Mediation for Codependent Couples

Comprehensive Divorce Mediation-Arbitration with a Chronically Codependent Separating Couple


Description of the Subject, Identifying the Salient Points, Intrinsic Understanding of the Subject


The Codependence “Uncovery”, Review of the Literature


Over-all Synthesis, Impact Upon Clients and Professionals






This paper presents a discussion of the feasibility of using some of the more advanced forms of divorce negotiation techniques with separating couples who are deeply enmeshed and embroiled. Often they come to a mediator’s office after having burnt out their two lawyers and/or sometimes after a judge has washed his/her hands of their entanglement. Legal precepts alone do not appear to have any relevance to a couple in this chronic condition.

Very often there are only a few relatively insignificant, yet highly symbolic, issues preventing closure for their relationship. The mediator after working with several couples like these over a few years starts to experience a pattern – a pattern that cannot be explained away by simplistic notions like writing off one or more of the parties as stubborn. The very essence of these people seems at stake from their point of view. Their basic integrity is being challenged. Surely we must look below the surface near where the tip of the iceberg protrudes.

Paradoxically even though they both desperately want to be separated they simultaneously give off powerful signals that they do not want to be. A mediator assessing these couples will be quite hesitant to take on a case like this because the mediator would quite rightly assess that the probability of being pulled into these couples’ family dance patterns would be very high.

Mediation, by definition, is a short term intervention and thus, unlike therapy, the professional must move in, partially heal the wound(s), partially resolve the conflict and drop back relatively quickly. Mediation is not counselling. When the dust settles the “magic” is that the couple has closure, which had been previously unattainable. However, with couples like these, who seem overly-dependent on each other, it behooves the mediator to hold in reserve the possibility of arbitration if the mediation process becomes pinioned on a few small but hot issues.

The main hypothesis of this paper is that “codependent” separating couples are best served in their dilemma by pre-contracting, in writing, with a mediator-arbitrator to use “med-arb” techniques if negotiations come to a stale-mate or “Mexican stand-off”. Certainly, the mediator is going to have much more confidence if he/she knows that a road to closure is virtually certain.



In mediation we often see a microcosm of what went wrong in the marriage. We often can share with the couple techniques that, had they known them sooner might have saved their marriage. When the need comes up in the negotiations for the mediator to use arbitration we are most probably getting a birds’ eye view of where the marriage actually went aground. At this juncture the closer we get to resolution the more it slips away. Maybe this would be a good time for an “award” by the arbitrator. The couple is immobilized at this stage. They cannot meld their respective positions into a rational solution.

The more a mediator-arbitrator knows about the dynamics of codependence the better when dealing with couples going through this above described stage. To a large degree the mediator-arbitrator is called upon here to play a referee role that the respective parents of each of the parties probably had not. To break the vicious cycle of codependence one, or even both, of the parties must “bite the bullet” and make a specific, quantifiable choice with regard to the issue(s) on the table at a given time.

If one or both of the parties can break out of “the swirl” of mutual indecision without the mediator having to arbitrate so much the better. When the couple dances the mediator can move back but when the couple stops dancing then the arbitrator can move in.

This paper posits comprehensive mediation-arbitration because the more issues that are on the table the higher the probability of resolution.

Litigation leads to win-lose scenarios. Mediation leads to win-win scenarios. Arbitration leads to optimum scenarios in which each party “cuts their losses”.



The more a professional knows about the salient points in his or her field the better. The probability of success with clients rises as skills, knowledge and experience rise. Sometimes a professional has the powerful impression that the full study and assimilation of a concept in another discipline may be crucial to the full development of a parallel concept or technique in their own discipline.

After having found techniques and concepts that work successfully in practice in the trenches and after observing patterns that emerge that suspiciously resemble patterns that are being reported in another field the inquisitive mind will want to delve further into the parallel analogy. That is the purpose of this paper – to understand better how and when to use mediation-arbitration by a better understanding of codependence.

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When the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous developed the 12 steps they probably didn’t realize that they were at the entrance to a “gold mine” with one of the richest veins of golden wisdom ever uncovered. The numbers of major spin-off groups from AA number in the thousands. The healing that is going on in these groups is so extensive that it is beyond measurement.

The first spin-off groups were set up for the “significant other” of the person who was dependent on the alcohol. After a while it became obvious that these people had their own patterns and were similarly dysfunctionally inter-relating with their respective alcoholic counter-part. As time went on they became known as the co-dependents.

Now it is generally believed that each of the players is codependent on each other. And also it is now believed that codependence is inter-generational. Some authors estimate that nearly 80% of the population is involved in some way with a codependent person (Beattie, 1987). As will be shown in the following review of the literature, the concept of codependence is now used to cover all addictions and beyond into the fields of dysfunctional interpersonal relationships.



