What is Codependency?

May 13, 2024

"What is codependency?" Unveil its true meaning, identify signs, and explore treatments for a healthier life.

Understanding Codependency

To grasp the concept of codependency, it's essential to understand its definition and the various ways it manifests in relationships. This understanding helps decipher 'what is codependency?' and provides insights into its effects on individuals and their relationships.

Definition of Codependency

Codependency, also known as relationship addiction, is an emotional and behavioral condition that impedes an individual's ability to foster a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It was initially identified in the context of relationships where one partner had an addiction. However, the term has since expanded to encompass individuals in emotionally destructive or abusive relationships, which do not necessarily have to be romantic.

Codependency is also recognized as a mental and emotional issue that affects how people interact and connect in interpersonal relationships. It often leads to discomfort with oneself, low self-esteem, and, consequently, participation in abusive or unfulfilling relationships.

According to Mental Health America, codependency is a learned behavior that hampers an individual's capacity to engage in healthy and mutually satisfying relationships. They characterize it as "relationship addiction," typified by forming or maintaining one-sided, emotionally destructive, and/or abusive relationships.

Manifestations of Codependency

Codependency often manifests when a person believes their role is to "save" another individual by attending to all of their needs. A codependent person constructs their identity around this purpose and adopts a self-sacrificial role in the relationship [3].

The roots of codependency can often be traced back to past experiences such as dysfunctional family dynamics where self-sacrifice is normalized, or where emotional repression and non-confrontation are the norm. It can also be influenced by attachment style, notably an ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied attachment style formed during infancy. Low self-esteem and difficulties with a sense of self can further contribute to codependency [3].

In understanding codependency, it's crucial to note that its manifestations vary from person to person. However, common traits often include a lack of personal identity, enabling behaviors, and feelings of control and guilt. It's crucial to recognize these signs to seek help and treatment when needed.

Types of Codependent Relationships

Codependency, also known as relationship addiction, can manifest in various types of relationships. This includes romantic relationships, family relationships, and friendships. In each of these relationships, the codependent person often undertakes a self-sacrificial role, building their identity around attending to the needs of another person.

Romantic Relationships

In the context of romantic relationships, codependency often involves enabling behaviors. These behaviors can include covering for a partner dealing with addiction or taking on additional responsibilities to avoid conflict.

A codependent person might also take on excessive household chores, fail to advocate for themselves, or end other friendships to maintain their partner's approval. This unhealthy dynamic leads to an imbalance in the relationship, with one person consistently prioritizing the needs of their partner over their own.

Family Relationships

Codependency can also be present within family relationships. For instance, a codependent relationship might occur between an adult parent and a child, where the parent feels responsible for the child's physical well-being, and the child feels responsible for the parent's emotional well-being. This dynamic can lead to an unhealthy level of dependence, with each party feeling overly responsible for the other's well-being [4].

This pattern of codependency can also extend to other family relationships, such as between siblings or between adult children and their elderly parents. In each case, the codependent person often feels compelled to take on excessive responsibilities and may struggle to set appropriate boundaries.


While less common, codependency can also occur within friendships. A codependent person might feel overly responsible for their friend's well-being and may go to great lengths to ensure their friend's happiness, often at the expense of their own needs and well-being. They might neglect their own interests, hobbies, and other relationships in favor of supporting their friend.

Codependency in friendships can lead to an imbalance, with one person consistently giving more than they receive. This dynamic can strain the friendship and can also impact the codependent person's mental and emotional health.

Understanding the different types of codependent relationships can help individuals recognize the signs of codependency in their own relationships. It's important to remember that codependency is not limited to one type of relationship and can manifest in various ways depending on the specific dynamics involved.

Causes of Codependency

Understanding the roots of codependency can help in addressing and overcoming it. There are several potential causes of codependency, most of which stem from early life experiences and environmental factors. The consequent behaviors can be complex and multifaceted, often involving aspects of one's self-esteem, personal history, and interpersonal relationships.

Childhood Experiences

Childhood experiences play a significant role in the development of codependent behaviors. For instance, individuals may learn such behaviors through mimicry, observing and adopting codependent behaviors from caregivers during their upbringing [5]. Cognitive development during childhood can also be influenced by emotionally demanding situations, such as maintaining relationships with loved ones experiencing addiction or mental health issues. In such circumstances, codependent behaviors may be an adaptation to help manage these emotionally charged environments, although such coping mechanisms often lead to neglecting one's own well-being [5].

Trauma and Adverse Life Events

Trauma and adverse life experiences, including experiences of abuse or chronic bullying, can lead to the development of codependent tendencies as a means to feel safe and gain a semblance of control over one's environment. This can be particularly true for individuals with low self-esteem who may seek validation and self-worth through relationships. Often, they become overly focused on meeting the needs of others as a way to feel valued and accepted [5].

Attachment Theory Influence

Attachment theory points to the significant influence of early caregiver relationships on adult interpersonal dynamics. It suggests that the relationships one had with childhood caregivers could influence the relationships formed as an adult. Insecure attachment, characterized by behaviors like emotional avoidance, fear of abandonment, and needing external validation, can contribute to codependent behaviors.

In conclusion, codependency is a complex issue with a multifaceted array of potential causes. Understanding these factors can be the first step towards addressing and overcoming codependency. It's important to remember that help is available, and with the right support and resources, individuals can learn to build healthier, more balanced relationships.

