Dilemmas of Codependent Men

The dilemmas of codependent men aren’t talked about. Unlike women, few men discuss their relationship problems with friends and family. Instead, they internalize their pain. Many are in denial, suffer in silence, have an addiction and/or become numb to their needs and feelings. They shun attention and try to do the right thing and be good sons, husbands, and fathers, focusing instead on making a living and meeting the needs of their wives and children. These codependent men sacrifice themselves and believe that their needs, including the need for time away from their wives, are selfish.

Societal and cultural values have shamed men as weak for expressing feelings or needs, which reinforces codependent traits of control, suppression of feelings, and denial of needs. Often they turn to addiction in order to cope.

Dysfunctional Childhood

The societal norm for male suppression of feelings is compounded and distorted if you grew up in a dysfunctional family where it wasn’t safe to express feelings and needs. It’s easier not to acknowledge feelings that are criticized or needs that are denied or shamed. Your needs were also ignored if you took on age-inappropriate responsibilities because of an out of control, irresponsible, or immature parent. If there was abuse or addiction present, you probably grew up in an atmosphere of chaos, conflict, strict rules, or unpredictability. Self-control helped you survive, but controlling yourself or others leads to problems later in intimate relationships.

Feeling Trapped and Fearing Abandonment

Despite the prevalence of codependent women, I see many codependent men in my private practice. There’s a dance that codependent couples do, and it takes two who know the steps. If you think your wife is codependent, there’s a good chance you are, too. Often codependent men are attracted to women who are needy, demanding, jealous, or critical. Men become dependent on their wives’ approval, and then feel trapped by their manipulation, demands, or expectations. They’re unable to set boundaries and fear emotional retaliation and/or rejection, including withholding of sex.

Their wives may be very emotional, providing a sense of aliveness to the relationship and compensating for the numbness many codependent men feel inside. In the beginning, a man can feel powerful, helping a needy girlfriend or wife and giving her attention or gifts. He conforms to her expectations, while being assured that she won’t abandon him, but eventually discovers that it’s never enough to satisfy her. Sometimes, these women have mental health issues, are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or are financially desperate.

Some men end up becoming workaholics to justify alone time, but their needs for nurturing, respect, freedom, and appreciation, just to name a few, go unmet. Fear of rejection and abandonment are powerful motivators for codependency, usually because of early emotional abandonment by a parent. Consequently, the men never leave – physically – but withdraw to the safety of a self-made emotional prison. After a while, they feel trapped, controlled, and resentful. They may use drugs or addictive behavior to manage anxiety and depression, while some look outside the marriage for validation. However, it’s not their wives that are the cause of their problem, it’s their codependency.


Frequently, a woman brings her partner into therapy wanting more intimacy and to get him to be more open and share his feelings. Often, it’s revealed that he’s fully capable of communicating his feelings, but instead of being assertive and setting healthy boundaries that make it safe for him to do so, he reacts to criticism and demands by fighting back, emotionally withdrawing, or endlessly placating her with explanations and apologies that don’t suffice.

Codependent couples are reactive because they each lack autonomy and are emotionally dependent upon each other. Problems of closeness and separateness are typical. Couples may keep a safe distance or take turns pushing one another away to avoid the emotional intensity of becoming too close. Intimacy escalates anxiety of being hurt by criticism or rejection or being suffocated and losing themselves and their autonomy. Yet, despite unhappiness or frustration, they don’t leave and draw each other in after a conflict or separation, so as not to be abandoned.

Abused Men

Some men are verbally and even physically abused by their wives and girlfriends and don’t know how to handle it. Often, they’re afraid that authorities won’t believe that their wives are violent and feel humiliated and ashamed that they can’t deal with it themselves. Sometimes, their wives threaten to lie, or do so, and accuse their partners of violence. These men keep their secret and suffer silently. They can learn to value themselves and change the relationships dynamics by healing their codependency and setting boundaries.

Codependency and Addiction

Men who are addicts are also codependent. Their lives revolve around their addiction – whether it’s a drug (including alcohol), sex, gambling, food, or work – which they use to modulate their mood and self-esteem. They try to control their addiction and people around them in order to maintain the addiction. Meanwhile, they are controlled by it. Abstinence or sobriety allows them to work on the underlying issues of codependency. Recovery includes regaining autonomy and self-esteem, and the ability to manage their thinking, emotions and life problems.

©Darlene Lancer, MFT 2012

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19 thoughts on “Dilemmas of Codependent Men

  1. My husband and I have been together for 6 years and married for 4 years. He is an alcoholic in recovery and we are both codependents. Our main struggle is with intimacy and sex. I am a very passionate person and sincerely want that closeness with him again. He often tells me that he is just too tired, or that something more important is happening that requires his attention. There is always an excuse as to why he wont be intimate with me physically or emotionally. Please help. Thank you

    • Inhibited sexual desire is a symptoms of an intimacy issue. Addicts in recovery have that problem generally and are used to functioning with a drug, not sober. I’m not sure how long he’s sober, but if more than a few years, it may be time to suggest marital counseling to improve your communication and intimacy. See Chapters 6-7 of Conquering Shame and Codependency, and my blog “Dance of Intimacy.” In the past alcohol has obstructed intimacy (even if you had sex). Living on the ‘natch brings up all. sorts of issues previously hidden.

