In this podcast we’re looking at relationships in recovery. This topic was suggested to us by one of our listeners and we thought it was a good idea since relationships, usually romantic relationships, but these could also be friendship relationships, are the things that tend to trip people up in their recovery.

  • It also seemed to be an appropriate topic at the moment. During lockdown many people will have felt lonely and have wished they were in a relationship, or, many people who were already in relationships might have wished they were in a relationship with someone else. There were also many who have suffered during this time since they are trapped in abusive relationships.

(However, this is not a podcast about domestic abuse – there are many really excellent resources from fantastic organisations out there – these are listed on the FfC website page to accompany this podcast).

  • The aim of this podcast was to go back to the basics and think about what it is that makes relationships so difficult in recovery. So, we start by thinking about co-dependency and intimacy. We then go on to think about why it is that early recovery is such a tricky time and (very) briefly consider the neurobiological changes that are happening at this time. We then to look at the things that are within our control to help stop being pulled into co-dependent relationships so easily - and think about the ways of finding healthier relationships.
  • Before just diving straight into talk about co-dependency it is worth thinking a little bit about where the theories around co-dependency originated. The figure of Karen Horney is very important in understanding these ideas. Karen Horney was a psychoanalyst - born in Germany in 1885, she lived until 1952. Horney was one of the founders of the Berlin Psychanalytic Institute. The Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute has an interesting history in itself. It was set up in early 1920s to further the ideas of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, but was from the beginning it had a very radical approach. The Institute treated people for free. Importantly at a time when women has less rights, they treated men and women in equal numbers, many of whom were unemployed. Also interesting are the numbers of women working as psychoanalysts at the institute at various times including Edith Jacobson, Annie Reich, Melanie Klein and Karen Horney.
  • Horney taught there until 1932 when, concerned about the rise of fascism in Germany, and increasingly critical of Freudian psychoanalysis, she moved to Chicago. She then moved to Brooklyn in 1934 and continued her work in psychoanalysis, becoming known as a Neo-Freudian. Being a ‘Neo – Freudian’ basically means that the person shares many of the same ideas developed by Freud and his strand of psychoanalysis but there is a much greater emphasis on the importance of social and cultural factors in the development of personality.
  • Horney is a fascinating woman and lots of her ideas stand up extremely well and make a lot of sense in modern relationships. In 1935 she wrote an essay called ‘The Problem of Feminine Masochism’: In this, she wrote about how cultures and societies worldwide encouraged women to be dependent on men to receive love, status, wealth, care and protection. Horney suggested that women were trained by society to please, satisfy and overvalue men. In response to this Horney developed what she called ‘Feminine Psychology’ and challenged Freud’s idea of penis envy. Horney suggested that men actually experience powerful womb envy, where they envy women’s capability to bear children. Horney suggested that men tend to compensate for this inability through the importance they place upon ‘achievement’ and ‘success’.
  • However, to get back to the ideas around co-dependency......In her theory of neurosis Horney looked at neurosis differently from many other psychoanalysts who were working at the same time. Horney believed neurosis to be a continuous process occurring at various times throughout your life rather than a condition that afflicts a person from early childhood.
  • Horney went onto identify what she called ‘basic anxiety’ or ‘basic conflict’. She described this as the feelings that children develop if they feel unloved, unvalued or insecure whilst growing up. Horney placed great emphasis on the child's perception of events, as opposed to what might have been the parent's intentions. For example a child might experience a parent making fun of their feelings as them being at fault or unloved by the parent. Likewise a parent who might make frequent promises to a child and then constantly fail to follow through these promises might be experienced as rejection or dislike from the child’s perspective.
  • Horney’s theory proposed that strategies used to cope with this anxiety can be overused, causing them to take on the appearance of needs. However these needs can be seen as neurotic needs because of the adult’s intensive and compulsive pursuit of their satisfaction is seen as the only way to resolve their basic anxiety.
  • Horney suggests that satisfying these needs will not help us feel safe and secure but will further fuel the discomfort caused by our anxiety because it will be yet another thing we cannot attain.
  • As adults we pursue gratification of these needs believing that they will help us to cope with our anxiety. We tend to focus on only one need and compulsively seek its satisfaction in all situations – so the need to be everyone - partner, family and friends; or the need to control everything including other people and their feelings.
  • Some people find their satisfaction in having their superiority affirmed by receiving recognition. Some gain satisfaction from being self-sufficient and obtaining an emotional distance from everyone around them whilst others seek their satisfaction from the affection and approval they receive from the people around them.
  • Horney identified 10 neurotic needs and put these into 3 categories of needs:
  1. Needs that move you towards others: These neurotic needs cause individuals to seek affirmation and acceptance from others. They are often described as needy or clingy as they seek out approval and love.
  2. Needs that move you away from others: These neurotic needs create hostility and antisocial behaviour. These individuals are often described as cold, indifferent, and aloof.
  3. Needs that move you against others: These neurotic needs result in hostility and a need to control other people. These individuals are often described as difficult, domineering, and unkind.

