Do you tend to give in to your partner’s needs and wishes without giving it a second thought? Are you frustrated with all the work you are doing so your partner or children will recognize what a loving, caring person you are and give back to you what you are giving to them? Sometimes it seems like despite our best efforts to have our partner or adult children grow up, they still expect us to do everything for them.  While we expect them to grow with us leading to healthy, loving relationships, we end up in a codependent relationship instead.  

This is how submissive codependent behavior usually works. And if you use this strategy like many of us do, it will definitely resonate with you.  

You are constantly complaining to friends about your partner and your children. You do everything you can to make sure everyone else is happy and to hold your relationship together. You lovingly sacrifice your own needs, interests and even friends to prioritize the needs of others and it’s still dysfunctional and you’re still miserable. In fact, the more you try to get your partner to wake up and participate or your kids to take responsibility to get your needs met, the worse it seems to get. Friends give you advice that you ignore because you don’t want to rock the boat. They might even advise you to leave your partner because their behavior sounds abusive. All their advice falls on deaf ears. After all, you just love too much, and you can’t help it.   

People-pleasing and rescuing aren’t about love. Although many people think by rescuing and caretaking the people they love, they will “rescue” their relationships, what they are actually doing is contributing to a codependent relationship, using one of the Submissive Codependent Strategies. 

Dominant vs. Submissive Codependent Strategies 

As described in our last week’s article “Codependent Relationship Weapons of Control: Gaslighting, Bullying and Even Caretaking”, we have broken down codependent strategies into two different groupings based on the fight/flight response. Dominant strategies are connected to the fight reaction and Submissive are connected to the flight/freeze reaction in the brain. We can use both Dominant and Submissive strategies when we feel threatened but tend to favor one grouping over the other based on our personality type and how our brain functions are organized. As they say, it takes two to tango and if two people form a relationship with one being a dominant and one a submissive person, both people are codependent. The dominant and submissive codependents are both meeting psychological survival needs that are different but make for a perfect dysfunctional fit. 

There are eight distinct codependent strategies that are easy to recognize once we know what they are – half of them are used to dominate in the relationship and four are submissive strategies. This article explores two of the most common strategies used by submissive codependents: Compliant and People-pleasing. 

Compliant Codependent Strategy (Docile, Doormat, Slave, Servant) 

Codependents who use the Compliant Codependent Strategy seek approval by giving in to what others want. They are so afraid of rejection and abandonment that they submit and allow inappropriate, devaluing, or abusive behavior from others. They fear being alone and will have relationships with someone just to feel they’re “normal” or okay. They often convince themselves they need someone who they see as more successful or valuable to be in a relationship with, stopping the development of their own potential.  

Why is this? The fear of rejection is an instinctual, tribal fear. We are biologically wired from our instinctual brain, to want to belong to someone so that we will survive. During human evolution, being alone to face hunger, shelter, and environmental threats was a threat to our survival. Rejection from the tribe meant a certain death. Codependents live as though being rejected by anyone means being thrown out of the tribe and therefore, they will not survive. Of course, we know that this is far from being true, but our instinctual brains don’t have the capacity for reason. The instinctual brain just reacts. Compliance is a way of ensuring the survival of the relationship at the expense of the self.  

Selma is an example of how someone becomes submissive to maintain the relationship.  

Selma, a VP of Operations for a fast-growing internet start-up company lives with her boyfriend Rick, an elementary school teacher. They have been together for 9 months. She says that he is, for the most part, a great guy, although he increasingly puts her down in private and in front of friends and family. She submits to this treatment, laughs as though he is making a joke, but feels hurt, rejected and devalued.  

Rick makes fun of the way Selma looks despite her working hard to stay in shape. She isn’t overweight, in fact, she is well proportioned and very energetic. The minute she grabs a slice of pizza, he’s all over her, telling her she’s going to get fat and won’t be able to fit in all her expensive clothes if she keeps it up.  