One of the most interesting presentations on codependency is by Dr. Dan Kiley in his companion books, The Peter Pan Syndrome (Kiley, 1983) and The Wendy Dilemma (Kiley, 1984). He analogizes the players of J.M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan, to a dysfunctional codependent couple. Peter Pan is the adult little boy who needs mothering. Wendy is the adult little girl player who will provide the mothering. Tinkerbell is the mature woman image who won’t let the little boy in Peter Pan get his way. Captain Hook is Peter Pan’s alter-ego. If Peter doesn’t get what he wants from “mummy” he will become very much like Captain Hook. Note how elusive “Never-Never Land” is and how elusive the “hidden treasure” is. The point being – enjoy the fantasy, but don’t lose sight of the fact that it is a fantasy. Kiley talks about nurturing “the child within” without becoming the child within.


Dr. Kiley lists four conditions that lead to a woman falling into the Wendy “mothering trap”:


  1. fear of rejection;
  2. voice of inferiority inside;
  3. control of her social identity;
  4. “the bait” – a Peter Pan man.


The characteristics of a Peter Pan man are as follows:

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10


The “Wendy Responses” to the Peter Pan man are placed in increasing order of hopelessness by Dr. Kiley:


  1. denial;
  2. overprotection;
  3. possessiveness;
  4. complaining;
  5. judgement;
  6. martyrdom;
  7. punishment;
  8. hitting bottom.


The “Tinkerbell Responses” to the Peter Pan man which Dr. Kiley says will lead to a healthier woman are:


  1. humor;
  2. relaxation;
  3. thought control;
  4. “win-win” statements;
  5. silent treatment;
  6. active ignoring;
  7. self-help groups.


Dr. Kiley pleads with all the codependents to “grow up” before they lose the most important and precious thing in life … “the dedicated commitment of another human being”. He says they must climb out of all roles when they are inter-relating with their significant other. They must re-design their dysfunctional family dance that they learned in their families-of-origin.

Many authors talk of self-responsibility as the main road to recovery from codependence. One author summarizes it as follows, “Codependency is addiction to looking elsewhere”. (Carruth, 1989:22).

Another concept in the literature is the self-victimization of the codependent. One author analyzes worry as the catalyst of misery (Becker, 1989). For Becker, codependents are addicted to misery. They are locked out of the here and now because of “past-ing” – worrying about the past effecting the present and “futur-ing” – worrying as in “what if” the following will happen? Becker states that “catastrophic expectations will keep the codependent hopelessly addicted to misery”.

Becker recommends the following mnemonic device to help on the road to recovery:


A – able to look the problem in the face

W – willing to make changes

A – and

R – ready to live with temporary discomforts

E – exchange old thinking, attitudes and behaviours with new ones

Becker delves into self-disclosure himself and admits that he had been codependent with his counselling clients until he realized he had to care for himself, care for others and stop trying “to take care of” others. (Becker, 1989:69).

Enter choice. The codependent believes that they have no choices. All the authors researched in this paper agreed on this point. Some said that since the codependent had little or no choice in their childhood that they mistakenly get into an addictive cycle in which they truly believe that control can only come from outside themselves (Minirth, 1989). Minirth uses the image of “love-tanks” – if a child’s mother and father were both “running on empty” then the child is going to be very low on the fuel of love. For such a child to fill up their tank, they have to “surrender” to a power higher than themself. For some that is God. For some that is the belief in a happy marriage, etc.

The following is a list of codependent traits as defined by Minirth.



  1. The codependent is driven by one or more compulsions.
  2. The codependent is bound and often tormented by the way things were in the dysfunctional family of origin.
  3. The codependent’s self-esteem (and, frequently, maturity) is very low.
  4. A codependent is certain his or her happiness hinges on others.
  5. Conversely, a codependent feels inordinately responsible for others.
  6. The codependent’s relationship with a spouse or Significant Other Person (SOP) is marred by damaging, unstable lack of balance between dependence and independence.
  7. The codependent is a master of denial and repression.
  8. The codependent worries about things he or she can’t change and may well try to change them.
  9. A codependent’s life is punctuated by extremes.
  10. A codependent is constantly looking for the something that is missing or lacking in life.

Another aspect that some authors mention is the further difficulty engendered because men and women grow up in different “cultures”. The “cultural” differences may not be ingredients of codependency but they amplify and exacerbate codependent relationships between a man and a woman. “For a woman, talking about troubles is the essence of connection.” “Men hear troubles talk as a request for advice: they respond with a solution”. (Taylor, 1990:60-61). According to Deborah Tannen, who was interviewed by Ms. Taylor, women worry about being “pushed away” and men worry about being “pushed around”.

