Exploring The Codependent Relationship Definition And Characteristics

Medically reviewed by Aaron Dutil, LMHC, LPC
Updated March 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Loyalty is a highly valued characteristic of almost all relationships, and it’s nice to know that we can count on those close to us when we need them. However, loyalty can turn unhealthy when it contributes to codependency

In this article, we’ll be exploring some common signs of unhealthy relationships, specifically those that are codependent. Once you recognize what codependent relationships look like, you can take steps to avoid getting into one yourself and find healthy ways to address a codependent partner or family member.

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What is a codependent relationship?

According to a paper exploring the experience of codependency through interpretative phenomenological analysis, codependency is a highly contested topic in clinical psychology and peer-reviewed studies. However, based on the experiences of self-reported codependents, it’s a real experience with the potential to have real repercussions. This article discusses the topic from that lens. 

Codependency is a term for a behavior-based condition where one partner in a relationship—whether a romantic relationship or a relationship with a friend, family member, or other person—assists another person’s addiction, lack of responsibility, or destructive behavior. 

People who are codependent often rely on others for approval and the safety of their sense of identity and self-image. The definition of codependent behavior may vary depending on the situation or patterns of unhealthy behavior. 

In a codependent relationship, one person is normally the caregiver, while the other partner takes advantage of their efforts. There’s often a power imbalance in these types of partnerships. In many cases, one or both partners rely on each other to a fault and prioritize the other’s feelings over their own emotions. 

It may become hard for both or all parties to function independently without the other, which can lead to low self-confidence, issues maintaining a sense of self, and lack of attention to personal needs. Codependent individuals may neglect other friendships and connections outside of the relationship, or they might feel guilty to attention to their own wants instead of working for their family member’s or partner’s approval. 

If left unaddressed, codependency can lead to resentment, burnout, and the breakdown of the relationship. It may result in circular relationship dynamics, emotional abuse, lack of emotional development, and excessive self-sacrifice.

Codependency and addiction

Codependency is common when addiction or substance abuse is involved. If you’re in a relationship with someone coping with addiction, you know that unconditional support and loyalty from someone else are important. However, you may also know that relapse is common in many cases, and some who experience addiction may need to repeat treatment more than once before achieving sobriety long-term. 

Life’s stressors may also cause those who misuse substances to relapse into negative behavior at any time, even if they’ve been sober for a while. This can cause a great deal of stress to romantic partners and family members alike, leading to dysfunctional family dynamics. 

While you’re committed to your partner, you may sometimes find yourself making excuses for them so that others will accept them too. That’s a sign of codependency. Although it may be difficult to stay, the prospect of leaving can seem worse for those who care for someone experiencing addiction. Consistently “covering up” for your partner if they relapse or someone criticizes them can lead to feelings of resentment and may be a sign that you’re in a codependent relationship. 

A codependent relationship is more reflective of the dynamics in the relationship and may be a result of an underlying mental health issue as much as the addiction itself. It’s important to recognize that this can occur in any relationship and is also common among family and friends of people who misuse substances. By recognizing the signs, you can get help to bring the relationship into a healthier state, stop being codependent, or even leave the relationship completely.

Understanding more about how it affects relationships

To better understand whether you have an unhealthy or dysfunctional relationship with a partner, parent, family, or friend, it helps to learn some notable facts about it. Researchers began to learn about codependency after many years of studying the effects of alcoholics’ behavior on their family and close friends. At that time, they began to use the term ‘relationship addiction’ to describe codependent people.

Clinicians generally believe that this is a learned behavior developed from spending time with and imitating others who display the same behavior. It is so prevalent in some families that it can even be passed down intergenerationally, much like attachment styles can be (e.g., insecure attachment style).

Clinicians agree that it is a behavioral condition that affects a person’s ability to have a healthy and mutually happy relationship. Codependency tends to include an individual that forms or maintains one-sided, abusive, or emotionally destructive relationships.

Patterns that arise in dysfunctional family members 

Researchers became interested in codependency after learning that people who misuse substances often had relationships with others who became codependent on them. Today, this discovery has led to a broader definition of codependency which can refer to any person who is codependent from a dysfunctional family or relationship. Clinicians have also noted similar patterns of codependency in families where there are instances of mental illness.

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While codependency due to addictions and alcoholism is common, codependency is also common where food addictions, work addictions, sexual addictions, or gambling is present. Although codependent behavior isn’t necessarily an indicator of mental illness, underlying problems such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse may be the root cause of codependency for some.

