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About a dozen years ago, when Church leaders were pounding the pulpit about the evils of pornography in every General Conference, I went to my first Twelve Step meeting. The Church sponsored a support group for recovering porn addicts, and a separate support group for their family members. My XH, the porn addict, refused to attend, so I went by myself to the support group.

I don’t remember what I thought we would do – maybe they would give us tips on how to help our husbands quit using porn. But what actually happened is I learned all about codependency and how to overcome it. I wasn’t very familiar with codependency before these meetings.

We (the other women married to porn addicts) joked that the 12-step program was “Coming Unto Christ for Dummies” because it was so clear, and so different from anything we’d learned in Church. This program defined codependency, identified it as a problem, then showed us how to overcome it using the Atonement. Through Christ, we could be healed from the pain that fueled our codependency and learn to live healthier and happier lives. (I later discovered that certain types of therapy and secular support groups can achieve a similar result.)

The support group had its own Twelve Step manual, with the principles written specifically to address the codependency that developed in the wives of addicts. The manual I used has been revised and expanded and is available on

Before I go any further, here’s the disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional. I’ve been through some mental health problems, lived with people with mental health problems, and have done a lot of research. I’ve been to many different therapists and support groups. My comments are based on my observations and personal experience. Also, women can be porn addicts, drug addicts, or have other compulsive behaviors, and their spouse can develop codependency. For simplicity’s sake, and because it was my own lived experience, when I say he/husband, I’m referring to the addict, and she/wife refers to the codependent spouse.

Defining Codependency

Codependency is a problem that exists only in relation to someone else’s problem. The specific problem that we were dealing with was the compulsive behavior of our husbands’ porn use. Here’s my extremely simplified summary of the problem that porn addiction creates in a marriage: The porn addict uses porn to numb any negative feelings – boredom, fear of inadequacy, emotional pain, frustration. The addict is trying to muffle bad feelings, and get his emotional needs for love and belonging from porn. The addict’s spouse, meanwhile, is emotionally starving. The addict can’t offer her love and belonging. He cuts off emotional connection to her. In a healthy marriage, two people talk out the problems, support each other through difficulties, and enjoy being together. In a marriage afflicted with a porn addiction, the addict withdraws emotionally and avoids his spouse. This leaves his spouse desperately lonely and confused, and she’ll typically start to lash out in an effort to get her emotional needs met, or to at least get his attention.

The go-to book was “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring For Yourself,” by Melody Beattie (Hazelden 1992). The Church didn’t officially recommend it, but we passed copies around at the support group and learned to speak the language in it. Codependency is not a pleasant problem. Codependents are “hostile, controlling, manipulative, indirect, guilt producing, difficult to communicate with, and more.” Id. p.5. Codependents are also caretakers and martyrs, permanent victims and never appreciated. We hurt and we don’t know what to do about it other than spread the pain around to everyone around us.

Codependency looks different in different contexts, but there are a few commonalities. “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” Id. at 36.

Here’s another definition: “Codependency is an emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules — rules which prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems.” Co-Dependency, An Emerging Issue, by Robert Subby.

These two factors produce codependency: “One fairly common denominator was having a relationship, personally or professionally, with troubled, needy, or dependent people. But a second, more common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace for relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems; open expression of feelings; direct, honest communication; realistic expectations, such as being human, vulnerable, or imperfect …” 

Basically, you’re in a relationship with a person with a problem, and you can’t talk openly and honestly about the problem and how it affects you. Codependency is an attempt to eliminate the problem without admitting that that’s what you’re doing. Once the problem is eliminated, thinks the codependent, then the relationship will be happy and the former addict can meet the codependent’s emotional needs. That’s the goal. It doesn’t work like that, but that’s the motivation for being codependent. We’re trying to rescue him, so he can then rescue us.

Codependent Styles

The support group manual explained the three main categories of behavior that codependents used. Most people will favor one category over the others, though all behaviors may be present.

