Co-Dependency: What It Is How To Recognize It And How To Change It

By Stephanie Kirby

Updated February 14, 2020

Rescuing a loved one from danger is a noble thing. Or is it? At some point, the noble deed turns into a pattern of making it easy for the person to continue seeking danger. When co-dependency takes over a relationship, all your best intentions mean very little. Despite your valiant efforts, you just can't accomplish what you hope for. Instead, you suffer while your loved one continues in their self-destructive ways. When you understand what co-dependency is and learn how to change your codependent behaviors, you open yourself to better ways of being there for yourself and the ones you love.


What Is Co-Dependency?

Co-dependency is an unhealthy pattern of behaviors learned in a dysfunctional family. When you're codependent, it's very hard to have a satisfying relationship. Sometimes called relationship addiction, co-dependency often involves holding onto a relationship even when you're emotionally or physically abused. You do whatever you can to keep that other person in your life and try your hardest to help them be their best, whether that means you want them to stop using drugs or alcohol or change some other behavior.


Who Might Be Codependent

At first, the term codependent was used to describe a person in a relationship with someone with a chemical addiction. People with close ties to an alcoholic or drug addict can easily become codependent. However, people associated with someone who has other destructive habits may be co-dependent, too. For example, the loved one of someone with a physical or mental illness, gambling addiction, food addiction, and other behavior patterns may also be codependent. In fact, anyone who comes from a dysfunctional home and carries on these behavior patterns can have codependent relationships.

How Does Co-Dependency Happen?

Co-dependency doesn't just crop up out of thin air. It's a learned pattern of behavior, typically learned in childhood from older family members. Dysfunctional families are the breeding ground of codependency. When family members deny or ignore your fear, anger, shame or pain, you suffer all the more.

No one is emotionally available to help you deal with your feelings. Perhaps they have an addiction, maybe there's abuse in the home, or maybe they have a physical or mental illness that they aren't dealing with well. No matter what the reason, your only guidance on how to behave comes from the unhealthy role models in your family. Once you learn those behaviors, it can become extremely challenging to change them.

Issues Related To Co-Dependency

If you're codependent, you probably have other issues behind that condition. These issues make it easy for you to fall into a habit of codependency:


  • 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 do more than your share.
  • Needing the approval of others.
  • Needing to be recognized.
  • Poor assertiveness skills.
  • Problems with intimacy.
  • Trouble setting boundaries.
  • Poor communication skills.
  • Trouble is making decisions.
  • Fear of abandonment.
  • Anger issues.

Anyone may experience any of these issues occasionally. Even the most honest person may lie on the rare occasion, for example. However, codependency can happen when these problems are more severe and frequent than could be considered healthy. A counselor can help you examine and work on these issues to reduce your unhealthy need to behave in codependent ways.

How To Recognize Co-Dependency

What do you do if you are someone you love might be codependent? The first thing you can do is understand what it's like to be codependent. Then, you can check for specific signs that are common in codependency. With that preliminary information, you can talk with a therapist for help with those issues.

What Life Is Like When You're Codependent

When you're codependent in a relationship, you make everything about the person who is addicted, ill, or behaving irresponsibly. Your needs take a back seat to theirs to such an extent that you may not even know how you feel. You're probably aware that your behavior isn't helping matters. You continue with it because you don't know any better way. When one thing doesn't work, you may find yourself thinking frantically to figure out what to try next.

You take responsibility for your loved one when they could be taking responsibility for themselves. You give them what you think they need; but they refuse it, blame you for their troubles, use it as an excuse to continue their bad behavior, maybe even abuse you for it. They certainly don't give you any consistent credit for trying to help. You feel you can't win. In fact, when you're struggling with co-dependency, you may become a martyr in a battle the person you're codependent with isn't even fighting.