Rick also attacks her career and intelligence. He told a group of their friends that the only reason she got her job is because her boss is a woman and prefers to work with women. He makes negative comments about her company and has criticized their vision for growing the business. If she gives an opinion, he calls her stupid or laughs at her views. Selma has become a shadow of her former dynamic self at home, while she is thriving at work. She has given up on disagreeing with him or confronting him about his behavior as he ends up turning it around and making it about a shortcoming of hers.  

Despite Rick earning much less than Selma, he behaves like he’s superior and that Selma is ‘below’ him. She says she submits to his treatment and behavior because she “loves him.”  

People-Pleasing Codependent Strategy (Nurturer, Martyr) 

Pleasing others makes us feel good about ourselves and it is something we all like to do at times. However, when it is a part of one’s relationship survival strategy, it is problematic and codependent. Trying to please people so others will like or love us is actually a way of being in a relationship at the expense of ourselves. When people use this strategy, they will go out of their way to please another, hoping to receive love, approval, or be accepted and liked. If the approval is not given, the codependent will either try harder or feel victimized.  

People pleasers strive to be “good” rather than authentic. They put others needs first so that they can act supportive and agreeable. They refuse to say what they want to do, even if it is something as insignificant as “What do you want for dinner?” The answer is usually “It doesn’t matter. Whatever you want is fine.” Doing what others want and denying themselves is their MO. They shift the focus from them onto the other person to make sure they please them. They will put aside their own interests and do what others want. They hate conflict and are afraid to express their beliefs, opinions, and feelings when they differ from those of others. 

This behavior can be annoying to others who don’t want to have to make the decisions all the time or who wants more engagement from their partner. Studies show that people-pleasing and infidelity go hand in hand. Because over time, the person doing the people pleasing disappears in the relationship, taking care of everyone else’s needs, their partner looks elsewhere to get other needs met.  

Here’s what happened to Meredith (everyone calls her Merry cause she’s always smiling) as a result of working to please at the expense of herself.  

Merry was told from the time she was small that she was a sweet, pleasant child and a good girl. She worked very hard to be the good girl everyone thought she was.  

During high school, she met Frankie, and believed he was the love of her life. Frankie wasn’t the greatest student and Merry spent hours making sure he kept his grades up so that they could go to college together. He wanted to be a social worker and that’s what they decided they both would do. 

During their 3rd year at college, Merry became increasingly upset with Frankie. He seemed more interested in partying with their friends than doing their homework together. Frankie would always ask her if it was okay if he went out for a few hours. Wanting to please him, she would say yes and silently fume. She would finish their homework by the time he got home. Merry kept her feelings to herself, becoming increasing cold toward him.  

Two months before graduation, a friend of Merry’s told her that Frankie wasn’t out with their friends. Instead, he was hooking up with girls off campus. Merry didn’t believe it at first but asked other friends if it were true. When they confirmed it, she didn’t know what to do. This was their last year at college, and she couldn’t think of letting him down by breaking up with him and not helping him graduate.  

When confronted, Frankie said that it was because Merry was so busy studying all the time that she wasn’t fun anymore. She blamed herself for not being a good enough girlfriend. 

These are two examples of how people with Submissive Codependent Strategies create suffering and get in the way of creating loving relationships. Submissive Codependents think that they must be what somebody else wants them to be in order to be loved, therefore they people-please, self-devalue and are eager to comply. 

If all you know how to create is a codependent relationship, you will keep seeking the same people who make you unhappy.  Learn how you can get past the codependent stage of development and create mutually satisfying relationships. 

Curious to Learn More? 

You can learn about the other two Codependent Submissive Strategies and how to overcome them on Episode 41 of our podcast, ‘Dismantling Dysfunction’:  

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What Can I Do If I Am in a Codependent Relationship?  

We specialize in helping clients identify codependent and other dysfunctional behaviors in relationships. We have several counseling approaches we take – individual, group, couples – to help individuals break free of the dysfunctional codependent behaviors that are destructive to relationships. Contact us for a consultation to find out how we can help. 

For more information about how you can develop as a leader through individual coaching or participating in a leadership coaching program, contact us at [email protected].


Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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