How Do You Define Codependent Relationships?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Dutil

In relationships, loyalty is a highly valued characteristic. In fact, loyalty is a characteristic that people greatly admire in their friends and family members. It feels great to know that we can count on someone to have our backs. Loyalty is a good quality unless it contributes to codependency.

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If you’re in a relationship with someone that is struggling with substance abuse, you know how important it is for them to have your unconditional support and loyalty. At the same time, you’re painfully aware of how easy it is for them to relapse. You also know that they may need to repeat treatment more than once before they can be sober long-term. Life’s stressors may cause them to sink back into negative behavior at any time, even if they’ve been sober for a long time.

While you’re committed to your partner, you sometimes find that you make excuses for them, so that others will accept them too. As much as it’s difficult to stay with your partner, it feels impossible to leave them even though you feel like the relationship is getting more and more toxic and you feel like you’re losing more of yourself with each passing day. You start to resent the fact that you’ve been telling lies and covering up for your partner whenever they slip up or someone criticizes them. These are possible signs of codependency within the relationship.

Codependency is common among friends and family members of people that are suffering from addictive behavior. It’s important to be aware that it’s a condition that can actually occur in a relationship with anyone. By recognizing the signs of codependency, you can get help to bring the relationship into a healthier state or gain the confidence to leave the relationship.

Defining Codependent Relationships

Codependency is a term for a behavior-based condition where one person in a relationship assists another person’s addiction, lack of responsibility, or poor mental health. Codependent people rely on other people for approval and to ensure their sense of identity.

When deciding on how to define codependent behavior, the exact definitions vary quite a bit. Codependent relationships can depend on the situation or patterns of unhealthy behavior. A codependent relationship can also be due to an underlying mental health issue. Part of the reason that codependent relationships are difficult to define is that there isn’t any clarity on exactly how to define them. A codependent relationship is more reflective of the dynamics in a relationship between two people.

Understanding More About Codependency

To better understand whether you have a relationship codependent with an unhealthy partner, family member, 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 members and close friends. At that time, they began to use the term relationship addiction to describe codependent people.

Clinicians generally believe that codependency is learned behavior. People learn it from watching and imitating other people that display the same type of behavior. Codependency is so prevalent in some families that it can pass from down from one generation to another.

Clinicians agree that codependency is a behavioral condition that affects a person’s ability to have a healthy and mutually happy relationship. One of the signs of a codependent relationship is a person that forms or maintains relationships that are one-sided, abusive, or emotionally destructive.

Dysfunctional Families and Codependency

Researchers became interested in the topic of codependency after learning that people struggling with addictions often had relationships with other people who became codependent on them. Today, this discovery has led to the discovery of a broader definition of codependency. The term codependency can refer to any codependent person from a dysfunctional family or relationship. That relationship can pertain to a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, or coworker. Clinicians have also noted similar patterns of codependency in families where there are instances of mental illness. Regardless of how the codependency starts, it has a major impact on family relationships.

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While codependency due to addictions and alcoholism is common, codependency is also common in relationships where there are factors in food addictions, work addictions, sexual addictions, or gambling. Underlying problems such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse are often the cause of codependency.

When family members or partners don’t know how to appropriately deal with addictive behaviors in someone they care about, it creates family dysfunction. People without addictive tendencies suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame, but they ignore it or deny it. They won’t talk about their emotions or confront them. It’s easier to repress their feelings and disregard their own needs in favor of the addicted person’s needs. They develop unhealthy ways of coping such as detaching themselves from others, avoiding them, and pretending the problems don’t exist.

Codependency is common among men and women and they tend to be equally loyal, but this 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, men showed only control and exaggerated responsibility. Clinicians gather from those results that men’s sense of self-worth isn’t as linked to their partners as women seem to be. It’s important to try to break the cycle of codependency because codependent relationships affect families as well as people in the codependent relationship. A study in Mexico from Science and Collective Health indicates that families suffer from stress and have a higher probability of becoming addicts themselves when one or both people are codependent. In general, family members of codependent people have a poorer quality of life in various aspects because the primary focus of the family’s time and energy goes toward the ill or addicted person.

Codependent family members sacrifice their own needs and desires to tend to the addicted or ill family members. It’s this strong focus and on someone else’s health, safety, and welfare that causes them to lose their sense of self because their own needs and desires continually get pushed aside.

How Does Codependency Change Behavior?

Codependent people have great intentions in the beginning. They feel a sense of devotion and loyalty to the person that’s experiencing difficulty. As their focus on the other person intensifies, their own self-worth declines. It can be a miserable life for someone who’s codependent. As a result, they look for other ways to help them feel better and more like themselves.

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Those who have codependent tendencies may abuse 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 for their husband’s bad behavior, mothers make excuses for a child’s criminal activity, and parents may try to use their connections to prevent their children from accepting the consequences of their actions caused by substance abuse. These are all examples of unhealthy ways that codependent people respond to other individuals that need them.

Unfortunately, codependent people that continually try to “rescue” their loved ones simply allow the other person to continue on a destructive path and rely on them even more. Codependent people often feel some sense of reward and satisfaction because the codependency makes them feel needed. Over time, they’re bound to become resentful and at some point, it becomes difficult or impossible to break free from the relationship.

What Are the Signs of a Codependent Person?

According to Mental Health America, there are specific signs of codependency that indicates such an unhealthy 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 share of responsibility for both of them
  • Feeling hurt when the other person takes them for granted
  • Doing anything to keep the relationship going even when it’s unreasonable
  • Needing constant approval and recognition
  • Feeling guilty when they need to take action 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

What Are Appropriate Treatments for Codependency?

The more that you understand codependency, the better you can cope with it in a more healthy manner. Codependency often begins in a person’s childhood and a therapist can help a person travel back to those days and uncover the issues that led to destructive behavior patterns as adults.

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Scheduling an appointment with a professional licensed counselor is the best first step toward learning how to rebuild your family relationships. During therapy, you can expect to learn more about codependency and be able to experience your full range of feelings again without the guilt or resentment. Many people in codependent relationships benefit from individual therapy and group therapy with other people that are struggling with the same issues.


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