Signs Of Co-Dependency

Take some time to observe and think about your behavior. Notice your feelings about yourself, your loved one, your family, and your life. However, it's important to remember that you can't diagnose codependency yourself. If you notice any of the following signs of codependency, they can help you make changes. Do you find yourself:


  • Staying quiet to avoid conflict?
  • Worrying about what others think of you?
  • Someone you live with criticizes and belittles you?
  • Someone you live with hurts you physically?
  • Someone you live with is an alcoholic or drug addict?
  • Feeling you don't know who you are?
  • Doubting you can be who you are?
  • Feeling inadequate?
  • Having a hard time adjusting to change?
  • Feeling you're a bad person if you make a mistake?
  • Difficulty accepting gifts or compliments?
  • Feeling humiliated when someone you love makes a mistake?
  • Feeling uncomfortable with expressing your feelings?
  • Feeling rejected when your loved one spends time with others?
  • Feeling that you're the only thing keeping your loved ones from failing?
  • Having trouble talking to authority figures.
  • Having trouble saying no?
  • Doing so many things at once that you can't do any of them right?
  • Having a hard time asking for help?

You can experience any of these things at times. It's when they're common patterns in your life that they might signal you have codependency issues.

The Futility Of Enabling

Enabling is an important concept to understand when you're dealing with your codependency. When you're from a dysfunctional family, enabling is a way of life. You enable your loved one to keep behaving badly or continue in their addiction. You might say, 'No! That's the last thing I want!' While that may be true, your co-dependent behavior makes it easy for them to follow that unhealthy path.


Enabling can take many forms, each of them an attempt to improve things for their ill or addicted loved one. You can't help them by enabling. If you pour the alcoholic's liquor down the drain, they feel perfectly justified to strike back by spending the grocery money on more booze. If you pick them up from the police station and pay their bail after they're caught with illegal drugs, they have less motivation to quit. If you take your food addicted loved one to an all-you-can-eat buffet to treat them for sticking to their food plan for a month, they may lose all the ground they've gained. In any of these codependent relationships, you may even feel surprised that what you've done for them hasn't helped or that they haven't thanked you for it.

When you enable someone else, it's not only unhealthy for them, but it's harmful to you, too. You may want to help them, but a part of you also wants to make things easier on yourself. You don't want the drama, the abuse, or the hassle that comes with being in a relationship with someone who's behaving the way they are. Since you come from a dysfunctional family, you've learned to hold back your feelings, avoid trouble, and cater to others who don't have their own or your best interests at heart.

Enabling behavior continues those patterns. You won't help someone else by enabling them, and you won't help yourself in the long run. You can't change the other person. If you want to be whole, healthy and happy, you need to be in touch with your feelings and your sense of who you are. When you enable, that can't happen.

How To Stop Being Co-Dependent

Learning not to be codependent is a difficult and often lengthy process. You have to know the facts about co-dependency, but you also need to learn why it's unhealthy and what a better life would look like for you. But, learning involves more than an intellectual understanding. You need to talk about the issues behind your codependency and learn and practice healthier behaviors.

Educating Yourself About Co-Dependency

There are many books you can read, videos you can watch, and groups you can attend to learn more about co-dependency. People who are co-dependent often prefer self-help to asking for help. However, this is a problem that you do need help in overcoming. Learn what you can on your own, but don't let self-education be a substitute for getting the help you need.


Support Groups For Co-Dependency

Perhaps the best-known co-dependency group is Al-Anon. That group is a 12-step program for people who are codependent in their relationship with an alcoholic. Codependents Anonymous is another 12-step program, but the focus is broader to include anyone who is in a codependent relationship.

Any of the Anonymous groups teach personal responsibility. First, you accept that you have a problem, then you face the problem honestly and completely, next you learn how to make changes, and finally, you follow through with those changes. The group offers guidance on this path to recovery. They also offer the support you need to make those changes.

Therapy For Co-Dependency

Therapy for co-dependency can help you deal with your unique issues, behaviors, and challenges. A counselor can give you the time and attention you need to explore these difficult issues. You can identify the changes you need to make and work on changing your behaviors in your daily life.

As you make these changes, your family might seem like it's falling apart. You might find the relationship isn't healthy for you and leave. Or, you might stay but change the way you behave, prompting changes that can cause greater conflict in the family until you reach a better equilibrium. Either way, the support of a counselor can make a significant impact on how successful you are at ending your reliance on codependent relationships.

Counselors are available at to help you with co-dependency, the issues surrounding it, or other mental health challenges you might face. It may be hard for you to ask for help, but it's the best way to work toward having the relationships and the life you most want.

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