Understanding the psychology and motivations of codependent individuals is a nuanced topic that’s rich in complexity. There’s often a paradox at the heart of codependency: individuals may be seeking stability, but their behaviors often contribute to cycles of instability and emotional upheaval, both for themselves and for the people they’re in relationships with. This is because the tools they’ve developed to secure emotional safety often rely on external validation and control over external circumstances—both inherently unstable foundations for emotional well-being.

Emotional security, as elusive as it might be for someone caught in the cycle of codependency, is often the deepest desire. Yet, in their quest to achieve this, they may become caregivers, problem solvers, or emotional anchors for someone else, believing that their self-worth is intrinsically tied to their usefulness or indispensability to another person. They become the ultimate supporters, always there to lend a helping hand, fix a problem, or offer emotional support. But this level of caregiving often becomes a form of self-neglect, an ironic twist in their search for emotional security. While they’re busy ensuring everyone else’s well-being, they neglect their own emotional and sometimes physical needs, fueling a vicious cycle where their personal neglect is justified by their altruistic behavior towards others.

The yearning for validation also runs deep. For many codependents, a history of invalidating experiences—be it through neglect, abuse, or inconsistent caregiving during their formative years—creates a gaping void. They fill this void by becoming indispensable to others, mistaking their importance in someone’s life as a measure of their worth. This need for external validation often manifests as a hyper-vigilance to the emotional states, needs, and desires of those around them. They become expert people-pleasers, often at the expense of their own desires, which they may have long ago buried or denied.

Many also crave control, not for the sake of wielding power over others, but as a way to create a sense of predictability and safety. This control can manifest in various ways, from the overt—like managing every detail of a partner’s life—to the subtle—like avoiding confrontation to keep the emotional waters calm. However, this illusion of control is often just that—an illusion. The emotional stability they seek remains elusive because they’re trying to find it in an environment they can’t possibly control completely: the realm of human relationships, which by their nature are unpredictable and laden with their own complexities.

Fear of abandonment is another significant driving force for many codependent individuals. Their dread of being alone or rejected can be so overpowering that they make extreme sacrifices to maintain a relationship, any relationship, even if it’s damaging or toxic. They may endure emotional or even physical abuse, believing that the pain of staying is less severe than the agony of abandonment. In extreme cases, they might find themselves trapped in cycles of abusive relationships, unable to break free due to their overwhelming fear of being alone.

There’s also the perplexing phenomenon where some codependents seem to have lost touch with their own desires to such an extent that they may claim not to have any wants or needs at all. This lack of self-awareness is not necessarily deliberate deceit but rather a result of their focus being externally directed for so long. For these individuals, discovering what they actually want is a journey in itself, often requiring deep introspection and, frequently, therapeutic intervention to explore and express their repressed needs and desires.

Fundamentally, what many codependents are seeking is a reclamation of the self—a self that may have been compromised, neglected, or given away in their long-standing patterns of codependency. They are often on a quest for an emotional homeostasis they never had; they seek a stability built not on the shaky grounds of external validation or control but on a solid foundation of self-love, self-respect, and internal balance. This journey often necessitates unlearning many of the behavioral and emotional coping mechanisms they’ve relied upon, a process that can be painful and challenging but ultimately liberating.

Hence, understanding what codependents really want is a multi-layered exploration into human psychology. It requires empathy, insight, and often professional guidance to untangle the web of emotional dependencies, fears, and unmet needs that characterize this condition. And while the journey toward recovery and self-discovery is undoubtedly challenging, it offers the promise of what many codependents truly want but may not yet know how to achieve: a life defined by balanced relationships, a strong sense of self, and the emotional stability that comes from within.

In relationships, codependents often exhibit a range of behaviors that can be construed as controlling, even if their intention is not explicitly to dominate or manipulate their partner. They may be overly involved in the problems and decisions of their loved ones, often to the detriment of their own well-being. The focus on ‘fixing’ or ‘saving’ someone else serves a dual purpose: it gives them a sense of importance and control while simultaneously avoiding their own issues. While this pattern may initially be interpreted as deep love or care, it’s more accurately a manifestation of codependency, which is fundamentally about control rather than genuine, reciprocal love.

The Drama Triangle, a social model conceived by psychologist Stephen Karpman, serves as an illustrative framework for understanding these dynamics of control in codependent relationships. The Drama Triangle identifies three roles commonly assumed in dysfunctional relationships: the Persecutor, the Rescuer, and the Victim. In the context of codependency, the codependent person often takes on the role of the Rescuer, while their partner may alternate between the roles of Victim and Persecutor.

