Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Understanding Codependency and Betrayal: An Excerpt from Harboring Hope

Below is information taken directly from our Harboring Hope1 Online Course.

"Bad marriages don't cause infidelity; infidelity causes bad marriages."
- Frank Pittman

If you've ever joined a support group or been to see a counselor, you may have heard others talking about "codependency." The term might be unfamiliar to many individuals recovering from betrayal. It can be extremely confusing during a time when someone is in desperate need of support. Codependency is one of those terms that can cause people confusion, shame, and humiliation. The truth is that codependency is not something someone should feel shame about, but it is very important to understand it.

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Definitions of Codependency

The term codependency was first coined in the 1970s by those associated with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). They had recognized a pattern within families of alcoholics which involved a pathological dependence upon one another. Thirty years later, there are as many definitions of codependency as there are authors who write about it.

Before we describe our view of codependency at Affair Recovery, I think it's important to understand that codependency is a controversial topic; there is much disagreement over what it means. Some authors would even say that the concept behind the term has faulty reasoning. Codependency has evolved into a label thrown at anyone who may put others before themselves. While it was originally defined in connection with people who were involved with alcoholics, the term has become much broader in definition since then. Even the experts describe it differently, but our favorite definition of codependency is this:

"An overreaction to things (people, etc.) outside of you and an under-reaction to things (feelings, etc.) inside of you."
—Richard Rohr

This definition would suggest that the first step to confronting our own codependency would be to become more aware of our own thoughts and feelings. Taking more time to discover ourselves can be hard because many of us were taught this to be selfish. Once we gain a greater awareness of our feelings, we stand a far greater chance of becoming compassionate and lovingly responsive to our own needs as well as to the needs of others.

Codependency and Betrayal

You may wonder what all this talk of codependency has to do with you. We think one may tend to act more codependent at times with certain people than they might at other times with different people. Even if you believe you have not struggled with codependency (overreacting to those outside of you and underreacting to what is inside of you) in the past, experiencing betrayal in your marriage will tend to make you vulnerable to becoming more codependent toward your spouse, or even a future relationship if your spouse has left.

Marital betrayal usually evokes fear within the hurting spouse. Most betrayed individuals find that the pain of the past increases the fear of the future. In the excruciating pain experienced after infidelity is exposed, it is normal for fear to increase. In turn, fear usually encourages people to control, and control seduces them into codependent behavior. Their fixation on someone else's behavior and feelings leads them farther and farther away from their own feelings. After an affair is discovered, it is not unusual for codependency to overtake a hurting spouse as they become convinced to be the guardian of their spouse's recovery. As tempting as this is, ultimately it is not helpful.

We do not want you to beat yourself up over one more thing you haven't done right or need to improve. This is the season for self-care and mercy. Most people, in their codependency, feel guilty about being codependent. If you used to be more codependent but have been through recovery, you may be shocked to discover that you still have some codependency tendencies. It's imperative at this time in your own recovery that you're patient with yourself, at peace with your own speed of recovery, and continually trying to engage with your own inner feelings.

After discovering infidelity, there is a time period during which it is normal for a hurting individual to want to know everything the spouse is doing. He or she may feel the need to check the wayward person's computer, email, cell phone, mileage on the car, and so on. Commonly, the betrayed individual is also torn between the need to tell others what is going on and the desire to continue to protect themselves and their spouse from developing a bad reputation, especially in case of reconciliation. It is also typical for the betrayed to find themselves needing constant reassurance from their spouse. They might have felt self-confident before the infidelity was exposed, but be shocked to realize their self-esteem has tanked. All these thoughts and feelings seem to be pretty universal.

Below is a list of some examples of codependency included in our Harboring Hope course to help individuals begin to understand their own codependency.

Codependency . . .

  • thinks and feels responsible for other people (people besides your young children).
  • feels compelled to help others solve their problems, even if they have not asked for help.
  • blames others for their own bad feelings.
  • feels unappreciated.
  • fears rejection.
  • feels ashamed of who they are.
  • constantly worries about what others think.
  • needs the approval of others.
  • focuses all energies on other people's problems and getting their acceptance.
  • feels a need to threaten, manipulate, and beg in order to keep from being deserted.
  • says whatever will please or provoke, to get them what they need.
  • lets others keep hurting them and never says anything about it.
  • consistently feels like a martyr.


A betrayal will certainly induce and increase fear, and fear is at the center of codependency. It stands to reason that we need to have this conversation. Right now, it would be strange if you did not have some fear. You may be completely paralyzed by your fear. The challenge is to not let fear have the final voice in helping you decide what to do or what not to do. Fear is a great indicator that we need to turn away from a situation or circumstance, but it also has a seductive voice that can begin to sound a little too much like wisdom.