Signs and Symptoms of Codependency

Identifying codependency can be challenging as it often manifests subtly in different relationships. However, understanding the signs and symptoms can help individuals recognize if they are in a codependent relationship and seek appropriate help. Some common symptoms include a lack of personal identity, enabling behaviors, and feelings of control and guilt.

Lack of Personal Identity

One clear sign of codependency is the lack of personal identity. In a healthy, interdependent relationship, both individuals maintain their separate identities while also valuing the bond they share. However, someone in a codependent relationship might drop their own hobbies, interests, and even basic needs to focus on what's important to the other person, losing their sense of self in the process [4].

Enabling Behaviors

Another significant symptom of codependency is enabling behaviors. This involves covering for a partner's issues, such as addiction or avoiding conflict by taking on additional responsibilities. For example, in a romantic relationship, one partner may continually make excuses for the other's addiction, further fueling the cycle of codependency [4].

Control and Guilt

Codependent individuals often feel a strong need to control situations concerning their partner, which stems from a deep-seated fear of being abandoned or rejected. They may also experience intense guilt when not attending to their partner's needs and desires, often placing their partner's needs above their own. This chronic self-neglect can lead to serious health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Recognizing these signs and symptoms is the first step toward addressing codependency. It's important to remember that these patterns can be unlearned and replaced with healthier ways of relating to others. Seeking professional help through therapy or counseling can be an effective way to break the cycle of codependency and cultivate healthier relationships.

Impact of Codependency

The effects of codependency can bring about significant changes in an individual's life, impacting mental health, relationship dynamics, and self-worth. Understanding these effects is vital when exploring 'what is codependency?'.

Mental Health Consequences

Codependency often involves excessive emotional or psychological dependence on a partner, creating a toxic and unfulfilling relationship dynamic. This dependency can lead to serious health issues such as anxiety and depression. Symptoms of codependency include fear of true expression, neglecting personal needs, inability to be alone, and refusing help from others.

Moreover, individuals suffering from codependency might enter into relationships with individuals likely to hurt them and may lose track of their own basic needs. This can lead to emotional distress and other mental health issues, further exacerbating the negative impact on their mental wellbeing.

Relationship Dynamics

Codependency can significantly affect the dynamics of a relationship. It often results in a one-sided or destructive relationship where the codependent individual neglects their own needs and prioritizes their partner’s. This can lead to feelings of frustration, resentment, or stress for the codependent person as they may endure their partner’s harmful behavior and enable poor choices.

Furthermore, these individuals may experience a loss of self-worth when a relationship fails or goes through a rough patch, as their identity is often tied to their partner. This can perpetuate a cycle of codependency, making it difficult for the individual to break free from such relationships.

Self-Worth Issues

One of the most significant impacts of codependency is on an individual's self-worth. People with codependency often have a lack of satisfaction or purpose in life outside of their relationship. They may endure a partner’s harmful behavior, idealize the partner, and feel guilt when not attending to the partner’s needs and wants.

Moreover, their unwillingness to state needs, desires, and moral stances due to fear of conflict can lead to them taking on undue blame and too much responsibility. Their preoccupation with the partner’s thoughts or feelings further contributes to self-worth issues as they neglect their own needs and desires.

The impact of codependency is far-reaching and can cause significant distress in an individual's life. Recognizing these effects is the first step in seeking help and breaking free from the cycle of codependency.

Treatment for Codependency

Overcoming codependency can be a challenging process, but with the right support and resources, it is entirely possible. Various treatment approaches can help individuals understand the roots of their codependent behaviors and develop healthier ways to relate to others.

Therapy and Counseling

Therapy and counseling play a crucial role in the treatment of codependency. Treatment typically involves delving into early childhood issues and their connection to current destructive behavioral patterns. It often includes education, experiential groups, individual and group therapy to help individuals rediscover themselves and recognize self-defeating behaviors. These therapeutic approaches aim to assist patients in reconnecting with buried feelings from childhood and experience a full range of emotions again.

Different therapeutic modalities can be employed, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and psychodynamic therapy. The choice of therapy often depends on the individual's unique needs and circumstances.

Developing Coping Skills

As part of the treatment process, individuals learn to identify self-defeating behavior patterns and develop coping skills to promote healthy relationships. Strategies for changing codependent behavior include supporting instead of controlling, separating desires from the partner's, focusing on oneself, learning to assert oneself, challenging negative thoughts, and building self-esteem. If dealing with someone who is codependent, it is important to consider one's influence, have honest conversations, set boundaries, encourage the person's sense of independence, and be patient.

These skills are crucial for breaking the cycle of codependency and fostering healthier, more balanced relationships.

Reconstructing Family Dynamics

Codependency often stems from familial relationships and dynamics, making it necessary to address these issues as part of the treatment process. Therapy aims to assist patients in reconstructing family dynamics to promote healthier interactions and relationships.

Family therapy can be a useful tool in this regard, as it allows for the exploration of patterns and dynamics that contribute to codependency. Through this process, families can work together to break the cycle of codependency and create a healthier, more supportive environment for all family members.

In conclusion, treating codependency involves a multifaceted approach that addresses the root causes, develops healthier coping strategies, and reconstructs family dynamics. With the appropriate help and support, individuals can overcome codependency and foster healthier relationships.


[1]: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-s-the-best-codependency-treatment-5070487

[2]: https://www.northboundtreatment.com/blog/is-codependency-bad-dangers-of-being-in-a-codependent-relationship/

[3]: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships-communication/codependency.htm

[4]: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/signs-codependency

[5]: https://psychcentral.com/health/what-causes-codependency

[6]: https://www.mhanational.org/co-dependency