed to keep feelings at a distance.
  • “Think” and “believe” (rather than “feel”) that their caretaking activities are doing something “helpful” for others.
  • Reject labels and are guarded against experiencing/feeling genuine loss. For that reason, convincing them that their song-and-dance routines actually prevent sharing of feelings is a hard-sell.
  • Don’t let go of those in whom they are invested, not because of personal, deeply held commitment, but because irrelationship defends them from the anxiety that is part of the risk of actually caring for others. In other words, they stay because it feels “safe,” though vaguely dissatisfying.
  • Get free of irrelationship precisely by working with those with whom they created their irrelationship song-and-dance routines.

Put succinctly, codependence is a toxic way of relating that the individual brings with him or her into connections with others. Irrelationship, by contrast, is the actual dynamic of the connection itself. Codependence is an identifiable pathology in oneself. Irrelationship is a dynamic jointly created by two (or more) people.

Now back to Ella: “Treating my codependence made it all too easy to do what I always did, oh, so well: blame and criticize—usually myself. In my codependent relationships, I blamed and criticized my boyfriends until they left. And then I automatically became, once again, the only target left.”

Jared summed up, “In discovering what irrelationship was and how we ‘did it,’ together, we also discovered that we could also take it apart together.”

Codependency may sometimes dovetail with irrelationship to the point that they’re not easily distinguishable. They may sometimes seem like kissing cousins, but at the level of purpose and of points of origin, they’re decidedly not identical twins.


Beattie, M. (1986). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself.  Center City, MN: Hazelden.

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[Mark Borg]

Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D. is a community psychologist and psychoanalyst, founding partner of The Community Consulting Group, and a supervisor of psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute. He has written extensively about the intersection of psychoanalysis and community crisis intervention. He is in private practice in New York City. Grant H. Brenner, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice, specializing in treating mood and anxiety disorders and the complex problems which may arise in adulthood from developmental childhood trauma. He works from a humanistic and integrative perspective, recognizing that each person requires an comprehensive assessment and individualized treatment plan, and that often different types of treatment are sometimes necessary to explore before finding an approach which works. At the same time, he values evidence-based approaches and stays current with new developments. He uses various approaches including talk therapy, medications, and interventional psychiatric approaches such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and neurofeedback. He is a volunteer and Board member of the not-for-profit organization Disaster Psychiatry Outreach. He teaches and supervises, and is a faculty member of the Mount Sinai Hospital and Director of the Trauma Service of the William Alanson White Institute. He is an editor of and author in the book Creating Spiritual and Psychological Resilience: Integrating Care in Disaster Relief Work, and the author of several papers and book chapters. Daniel Berry, RN, MHA has practiced as a Registered Nurse in New York City since 1987. Working in in-patient, home care and community settings, his work has taken him into some of the city's most privileged households as well as some of its most underprivileged housing projects. He is currently the Assistant Director of Nursing for Risk Management at a public hospital serving homeless and undocumented victims of street violence, drug addiction and severe traumatic injuries.

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