What Is Codependency?
When two people depend on one another to meet all their emotional and/or psychological needs, they may have a codependent dynamic. Codependency can happen in a friendship, romantic relationship, work relationship, or with a family member. People in this situation may feel that they can’t live without the other person, or that they’re unable to make independent decisions. They may also believe that they’re responsible for their partner’s behaviors, especially those that are related to substance use problems.
When codependency takes root, a person may lose sight of who they are outside the relationship. Addressing codependency in relationships often involves working with a therapist to identify unhealthy patterns and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Learning more about these patterns may help those facing codependency open themselves up to a healthier dynamic in the future.
The Definition Of Codependency
The APA Dictionary of Psychology lists two definitions for “codependency.” The first is “the state of being mutually reliant. For example: a relationship between two individuals who are emotionally dependent on one another”. The second is “a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on (or controlled by) a person who has a pathological addiction”. So while addiction is often a component of this dynamic, it’s not always the case.
In some situations, this concept may also be referred to as “relationship addiction” as it can involve holding onto a relationship even through intense conflict or abuse. Those in a codependent relationship may still do whatever they can to maintain it because it’s become a primary—albeit unhealthy—way for them to meet key psychological needs. It’s also common for a person to recognize the dysfunction in their relationship, but not know how to address or fix it.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can contact theNational Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Risk Factors For Developing Codependent Tendencies
Again, the concept of codependency used to be primarily applied to a person in a relationship with someone who has a substance use problem. However, the term’s application has been expanded over the years to encompass many different types of relationships or situations where this dynamic is present.
Those in a relationship with someone who has an insecure attachment style, a gambling addiction, or communication issues, for example, may be at risk for becoming codependent. According to multiple studies, a person who faced childhood trauma or viewed codependent patterns in their parents or primary caregivers may also be more likely to develop codependent dynamics as an adult.
Many people who struggle with codependency can also be susceptible to common thought or behavior patterns which can create a tendency toward this type of dynamic. These might include:
- Feelings of being responsible for the actions of others
- Confusing love with pity
- Needing to control others
- Inability to recognize and express feelings
- Inflexibility in responding to change
- Being dependent on relationships
- Always doing more than their share
- Needing the approval of others
- Needing to be recognized
- Poor assertiveness skills
- Problems with intimacy
- Trouble setting boundaries
- Poor communication skills
- Trouble making decisions
- Fear of abandonment
- Anger issues
Note, however, that some people have these thoughts or symptoms without codependency being present. For example, a person may have a mental health condition related to trauma, such as PTSD. Codependency typically happens when the challenges on this list are frequent and/or negatively impact a person’s mental health and/or relationship. A counselor can help you examine your patterns and situation to identify whether codependency might be an issue for you, and then guide you in taking steps to address it if so. We’ll discuss this option in more detail below.
Understanding how codependent patterns can manifest in a relationship can help you identify this dynamic in your own life or the lives of those you love. For example, someone in a codependent relationship may feel an urge to focus all their energy on their loved one. Their own needs may take a back seat to their partner’s to such an extent that they may not even know how they feel sometimes.
Someone struggling with codependency might also take responsibility for their loved one when they do not take care of themselves. However, the partner may often refuse the help, blame the other for their troubles, use it as an excuse to continue their bad behavior, or act in abusive ways. As a result, the person may feel that they don’t get credit for the help they try to offer, which could make them feel like they can't win.
Signs Of Codependency
Take some time to observe and think about your behavior. Notice your feelings about yourself, your loved one, your family, and your life. Note that you can't diagnose codependency yourself. Although an online checklist can be helpful, speaking to a therapist specializing in codependency can help you understand your patterns more deeply.
Questions To Ask Yourself
- Do I stay quiet to avoid conflict?
- Am I always worried about what others think of me?
- Does my partner put me down, belittle me, or threaten me?
- Does my partner physically, sexually, or emotionally abuse me?
- Is my partner addicted to substance use of any kind?
- Do I know who I am?
- Do I feel that I can be myself around my partner?
- Do I feel inadequate no matter how hard I try?
- Is adjusting to change difficult for me?
- Do I feel like a bad person if I make a small mistake?
- Do I feel humiliated when my partner makes a mistake?
- Do I have difficulty accepting compliments or presents?
- Do I feel uncomfortable expressing my feelings?
- Do I feel rejected when my partner spends time with others?
- Do I think I am the only thing keeping my loved ones from failing?
- Do I have difficulty talking to authority figures?
- Do I have trouble saying no or setting boundaries?
- Do I feel like I can't do anything right?
- Do I have a hard time asking for help?
It can be normal to ask yourself these questions at various times in your life. However, you may face challenges with codependency if you consistently find these themes coming up in your relationships.
Getting Support For Overcoming Codependency
Learning to break the patterns of codependency won’t happen overnight. However, with the right resources and tools plus practice over time, you may find yourself well on your way to healthier relationships.
Support Groups For Codependency
Support groups are one way that some people choose to work through challenges in their lives. Perhaps the most widely known codependency support group is Al-Anon. It's a 12-step program for people in a codependent relationship with someone who has alcohol use problems. Codependents Anonymous is another 12-step program with a broader focus intended to include anyone in any type of codependent relationship.
Support groups like these generally aim to teach personal responsibility. First, participants are encouraged to accept that they have a problem, and then face the situation honestly. Next, they learn strategies for making changes. Finally, they follow through with those changes. The group is intended to offer understanding, support, and guidance on the path to recovery.
Therapy For Codependency
Breaking out of codependent patterns can be difficult, which is why some people turn to a mental health professional for help. A trained therapist can assist you in identifying unhealthy relationship patterns, exploring possible root causes, and building the skills that may allow you to make different choices. Online counseling in particular may be effective for those who have difficulty leaving home, have a busy schedule, or simply feel more comfortable interacting with a counselor virtually. It’s generally a more accessible option than in-person sessions since it requires only a phone, computer, or tablet and an internet connection. A virtual therapy service like BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed therapist online.
Attending sessions with a trained mental health professional has the potential to open the door to healing and growth. An academic examination published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction in 2020 found that group therapy, individual therapy, and family therapy were effective methods for introducing growth, self-discovery, and healing strategies. Participants noted that they preferred these types of therapy because they empowered them to seek further treatment.
Here are just a few reviews from those who sought online therapy through BetterHelp.
“I met with Shaun for about 2 months. She was a good listener and sounding board for me during a very difficult time. I appreciated her ability to name some of my behaviors as codependent or unhealthy. She also always created room for me to come to my own conclusion as to how to solve my problems. I tended to do most of the talking, but Shaun's created a safe space and provided valuable input.”
“Rick has been such a blessing in my life. Rick worked first with me in couples counseling and after realizing I needed to separate from my husband, he remained my counselor individually. He has helped me work through so much of my issues of codependency and heartbreak. He has always been honest with me, and every time I leave a session with him, I genuinely feel heard and understood. I highly recommend him if you are struggling in a toxic relationship with a partner or yourself.”
Codependency can feel scary to go through on your own. Reaching out to a licensed counselor can help you learn more about your relationship patterns, improve your self-esteem, and break cycles. You're not alone in your experiences. Take the first step today and sign up with BetterHelp.