One instant healing recipe for a codependent to use with their significant other is, “I love you but I love myself more”. (Beattie, 1987).

Beattie has some excellent suggestions for recovery for codependents on her self-help tape “Codependents’ Guide to the 12 Steps”. She suggests making three lists: a) all that have harmed you; b) all you have harmed; c) and especially how you have harmed yourself. She recommends making direct amends for all these “harms”. She suggests that others not be blamed. She further suggests that these relationships be restored if feasible. She suggests that the hardest task will be self-love and forgiving oneself for harming oneself.

Beattie states that a codependent’s behavior is an attempt to avoid, deny or divert their own pain. She suggests telling one’s life story to a trusted person as is done in AA chapters. She suggests going on a “quest for the normal”. “It’s been said that adult children from dysfunctional families don’t know what normal is”. (Beattie, 1989:114). Lastly, Beattie reminds recovering codependents that recovery is a process which includes relapse. She suggests not even thinking about being perfect. Trying to be perfect is one of the catalysts that leads to codependency.

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In mediation-arbitration clients often exhibit great fear and stress and magical thinking with regards to solutions to their impasse(s) with their separating spouse. Their family dance has actually been proven now to be dysfunctional and yet they still hold onto behaviors that go nowhere or to “never-never land”. For the man, it is often initiated by the “mill-stone around the neck effect” – the fear that he will be a “walking wallet” for the rest of his life. For the woman, it is often initiated by the “poor house effect” – the fear that she will be destitute for the rest of her life.

These fears and stresses are magnified because the codependent person must once again let go of the dreams of “fixing” their unfinished business with their internalized family-of-origin. The lost childhood must be grieved because it is “never-never” going to come back.

These fears and stresses trigger clashes between the clients that an adept mediator-arbitrator with a well-timed, agile and appropriate intervention can transform into a resolution.

In a sense the mediator-arbitrator, with all the knowledge of codependence stored in their psyche, has a far better chance of interrupting the dysfunctional family dance and inculcating a closure than without that knowledge. The mediator-arbitrator has a much better chance of empowering one or both of the clients to “stand on their own two feet” and make a choice if the theory of codependence has permeated the process.

All the authors researched agreed on the need for codependents to call on a power higher than themselves. Interestingly, the joining that takes place between each client and the mediator-arbitrator and the trust imparted when both clients originally signed the “med-arb” contract is a surrendering by both clients to a process higher than themselves.


The clients may not completely like the outcome of the “med-arb” process but they did agree to the process. The mediator-arbitrator is “off the hook” because unlike a judge each of the clients empowered him/her to make an award if they could not come to a decision.

A thorough understanding of the theory of codependency and its applications by the mediator-arbitrator most probably means that the clients have a better chance of getting on with the rest of their lives, after having minimized the acrimony and the mediator-arbitrator will probably be more effective and under less stress because of knowing more about what is going on in the process.

This writer believes that we are all wounded and at different stages of healing. The writing of this paper has further healed “the little child” within the writer himself and he can hardly wait to apply this new knowledge to his next “med-arb” case. May the healing spread in ever widening circles.

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American Arbitration Association. Selected Pamphlets: Resolving Your Disputes; The Uniform Arbitration Act; Code of Professional Responsibility for Arbitrators. New York, New York, 1988.

Becker, Robert. Addicted to Misery: The Other Side of Co-Dependency. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 1989.

Beattie, Melody. Beyond Codependency: And Getting Better All The Time. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Beattie, Melody. Codependent No More. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.

Beattie, Melody. Codependents’ Guide to the Twelve Steps. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster (Audio Division), 1990.

Carruth, Bruce, ed., and Warner Mendenhall, ed.. Co-dependency: Issues in Treatment and Recovery. New York, New York: Haworth Press, 1989.

Coogler, O.J.. Structure Mediation in Divorce Settlement: A Handbook for Marital Mediators. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1978.

Gillie, Michael S.. “A State Approach to Community Arbitration and Mediation.” Mediation Quarterly: The Journal of the Academy of Family Mediators No. 5 (Sept., 1984): 53-63.

Kiley, Dan. The Peter Pan Syndrome. New York, New York: Dodd, Mead, 1983.

Kiley, Dan. The Wendy Dilemma: When Women Stop Mothering Their Men. New York, New York: Arbor House, 1984.

Minirth, Frank, Robert Hemfelt, and Paul Meier. Love is a Choice: Recovery for Codependent Relationships. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.

Schlesinger, Stephen E., and Lawrence K. Horberg. Taking Charge: How Families Can Climb Out of the Chaos of Addiction…and Flourish. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Taylor, Peggy. “Can We Talk?” New Age Journal December 1990: 31-33, 60-64, 107-108.

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