Fear can begin to tell me things like, "I must control my spouse's recovery if I am going to be okay" or "I must know where my mate is at all times because if I don't, he (or she) will act out" or "I will not be okay if my wife (or husband) leaves me." While these are normal things to think after a betrayal, they do not reflect truth.

It's very hard to quit trying to do it all by yourself. This can lead to deeper, more long-lasting issues of control. Fear will always encourage us to control. It's a survival instinct. If you have trouble believing this, take some time to prayerfully consider who and what you are trying to control. Then look for the fear behind it; it is there.

Here's the bad news. You have no control. Control is just an illusion that helps us deal with fear. We have choices, but we have no actual control. Telling your spouse your expectations is different than controlling them. Sharing your feelings with them is very important. On the other hand, telling your mate what they should or should not be doing isn't good for anyone. They need to be willing, not forced, to do things to help you feel safer.

If you're ready to begin or continue your healing journey, I hope you'll consider registering for Harboring Hope at 12:00 PM CT today. Harboring Hope can help you discover what you need to heal and help you find hope in your circumstance. We want to rebuild your confidence and give you room to thrive.

"Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness."2
- Brene Brown



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Super helpful article. I have been questioning if I’m becoming codependent because of everything that is going on or how I’m feeling during my recovery. This helped clear some things up and showed me what to look out for within myself.

Thank you

Rick and Wayne,
Thank you for the bottom of my heart for providing such wisdom and amazing advice which has helped me through my darkest times and continues to support my journey to healing. I look forward to the emails and feel grateful to have you both on my team. No you don't know me - nor have I attended any workshops, but I credit you both with playing a huge part in my recovery and saving my marriage.


This is interesting and made sense but perhaps I need to understand more as I’m this kind of contradicts what I understand about relational communication styles and love language. Rick’s description of true love sounds like you can show your spouse love but shouldn’t expect anything in return. And what about having your needs met? Sounds like if you expect your spouse to fill your needs then you must be codependent.
I had been single a good many years before I met myself- I took care of myself and met my own needs and felt emotionally fulfilled. But I wanted a partnership and thought I’d found a lifelong mate in my husband. Unfortunately he is prone to depression and is avoidant. I started out as a fairly happy person and wound up feeling isolated and worried about my depressed spouse. I did what Rick described and tried to pull back and worry only about my own happiness. As I was starting to feel depressed so I decided to take care of myself and not invest in worry over him. This made my husband worse and over time he felt isolated. Eventually he cheated to make himself feel better. I don’t know how one might describe my situation and how I might have dealt with it

Unconditional love, doormat, love languages?????

Dr. Gottman recommends that we understand our partners love language and that we show love in ways that match our partners language. It is not a one way street. We should do this for each other. I can't reconcile the position that love means "unconditional" and thus having no expectations of being loved back. I don't believe that having expectations of your partner to love you back means that you are co-dependent. If you don't bring anything to enhance my life and if I don't bring anything to enhance your life then why are we bothering with a relationship at all??? While I should be able to be happy in my life without another person I do still believe that if my partner is unkind to me or if he cheats on me that I have an absolute right to be unhappy with his conduct. Unconditional love as described here pretty much sounds like my husband has free reign to mistreat me and that if I'm unhappy about his behavior I am just codependent. I wish I understood where the lines between deeply loving someone / co dependency and/ not giving a crap about someone actually lie. Not caring at all about others seems to be the best option based on this video. Someone help me out here.....

Cred, similar here. My WH’s

Cred, similar here. My WH’s depression got worse so I did what you did, I offered support in ways I knew how, but focused on my happiness instead of trying to be happy because he was happy. Then, he had an affair. It was damned if I did, damned if I do. I tried working on intimacy with him, his most complained need at the time, but I just didn’t feel safe. Shortly after that, life blew up. I would like insight on it as well.

Codependency model WRONG

What Is The Problem With Codependency?
When women accept the label of “codependency” rather than the truth: that they are abuse victims, it is more difficult for them to find truth and safety.
The Codependency Model Blames Victims.
The Codependency Model Enables Abusers
In the trauma model, there’s a perpetrator and a victim. In other words, it doesn’t take two to tango.
In the codependency model, when a victim takes responsibility for her abuser’s choices, the abuser is not being held accountable and the victim is less likely to set safety effective boundaries.

What type of affair was it?

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