As the Rescuer, the codependent feels an overwhelming responsibility to solve other people’s problems and to alleviate their suffering. They may spend a disproportionate amount of time, energy, and resources in these helping behaviors, believing that their love or commitment is demonstrated by their self-sacrifice. However, this perpetual cycle of rescue isn’t usually about the other person’s well-being as much as it is about fulfilling the codependent’s own need for purpose, validation, and most importantly, control.

The Rescuer role allows them to maintain an illusion of control in an inherently unstable environment. If they can ‘fix’ their partner or if they are indispensable to their partner’s well-being, then they feel safer and more secure in the relationship. However, this dynamic doesn’t encourage self-responsibility or personal growth for either party. Instead, it creates an unhealthy dependency where the ‘Rescuer’ feels increasingly burdened and unfulfilled, and the ‘Victim’ becomes disempowered and reliant on the Rescuer for their emotional well-being.

Moreover, because the Drama Triangle is inherently unstable, roles can quickly shift. The Rescuer can become the Persecutor if they feel their efforts are unappreciated or if they’re unable to effect the changes they desire in their partner. Likewise, feeling burdened and unacknowledged can make the Rescuer shift into the role of the Victim, reinforcing their belief that despite all their sacrifices, they are still unloved or undervalued.

These shifting roles further underscore that the driving force behind codependent behaviors is not true love, which is built on mutual respect, shared responsibility, and emotional equality. Instead, codependency often stems from a need to control the external environment to compensate for internal emotional instability.

In genuine love, both partners have a balanced sense of self and respect for each other’s autonomy. They support each other without needing to ‘fix’ each other. However, in a codependent relationship, the very act of ‘loving’ becomes a form of control. The codependent feels they cannot exist comfortably without directing or managing the emotions and behaviors of their partner, often leading to the exhaustion of both parties and the erosion of a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship.

Therefore, it is crucial for individuals in codependent relationships to recognize these unhealthy dynamics. Understanding that codependency is about control and not true love can be the first step toward breaking the cycle and seeking healthier, more balanced relationships. This often involves challenging long-held beliefs and behaviors, and many people benefit from professional guidance or therapy to help navigate this complex emotional landscape.

The “Drama Triangle” can be juxtaposed with a healthier model known as the “Empowerment Dynamic,” created by David Emerald, which provides a more constructive framework for interpersonal interactions. In the Empowerment Dynamic, the dysfunctional roles of Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer are replaced by more positive and balanced counterparts: the Creator, the Challenger, and the Coach.

  1. The Creator replaces the Victim: In this role, individuals see themselves as proactive and capable of making choices. They are empowered to seek solutions and create the life they desire, rather than feeling helpless and subjected to external circumstances. This shift from victimhood to creatorship can be a transformative change for codependent individuals, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own emotional well-being.
  2. The Challenger replaces the Persecutor: Unlike the Persecutor who blames or criticizes to maintain control, the Challenger offers constructive feedback and sets healthy boundaries. This role encourages growth and accountability without demeaning or subjugating the other person. By adopting the Challenger role, codependents can engage in honest and direct communication without being overly harsh or controlling.
  3. The Coach replaces the Rescuer: The Coach role diverges significantly from the Rescuer by focusing on empowerment rather than dependency. A Coach supports and facilitates the other person’s growth and self-discovery, rather than solving their problems for them. This allows the individual to build their skills and confidence, whereas the Rescuer’s actions often lead to learned helplessness in the person they’re trying to ‘help’.

The Empowerment Dynamic encourages codependent individuals to shift from control and dependency to empowerment and interdependency, facilitating healthier relationships. Instead of trying to control their partner to create a sense of security, the Creator focuses on self-improvement and solution-oriented thinking. The Coach supports their partner’s growth, understanding that a relationship is healthier and more balanced when both people are empowered. And the Challenger helps keep the relationship honest and growth-oriented by setting boundaries and offering constructive feedback, without resorting to blame or criticism.

Implementing the Empowerment Dynamic may involve a lot of self-reflection and conscious effort, especially for those deeply entrenched in codependent patterns. It may also require professional guidance, such as therapy or counseling, to fully understand and adopt these new roles. However, the rewards are significant: a move towards healthier, more balanced relationships where mutual growth and support replace control and dependency. By transitioning from the Drama Triangle to the Empowerment Dynamic, codependents can redefine their understanding of love and connection, embracing a form of relational interaction that nurtures rather than depletes, empowers rather than diminishes.

Subscribe to Dr Jenner's Blog via Email

Dr Jenner creates a wealth of resources, articles and podcasts. Please subscribe to be notified.