Codependency

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

A healthy relationship usually involves the provision of care and support between partners. However, when two people depend on one another to meet all their emotional or psychological needs, they may have a codependent dynamic. Codependency or interdependency can occur in friendships, romantic relationships, work relationships, or relationships with family members. Often, one individual in the relationship may enable the other to continue partaking in unhealthy habits, such as substance use or maltreatment of others. The other codependent partner may believe they cannot make independent decisions, meet their own needs, or cope without this person's influence and support.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Building healthy, stable relationships is possible

When codependency takes root, both individuals may lose sight of who they are outside of their connection to each other. 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. 

What are codependent relationships?

The APA Dictionary of Psychology lists two definitions of codependency. The first definition describes a state of mutual reliance, such as a relationship where two individuals believe they are dependent on one another for their well-being. The second definition involves a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on or controlled by someone with a substance use disorder (previously called substance abuse disorder). While substance use can be a part of codependency, it may not be in every case. 

Codependency is not a clinical diagnosis. Rather, it is an emotional and behavioral condition characterized by the provision of continuing support to an individual—often, at the exclusion of meeting one’s own needs. Typically, the individual who receives this attention is a family member who has a concurrent, ongoing need or desire for such support. Some people who get into codependent relationships may notice a pattern of multiple relationships of this type. This dynamic might be referred to as "relationship addiction" as it can involve holding onto relationships through intense conflict, often out of a desire to "fix" the other person's challenges. This is typically a learned behavior that arises out of childhood experiences with one’s caregivers. 
Those in a reliant relationship may do whatever they can to maintain their connection to meet psychological needs. Even if they recognize the dysfunction in their relationship, they might not know how to address or work towards a stable or mutually satisfying relationship.
Risk factors for developing a codependent relationship

The concept of codependency used to be primarily applied to those who maintain relationships with partners with substance use disorders. In the way that "substance abuse" has been changed to the more acceptable term, "substance use," the way researchers understand codependency has changed. No longer only used to describe partners of people living with a chemical dependency, the term codependency now encompasses many types of relationships or situations where this dynamic is present. 

According to Mental Health America, a dysfunctional family dynamic is the primary source of codependency. Dysfunctional families often develop patterns of unhealthy behavior because of a specific challenge, such as a history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or one person’s addiction or mental illness. 

For example, those in a family with someone with an insecure attachment style, a gambling addiction, or communication challenges may be at risk of becoming interdependent. Individuals with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and other mental health conditions may also engage in codependent relationships with partners or other family members. In this dynamic, other family members may focus on providing support to the one individual.  
According to multiple studies, a person who has faced childhood trauma or viewed interdependent patterns in their primary caregivers may also be more likely to develop codependent dynamics as an adult. They may feel responsible for the emotions of friends and family members and neglect their own wants and needs. This pattern can lead people with interdependent tendencies to form and maintain relationships with people who have an excessive need or desire for attention, care, and support. 

Some people who have issues with codependency can also be susceptible to learned behavioral or thought patterns, which can create a tendency toward this type of dynamic. These might include:

  • A perception that one is responsible for the actions of others
  • Confusing love with pity
  • A desire to control others
  • Difficulty recognizing and expressing feelings
  • Inflexibility in responding to change
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships
  • Offering more than their part
  • Desiring the approval of others
  • Desiring recognition 
  • Difficulty with assertiveness 
  • Intimacy challenges 
  • Difficulty setting healthy boundaries
  • Poor communication skills
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • A fear of abandonment
  • Frequent anger or irritability 
It may be helpful to note that some people can experience these symptoms without codependency being present. For example, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may exhibit these symptoms due to experiencing a traumatic event.

Codependency may be present when the above symptoms are frequent or negatively impact an individual's mental health or the security of the relationship. In these cases, a counselor may help you examine your patterns to identify whether codependency might be a challenge for you and how to move forward. 

Signs of codependency

Remaining aware of the signs of codependency can help you address it in your relationship. Try to observe your behavior. Notice your feelings about yourself, loved ones, friends, family, and life. Asking self-prompted questions about codependency may lead you to some of the answers you seek. Note that online checklists are not a replacement for professional advice. Although self-examination may be helpful, speaking to a therapist specializing in codependency can offer personalized and relevant support. Below are a few self-inquiry questions you can ask to get familiar with the topic of potential codependency in your relationships:

  • Do I stay quiet to avoid conflict?
  • Do I have low self-esteem?
  • Am I worried about what others think of me?
  • Does my romantic partner put me down, belittle me, or threaten my well-being?
  • Does my partner physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse me?
  • Is my partner dependent on any substances?
  • Do I know who I am?
  • Do I feel as though there are dysfunctional family dynamics in this relationship?
  • Do I feel that I can be myself in my relationship?
  • Do I feel inadequate no matter how hard I try?
  • Is adjusting to change difficult for me?
  • Does this person try to turn me against other people in my life?
  • Do I feel like a bad person if I make a minor 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 person keeping my loved ones from failing?
  • Do I have difficulty talking to authority figures?
  • Do I have difficulty saying no or setting boundaries?
  • Do I feel like I can't do anything right?
  • Do I feel like my emotional development is being hindered?
  • Do I struggle to ask for help when I need it?

If you experience difficulty with some of these areas occasionally, it may be normal. However, it could be a sign of codependency if you consistently see these themes arising in your relationships.

How family members can address codependency

Learning to break the patterns of codependency may not happen overnight. However, with applicable resources, tools, and practice, you may feel better equipped to address potentially unhealthy behaviors, set boundaries, and develop a strong sense of self. Below are a few support options you may have when facing codependent relationships. 

Support groups for codependency

Support groups are one way that some people choose to work through challenges in their lives. It often helps to spend time with people who are experiencing similar concerns. One of the most widely known codependency support groups is Al-Anon. It's a 12-step program for people in a codependent relationship with someone who has alcohol use challenges. 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 often aim to teach personal responsibility. First, participants may be encouraged to accept that they have a problem and then face the situation honestly. Next, they can learn strategies for making changes. Once finished with the first steps, they can focus on changing unhealthy behavior. Groups are often intended to offer understanding, support, and guidance on the path to recovery.

Building healthy, stable relationships is possible

Therapy for codependency
Breaking out of old patterns can be difficult, so 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. Therapy can also help you address chronic mental health challenges that may be underlying difficulty developing healthy relationships. 
If you have trouble leaving home, have a busy schedule, or feel more comfortable at home, you may consider signing up for an internet-based counseling service like BetterHelp. Online platforms may be more convenient, as they require a smart device and an internet connection instead of a commute to an office. 
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. 

Takeaway

Codependency may be challenging to address on your own. Contacting a licensed counselor can help you learn more about your relationship patterns, improve your self-esteem, and break cycles. Consider talking to a provider to get started.
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