When family or partners don’t know how to appropriately handle addictive behaviors in someone they care about, it often creates family dysfunction. People without addictive tendencies may experience fear, anger, pain, or shame because of the relationship but ignore it or deny it. For some, it’s easier to repress the feelings and disregard their own needs in favor of the addicted person’s needs. They may develop unhealthy ways of coping, such as detaching themselves from others, avoiding them, or pretending the problems don’t exist.

Codependency is common among men and women, and they tend to be equally loyal, but a study in the Journal of Substance Abuse shows that the characteristics of codependency manifest differently in men and women. In the study, codependent women showed the following five characteristics:

  1. Control
  2. Exaggerated responsibility
  3. Worth dependency
  4. Rescue orientation
  5. Change orientation

Conversely, the findings indicated that men showed only control and exaggerated responsibility.

Codependency might affect entire families as well as the people involved in them. A study in Mexico suggests that families experience higher stress levels and have a higher probability of forming addictions themselves when one or both people are codependent. The study indicates that families of codependent people have a poorer quality of life in various aspects, likely because the primary focus of the family’s time and energy goes toward the ill or addicted person.

How does this type of dependency change behavior?

Codependent people feel a sense of devotion and loyalty to the person with addictive tendencies, but as their focus on the other person intensifies, their own well-being may decline. As a result, they may seek out other ways to feel better and restore positive feelings of self-esteem.

Those who have codependent tendencies may misuse alcohol or drugs to help them cope with their partner, which subjects them to their own addictions. Others may develop other coping activities like gambling, engaging in promiscuous sex, or becoming workaholics. Wives may cover up their husband’s bad behavior, mothers make excuses for a child’s criminal activity, and parents may try to prevent their children from receiving discipline for the consequences of their actions caused by substance use. These are all examples of unhealthy ways that codependent people may respond to the dependent person that needs them.

Codependent people that continually try to “rescue” their loved ones aid them in continuing the destructive behavior. This often leads to the affected person relying on them even more, thus perpetuating an unhealthy cycle of dependence. Codependent people often feel some sense of reward and satisfaction because the behavior makes them feel “needed.” Over time, however, the dysfunction of the relationship can lead to resentment, low self-esteem, and other unpleasant feelings.

What are the signs of a codependent person?

According to Mental Health America, there are specific signs that may signal a codependent relationship dynamic:   

  • Overarching responsibility for another person’s actions
  • A tendency to love people that need pity or empathy and who can’t help themselves
  • Taking on the of responsibility for both in the relationship
  • Feeling hurt when the other person takes them for granted
  • Feeling anxious when spending time separated from the other person
  • Doing anything to keep the relationship going even when it’s unreasonable
  • Needing constant approval and recognition
  • Feeling guilty when they need to act on the other person’s behalf
  • Feeling like they need to control the other person
  • Not trusting themselves or anyone else
  • Fear of not being in a relationship
  • Having a hard time identifying genuine feelings
  • Find change to be a challenge
  • Can’t maintain healthy boundaries
  • Constantly feeling angry and resentful
  • Lying to cover for the other person
  • Decreased capacity for meaningful communication
  • Struggling to make decisions

Understanding the signs of codependency is one of the first steps toward building a healthier relationship. 

What are appropriate treatments for codependency?

The more that you understand codependency, the better you can manage it in a healthy manner. Talk therapy with trained mental health professionals is the best tool for identifying, uncovering, and understanding the source of a person’s codependent behavior so that the individual may develop coping skills. 

Many people in codependent relationships benefit from individual therapy, family therapy, and group counseling with other people having difficulty with the same issues in their familial and romantic partnerships.

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Online therapy to address and safeguard your own feelings with BetterHelp

It can be very difficult to unlearn codependent behaviors, set boundaries, and develop healthier behavioral patterns, especially on your own. If you think you may be in a codependent relationship, going to counseling might help. For some, seeing an in-person therapist can be challenging due to barriers of scheduling, availability, and more. An alternative option is connecting with a therapist online through the BetterHelp platform. You can speak to a licensed, accredited mental health professional with an internet connection anytime, anywhere. 

Research supporting how online therapy can help

Being in a codependent relationship can lead to mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and more. Different studies have found that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy. Researchers have discovered that it can successfully treat the potential underlying causes of codependent behavior. Further, it can help dependent people prioritize their own feelings and emotions and move on from unhealthy relationships stemming from those root causes.

Takeaway

Codependency has the potential to be draining, hurtful, and ultimately unhealthy for everyone involved. If you feel that you’re in a codependent relationship, getting support from a professional can be essential for your own mental health and the mental health of your loved ones. You can start the process of healing by scheduling an appointment with an online counselor. This can be an effective first step toward learning how to rebuild your family relationships and end the cycle of codependency. 

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