  2. Hi there. I’ve been reading and reading about codependency for a couple years now (Beattie’s book and others,) spent a year getting brutally honest and self-searching in weekly therapy sessions, and I am still having a hard time fully grasping what NOT being codependent looks like. Doesn’t codependency imply abuse? It seems to me that in situations of codependency the codependent person is being mistreated and regardless of conflict or boundaries, the only real resolution to the issue is to LEAVE. What about the abuser? Are they not culpable for their behavior? Isn’t the modern codependency movement an example of victim blaming?

    • No, it does not imply abuse at all. There are couples that are friendly towards each other, but codependent all the same. One may be more dominant, but not abusive, or they’re both somewhat passive, maybe never argue. Absolutely not about leaving, also. Change is an inside job. I suggest you read Codependency for Dummies.

  3. Can my husband have a maternal codependency toward his parents?I only ask because over the years we have been married he obsessively seeks approval of them.His parents have repeatedly hurt him while growing up, tried numerous times to destroy his marriage with lies, stole money from him, belittled him-even as an adult. They abused any neglected physically and emotionally. He even relies on them for jobs. Won’t engage in life on his own w/o them. But he wants me with him for almost everything he does. If he does the dishes I have to be there, if he cooks a dinner-i’m there. He’ll make excuses why he can’t do stuff w/me but jumps when they call

    • He is very dependent on them. Codependence often starts with abuse, as explained in Conquering Shame and Codependency. You both are codependent and you’re enabling his behavior. You can do the exercises in my books and go to CoDA meetings and start to untangle yourself.

      • Thank you for your reply. Yes, after looking at all the signs and symptoms he is most definitely co-dependent. However, after doing some more digging a research, I have come to understand their is a great deal more going on. I have realized that his co dependency was created by Narcissistic Mother Enmeshment. The damage she did to him is to such a degree that he can’t even work a job because he can’t identify himself separately from her. Her deceit and lies have twisted up his head and he now he is just stuck. But he is getting help and I pray he can work through his issues. I love him and am happy to see him take these steps.

  4. My ex wife is Co-d and I’m the narcissistic one. Not proud of it

    Why are we N’s solely portrayed as some sort of cruel boggey-man after years together? Seems like a universal portrayment in what i have read. It’s not fully true.

    The concept that N sucks the life out of someone he loves on purpose or that the Co-d doesn’t often jump from victim to victimizer is not true. But with the Co-d in the declared space of childhood victim, the N never gets to call them out or you are “attacking them”

    My Co-d never once apologized to me for a single thing she did. Zip.

    Some of it grossly mean.

    Both people end up battered. Not just one

  5. Hi there Darlene,tell how do i know if im the narcissist,or the codependent?Ive just been hit with a whammy from my new girlfriend,that i my be codepentent,if this is the case,does that mean she the narcissit?I am realy confused on this subject.

    • Both and neither may be true. Codependents attract one another, so if your girlfriends thinks you are, she likely is, if you’ve been together for any length of time. Also, narcissists are codependent, though not all codependents are narcissists. Sometimes – less rare – narcissist pair-up. Look at my blog on the symptoms of codependency and read the checklists in Codependency for Dummies. There also is a quiz in Dealing with a Narcissist. Ask your girlfriend what she wants rather than labeling you, which is criticism, depending on her motive and tone.

  6. Can workaholism fall into the category of addiction? I always felt like my ex put his ambition above everything else. He refused to discuss his feelings, eventually I came to the conclusion that he must not have any. I loved him but was extremely lonely in our marriage. He often seemed to develop unhealthy attachments to female coworkers. He finally left after living a double life for many years.

  7. I can totally relate to feelings of not being allowed to express an opinion. I grew up watching my dad talking politics, and if anyone disagreed with him, even friends, he would get mad. Now as an adult my siblings and I agree on almost everything, but the places we differ on, even if it’s a subject I have personal experience with, I can’t have a normal conversation with them if it is about something we don’t agree on or they go ballistic! I’m learning now to just avoid and defuse the situation, but it would be nice to know how to talk to them. Darlene, I’m looking forward to reading ‘How to Speak Your Mind”, I need to learn to be assertive!

  8. I have been married for 36 years and have lived this life the entire time.
    I know by heart everything that you have written. I have been through a number of therapist over the years and medications to at least survive.
    I was a victim of violent abuse when I was a kid and I turned around and married someone with the traits of my abuser. No matter what I have always been the one with the problem. Now my daughter treats me like my wife does. I am beginning to feel like I am going down for the third time. I have moved on from wishing that I was dead to flat out sick of living?

    • It´s important for both you and your daughter that you get into counseling to heal your past, build your self-esteem and learn to set boundaries. You can start by doing the exercises in my books, including “Conquering Shame and Codependency” and “How to Speak Your Mind.” When you change, it changes the marriage and-or you gain strengths you didn´t know you had.

      • I am seeing both a psychiatrist and therapist. My daughter flat out refuses to go. She has all sorts of invalid reasons for not going. I had a heart to heart with my spouse about the co-dependency and my inability to say no. We discussed it and I finally asked her what she would do when I say no to her. It definitely made her think.
        I can’t live in the past but I do think about instances that took place before we were married. Based on those there are many times that I wish that I would have lost her phone number.
        My worst fear is to have my son go down this road.

        • Thanks for your follow-up email. In time, therapy should make a difference. Be sure to your counselor is experienced in doing trauma-work. It will take some time before you realize the power you hold with your wife and children – Not just asking, but taking positions with consequences. You may find my books helpful. Meetings are a great supplement, as well.

  9. This is very true from reaching out to finding acceptance in distructive ways and settling for me to read it and accept it was the hardest thing ever. And Iam great full not all of the characteristics of codependency apply and I don’t have to be a yes man. Good luck to all in there jourany.

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