The needs are corresponding  categories are:



1. Affection and approval: A constant seeking of approval from others.

2. The need for a partner who will also solve all problems, maybe even saving the neurotic person from their issues or themselves. In this, 'love' is seen as a solution to all problems.

Needs that move you towards others

3. Self-sufficiency and independence: In their drive for perfection, the neurotic person seeks control and being in charge of their own destiny. They may decide that others are just too much emotional work and reject them from parts of their life, other than when they need things such as affection and praise. 

4. The need for perfection: The gap between an idealised image of what they think they should be and the fear of being an imposter creates deep anxieties about imperfection and an obsessive drive for perfection. Although they know they are not perfect, they may well feel superior to others. They hate criticism and dread making any mistakes.   

5. To restrict life within narrow borders: Feeling threatened and undeserving, the neurotic person will avoid making demands or expressing desires or genuine needs, playing down any talents or abilities they have under the guise of modesty.

Needs that move you away from others

6. Power: the ability to dominate others, to impose one's will. Having power gives the person a sense of control. 

7. Exploit and beat others: The neurotic need to claim foresight and prediction and feel better than others. This is typical of the fraudster or con artist.

8. Social recognition: Neurotic need to gain prestige and recognition to feel greater than others. This might be understood in how we are perceived by others in terms friends, clothes, activities.

9. Personal admiration: Seeking the esteem of others as another boost to our sense of identity. The neurotic person not only wants recognition or basic esteem, they want to be recognized as being their ideal self, both internally and externally. The need for constant reassurance that they are perfect. Of course they do not get this and so are never content with any admiration or recognition that they do get.

10. Personal achievement:  It is normal to have personal goals and take pleasure when hard work leads to achieving these. The neurotic person seeks not just achievement but the need to be  superior to all others. They want to be the best in every areas. Not achieving this makes them feel like a failure, a thought which fills them with dread. 

Needs that move you against others

  • These needs identified by Horney pretty much describe the kinds of co-dependent personality types that are presented within a veritable industry of self-help and co-dependency books that were published in America in the 80s. These include Melody Beattie 1986 ‘Codependent No More’ which sold eight million copies and Robin Norwood’s ‘Women who Love too Much’ which sold 3 millions copies worldwide. Norwood was obviously onto a good money earner and went onto produce, ‘Letters from Women Who Love Too Much’, ‘Daily Meditations for Women Who Love Too Much’ and ‘Why Me? Why This? Why Now?’ There’s a veritable industry of people who are co-dependent on co-dependency books....
  • There’s also an increasing amount of medicalisation, especially in the US, around co-dependency, as a ‘personality disorder with ‘symptoms’ and ‘treatments’. If you Google co-dependency you enter into a whole industry around recovery and prognosis from co-dependency as if it were cancer.
  • This has led some psychologists to suggested that the term is overused and point out that if you give someone who has experienced trauma and is severely dissociated ‘checklist’ of co-dependent “symptoms” or behaviours they will, quite understandably, quickly identify with these and avoid thinking about or identifying the roots of these responses.
  • When people have given up drugs or alcohol, they are also giving up a relationship with the substance(s) and often the romantic or friendship bonds that were based around the other people who they took drugs with. So obviously people can feel extremely lonely at this point.
  • There’s also a lot going on with people’s neurobiology as the brain’s neurotransmitters adapt to life after substances. And then there’s Oxytocin which has been called "the cuddle hormone" or "the love hormone" due to the fact that it appears to help reinforce the early attachment between mothers and their infants, as well as the bonds between romantic partners. So without going into too much detail about neurotransmitters and chemical’s easy to see why people in early recovery might be susceptible to those feelgood sensations associated with love and sex...because it’s like being on drugs!
  • If we go back to Karen Horney again and her description of basic anxiety’ or ‘basic conflict’ having arisen due to childhood feelings of being unloved, unvalued, or not safe.... we get to the really important and simple core of co-dependency.
  • Co-dependency is at heart, a dysfunctional relationship with yourself so that you will either seek affirmation and acceptance from others; say you don’t need others; or try and control others. It’s noticeable that this also corresponds quite neatly with the Karpman Drama Triangle positions of victim, rescuer and persecutor.
  • So all that really annoying advice about not having romantic relationships in early recovery is probably good advice. And so too the advice around, friendships- taking care and giving yourself time to find out about what you like, what you believe in and who you are....