There are many different types of codependent behaviors and behavioral strategies.  Gaslighting, bullying, caretaking and manipulating others are all ways of gaining and maintaining power in relationships. So, it’s not just narcissists who are manipulative. It’s a primary codependent strategy used to control and dominate in a codependent relationship. The use of indirect communication and manipulation to get one’s own way, including pouting, guilting, becoming outraged or indignant, devaluing and gaslighting to name a few tactics are used to make the other person submit to their version of the story.  Here’s an example: your partner committed to going to your family’s place for Sunday dinner at the beginning of the week. Sunday morning rolls around and you remind them. Their response is “I can’t believe you expect me to go to your parents after the week I have had. Have you no regard for my feelings at all? I didn’t want to burden you with everything that went wrong because I love you so much. I know I said I would go, but I can’t believe you would expect me to go. That would be cruel.”  

Both nature and nurture have a lot to do with how we behave in relationships. Our early conditioning and our psychological type or Striving Style play a large role in determining the codependent strategy we are most likely to use in relationships. Human beings are complex and to understand why we do what we do means we have to understand the mechanics of our mind, our purpose, and other elements of our psychological nature.  

Dominant vs. Submissive Codependent Strategies 

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 favour one grouping over the other based on our personality type and how our brain functions are organized. 

While pop psychology definitions tell us these are learned behaviors, they’re actually intrinsic survival strategies begun in childhood to ensure psychological security and well-being. These coping strategies are in our instinctual brain, in the same way a dog rolling onto it’s back and exposing its belly when it is threatened by a larger dog is.  

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 dominant codependents: Controlling and Caretaking. 

Controlling Codependent Strategy (Autocrat, Dictator, Bully) 

Maintaining control is a way of feeling psychologically secure. For some, control helps them manage their anxiety and sense of stability in relationships. They decide they know better than others and foster dependence on them, maintaining control by telling others what to do and what not to do. Part of this coping strategy is taking responsibility for others’ lives, behaviors and feelings. They need to be in a relationship with someone with poor self-esteem to rescue or champion.  

One of the key elements of their strategy is making up rules and “shoulds.” They insist other people behave the way they believe appropriate. It embarrasses them when others dress, speak or behave in ways that make them feel out of control. They are judgmental, bossy and shaming of what they consider inappropriate behavior. Whether invited or not, people who use this strategy try to take control over the lives and behaviors of those close to them. They tell others what they should or shouldn’t do, violating their boundaries and making them feel stupid. Those closest to them start doubting themselves and stop making decisions without consulting them first. 

Mary and Phil have been married for 14 years and have two children. Their codependent relationship is organized around her as the dominant partner with a need to exercise control over the family. Mary is in charge of finances and has the final word on parenting, where they live, friends, and general overall decisions. She doesn’t trust Phil to be as good at anything as she is and is adept at pointing out his shortcomings, keeping him dependent on her.  

Phil is a smart, capable, and kind man who over the years, found it easier to submit to Mary’s will than to argue. He gave up trying and let her take over everything. A common statement of hers was “Give me that, stupid. For heaven’s sake, can’t you do anything right?” He found parenting to be the most challenging area because as a teacher, he understood the needs of his children for calm rationality and consistency when correcting behavior but was constantly overruled by Mary’s style of control (kids must do exactly what she wants), out-of-control behavior (kids make a small error and she freaks out) with them. She was at times autocratic and other times permissive. If he tried to insert himself when she was overreacting, she devalued him in front of the children, calling him ridiculous or stupid. Phil gave up trying to be a partner in his marriage and became depressed. His work began suffering and he had to take stress leave. Mary was furious, claiming she knew he couldn’t handle a job as easy as teaching. Now she did have to take care of everyone and everything.  

Caretaking Codependent Strategy (Rescuer, Nurturer, Matriarch) 

Caretaking is a way of securing a place in a relationship by making sure others need you. If you use this strategy, you need to be needed. Being useful and needed is a way of staying in control, the dominant partner, parent, and decision maker. This is the mother who does everything for their children and husband without asking for anything in return. They offer advice to others whether it is asked for or not and are upset when others don’t take it. They form relationships and friendships with people who are struggling in some way, taking the more dominant position. They become anxious should others show independence from them.  

Caretaking means that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself, your money, time and energy. While It’s normal and natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, codependents have their own agenda for helping over and above the needs of others. In fact, they might feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help or goes to someone else for advice. It’s easy for codependents who use this coping strategy to feel used and unappreciated. They don’t see how they’re disabling others by taking charge of another’s life – all under the guise of sincerely wanting to help. When the help or advice is ignored or rejected, the codependent feels angry, abused, and unappreciated. 

Angela is from a large Spanish family. She is the second oldest of 6 children, with an older brother and 4 younger sisters. Angela distinguished herself from the other children by helping her mom take care of her older brother and the younger kids as well as working in the family restaurant as soon as she was able. By the time she was 22, she was managing the books for her family’s restaurant chain, having taken a bookkeeping diploma and working toward a degree in accounting. She continued to help parent her siblings through their tumultuous teen years.  

Angela married Peter, a man of Spanish descent, in her late twenties. Shortly after, she gave birth to twins – a son and daughter. Life became increasingly difficult as Peter lost his job and felt it wasn’t his responsibility to do housework or “babysit,” as he called it. Her parents and siblings were constantly calling for help and she tried her best to keep up with all the competing needs, without asking for anything from anyone. She expected herself to stretch and step up her game.  

Despite how hard she tried to help Peter find work and be all things to her husband, family and children, Peter was always complaining: dinner was never ready on time, not enough sex, messy house, kids crying, etc. While Angela was furious, she felt guilty and saw herself as a failure. When she came to therapy, she was convinced she was the problem. She had taught everyone what to expect of her and to her heartbreak, no one gave anything back.  

These are two examples of how people with Dominant Codependent Strategies create suffering and get in the way of creating loving relationships. Their need to dominate gets met at the expense of the other person. They have little regard for how their partner feels and an absolute belief they are entitled to use manipulation and other tactics to control and dominate their partner, ultimately destroying the love that brought them together in the first place.  

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 Dominant Strategies and how to overcome them on Episode 40 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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