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Counterdependency is the state of refusal of attachment, the denial of personal need and dependency, and may extend to the omnipotence and refusal of dialogue found in destructive narcissism, for example.[1]

Developmental origins

The roots of counterdependency can be found in the age-appropriate negativism of two-year-olds and teens,[2] where it serves the temporary purpose of distancing one from the parental figure[s]. As Selma Fraiberg put it, the two-year-old "says 'no' with splendid authority to almost any question addressed to if he establishes his independence, his separateness from his mother, by being opposite".[3] Where the mother has difficulty accepting the child's need for active distancing,[4] the child may remain stuck in the counterdependent phase of development because of developmental trauma.[5]

In similar fashion, the teenager needs to be able to establish the fact of their separate mind to their parents,[6] even if only through a sustained state of cold rejection;[7] and again unresolved adolescent issues can lead to a mechanical counterdependence and unruly assertiveness in later life.[8]

Adult manifestations

The counterdependent personality has been described as being addicted to activity and suffering from grandiosity, as acting strong and pushing others away.[9] Out of a fear of being crowded, they avoid contact with others, something which can lead through emotional isolation to depression.[10]

The counterdependent male in particular may pride himself on being 'manly' – not needing affection, support or warmth, and being tough, independent and normal instead[11] – something still reinforced by gender socialisation.[12] Where a woman takes on the counterdependent position, it may take on the attributes of a false self or androcentric persona.[13]

The apparently independent behavior of the counterdependent can act as a powerful lure for the co-dependent[14] – though once a couple has formed the two partners – codependent/counterdependent – are sometimes found to switch roles.[15][full citation needed]

In therapy, the counterdependent personality often wishes to flee treatment, as a defense against the possibility of regression.[16] By keeping the therapist at arm's length, and avoiding reference to feelings as far as possible, they may attempt to control the therapist so as to preserve their sense of independence.[17]

Existential views

Existential therapists distinguish between interdependency on the one hand, and, on the other, both dependency and an escapist form of rebellious counterdependence.[18]


Counterdependency can present itself in a clinical situation in the form of a negative transference.[19]

In George Kelly's personal construct theory, the term is used in another sense, to describe the therapist's transference of dependency onto the client: counterdependent transference.[20]

See also


  1. Brian Koehler, 'Ludwig Binswanger: Contributions to an Intersubjective Approach to Psychosis'
  2. Robert M. Gordon, I Love You Madly! (2008) p. 89
  3. Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (1996) p. 64
  4. Margaret Mahler, The Psychological Birth of the Human Being (1975) p. 66
  5. J. B. Weinhold et al, Breaking Free of the Co-Dependency Trap (2008) p. 6-7
  6. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 94
  7. Mavis Klein, Okay Parenting (1991) p. 108
  8. Edward O. De Barry, Theological Reflection (2003) p. 157
  9. Mark Atkinson, True Happiness (2011) p. 245
  10. William Stewart, An A-Z of Counselling, Theory and Practice (2005) p. 295
  11. Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Families and how to survive them (1993) p. 56 and p. 119-20
  12. Barbara Jo Brothers, When One Partner is Willing and the Other is Not (1997) p. 40
  13. Mary Anne Mattoon, Zurich 1995 (1997) p. 119
  14. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 510
  15. Weinhold, p. 10
  16. Leonard Horwitz, Borderline Personality Disorder (1996) p. 167 and p. 133-4
  17. John Bowlby, A Secure Base (2000) p. 50-1
  18. Emmy van Deurzen-Smith, Existential Counselling in Practice (1997) p. 18
  19. John Heron, Helping the Client (2001) p. 49
  20. G. Kelly, The Psychology of Personal Constructs: Vol II (2003) p. 81-2 and p. 440