  1. Persecuting Behaviors: Overpowering feelings of frustration, resentment and anger can lead to persecuting behaviors. These behaviors may include withholding love, threatening, nagging, using the silent treatment, name-calling, blaming, criticizing and judging.
  2. Suffering Behaviors: When we struggle with feelings of despair, our hopelessness can cause us to feel victimized and we may be overcome by suffering behaviors. Remaining a victim, creating drama, wallowing in guilt, and fixating on worry and fear are examples of suffering behaviors.
  3. Rescuing Behaviors: Codependent rescuing and care-taking involves doing people’s thinking for them, suffering people’s consequences for them and solving people’s problems for them. Rescuing behaviors enables bad behavior. We make excuses, minimize the problem, and make sure the addict doesn’t suffer the consequences of his actions. These are the martyrs.

These behaviors spill over into other relationships and situations and affect every aspect of the codependent person’s life. Plus, they make you and everyone around you miserable.

The First Step

Step One: AWARENESS: Come to admit that we are powerless over the addiction of another and recognize that our lives have become unmanageable.

That’s the first step in the Twelve Step manual for overcoming codependency. That’s a monumental concept to accept. Most of us had spent years putting our husband’s problems at the center of our lives. After all, we’ve heard since childhood that women are spiritual powerhouses, responsible for the tone of the home, and that men attribute all their success in life to their wives’ support. To go from those messages to being plainly told that there’s nothing we can do to make our husbands stop using porn was quite a leap.

Most of us were trying to replace the Savior — we would save our husbands from their porn addictions! Men do not want to be saved by their wives. Even if it worked, that’s a huge amount of pressure – an addict who relies on someone else to cure them is going to relapse. Admitting that we couldn’t change our husbands helped us get out of the Savior’s way. The men were in the room next door, working on their own relationship to the Savior. That wasn’t our responsibility.

The other concept in this step is that our lives were out of control. Codependents are control freaks, so admitting that we couldn’t deal with the mess we were making was also a big change. We were to work on our relationship with the Savior on our own account, not so we could save our husbands and teach our children. For many of us, this was the first time we’d actually paid attention to ourselves and our own needs in years. 

There was a lot in the Twelve Steps that was basically about establishing healthy boundaries. Where does my responsibility for someone else’s well-being end? How do I separate what I can do from what I can’t do? How do I communicate my boundaries? Is it okay to say no? How do I talk calmly about upsetting topics? Can I be happy if someone I love is struggling? This program took us through all that. 

Each meeting followed the same format. We had announcements and an opening prayer. Then one of the missionaries led us in reading a principle. We focused on one step per meeting. After we’d read the principle and discussed it, we had sharing time, complete with “Hi, my name is Janey and I’m a codependent.” And everyone chorused back, “Hi Janey.” I know that format gets mocked a lot, but it really was welcoming. Everyone smiled, and for many of us, those were the first real smiles in a really long time. No judgment; no pressure. It was the first Church meeting on the planet in which we could be totally honest.

The women who were there for the first time would cry. With shaky voices, they’d admit how scared and betrayed they felt. 

Those of us who had been coming for months or years talked honestly about the hard times and shared stories about small improvements — ways in which we’d changed in a healthy way. Like dealing with a difficult teenager without yelling, or having a hard conversation with husband and staying calm throughout, or learning a new skill rather than nagging husband all the time. Participants also shared the struggle when we fell into old patterns, or a problem resolved itself only to reveal a bigger problem. Either way, it was honest.

I looked forward to those meetings all week. Codependency is a disease of silence, and the 90 minutes of talking, actually talking openly and honestly about difficult things, set me on a road to recovery.


The idea that I wasn’t responsible for the well-being and righteousness of the men in my life was mind-blowing. I’d been raised to be codependent. The Church praises women for rescuing and caretaking behaviors. Before these Twelve Step meetings, it never occurred to me that I could stop trying to help/change my husband. These Steps helped me process some unhealthy dynamics that I’d held onto since childhood. The Twelve Steps were brilliant and I thought that we should cover them all in Relief Society and tell women that they didn’t need to make themselves miserable by trying to be everything to everybody.

Then, the Church torpedoed the program and switched it out to a manual and focus that seemed designed to make us more codependent. But we don’t have to get into that right now.

  1. How familiar are you with the word “codependency” and its meaning?
  2. Do you feel responsible for other peoples’ actions? To the detriment of your own happiness and peace of mind?
  3. Do you think the Church encourages people to be codependent?
  4. The central cause of codependency is when you’re in a relationship with someone who won’t let you be honest, or respect your honesty when you work up the courage to tell the truth. Do you think someone could be codependent with the Church?