Understanding Codependency

Published on: 28 Jan 2021
Clinically Reviewed by Bisma Anwar, LMHC
Women backpacking along the coast

Updated 1/18/2023

Codependency is a learned behavior and relationship pattern. In a codependent relationship, one person sacrifices their needs (filling the “giver” role) while the other plays the “taker” role, depending on their partner to meet their needs. These relationships tend to be one-sided and can cause both partners to lose their sense of self. 

Whether you’re in a codependent friendship, relationship, or are concerned about a loved one, learning to understand and identify these relationship patterns can help you to break free. 

What is Codependency?

The term codependency was first introduced by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) during the 1950s, where it was used to describe the relationship between alcoholics and their loved ones. Today, it’s used to identify a range of imbalanced relationship dynamics, which is why the definition of codependency can vary. It is also known as relationship addiction.

Codependency can refer to any relationship where each partner is psychologically or physically dependent on the other. Any type of relationship can be codependent, whether it’s a romantic relationship or a relationship between family and friends. 

Examples of codependency

“Codependency looks slightly different with each person, but some global examples include feeling as though we cannot be alone, feeling anxious if certain people are doing things independent from us, and having a reoccurring fear of missing out on activities.” – Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC

  • A woman is in a relationship with a man with severe, untreated mental health issues. She ignores her wants and needs so that she can spend more time supporting her partner. He feels like he can’t leave the relationship because he’s completely reliant on her. 
  • After a bad breakup, a woman moves in with a close friend. She spends most of her time crying on the couch and doesn’t try to get a job, making her emotionally and financially dependent on her friend. The friend, for their part, takes responsibility for the woman’s emotional, physical, and perhaps even financial needs. 
  • After graduating from college, a young man has the opportunity to move to another state and pursue his dream job. However, because his father struggles with alcohol addiction, he feels obligated to cast aside his desires and goals and stay at home so that he can try to keep his dad sober. 

Signs of Codependency

The following is a list of the most common symptoms of codependency — not all are needed to identify a relationship as codependent.

  • Low self-esteem and/or low self-worth: Feeling like you’re never good enough or often comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem. Lacking a feeling of innate worth as a human being is a sign of low self-worth. Guilt, shame, and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand with lack of beliefs about one’s value and worth and can contribute to someone falling into the patterns of codependency.
  • Family dysfunction: This can be your current family or the family you were raised in. When there is persistent dysfunction in family dynamics, it can lead to one or more family members becoming the caretaker for another. 
  • People-pleasing: Most people want to be helpful to others, but codependent people usually don’t think they have a choice. The very idea of saying no can cause anxiety. They very often sacrifice their own needs to accommodate others.
  • Poor boundaries: Being emotionally healthy involves knowing the difference between what’s yours and somebody else’s. This applies to your body, money, belongings, feelings, thoughts, and needs. Codependent people tend to have either weak boundaries (where they feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame others for their own), or they might have boundaries that are too rigid (where they wall themselves off from others and withdraw). Sometimes they flip back and forth between these extremes. Poor boundaries is one of the leading causes of a toxic relationship.
  • Reactive: Without healthy boundaries, a person can constantly react to everyone else’s thoughts and feelings. They might begin changing their beliefs to fit someone else’s, or they may become defensive. A codependent person often feels threatened by disagreements.
  • Caretaking: Having poor boundaries also causes a codependent person to have a compulsive need to put others ahead of themselves, to help and try to “fix” them. They may even feel rejected if that help is refused and continue to try, even when that person clearly doesn’t want them to.
  • Controlling: Everyone needs some control over their life to feel secure. However, a codependent person needs to control those close to them to feel okay. They may use people-pleasing and caretaking to control others or boss people around to manipulate them. 
  • Dysfunctional communication: Codependent people have difficulty communicating their thoughts, feelings, and needs — often because they don’t know what those needs are. When communicating, they avoid being direct and truthful to avoid upsetting someone. 
  • Obsession: Codependency can cause someone to spend an unhealthy amount of time anxiously thinking about other people and relationships. They tend to often fantasize about how they’d like things to be, while agonizing over how to make life conform to their fantasies. Ultimately, this thought and behavior pattern can keep them from focusing on living their own lives. 
  • Dependency: Codependent people always need to be in a relationship and cannot feel okay about themselves if they are not liked by others. They are terrified of rejection or abandonment, even if they can function on their own, and might become depressed or lonely otherwise. Even when a relationship becomes painful or abusive, someone who’s codependent will often feel trapped and unable to end it.
  • Intimacy issues: Although sex is often linked to intimacy, the issue referred to here is more about being open, close, and connected with others. Feelings of shame or weak boundaries can cause a fear of being judged, rejected, or abandoned, resulting in a resistance to being close to others in their life.  
  • Persistent, painful emotions: Constant feelings of shame and feeling trapped, the fear of being judged, rejected, abandoned, or of making mistakes creates stress, pain, low self-esteem, and anxiety. As it progresses, it can lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. 
  • Fear of abandonment: Even small incidents, such as a loved one forgetting to call, can trigger intense emotions.
  • Fixating on mistakes: When a codependent person makes a mistake, they can feel intense anxiety, stress, and fear of abandonment. 
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity: People who play the “giver” role in a codependent relationship gravitate toward loving, pitying, and rescuing people. Those who are takers in the relationship might see these gestures as true, honest love and concern. 
  • Low level of narcissism: Wanting to feel needed is not that different from wanting to feel important, i.e., narcissism. More research is needed about the relationship between narcissism and codependency, but there does seem to be a connection.  
  • Denial: Denial is a codependent person’s biggest barrier to seeking help. Since their focus is on someone else or a particular situation, they continue to believe they can fix the issues themselves. Being fixated on others, they have trouble receiving anything, including help, and often won’t reach out for it. They’re in denial of their own vulnerability and need for authentic love and intimacy.

Because the nature of codependency is to see oneself only in relation to others, it may also be helpful to identify the signs of a codependent relationship. A few questions you can ask yourself are:

  • Does your sense of purpose involve making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner’s needs?
  • Is it difficult to say no when your partner demands your time and energy?
  • Do you cover up your partner’s problems with drugs, alcohol, or the law?
  • Do you constantly worry about others’ opinions of you?
  • Do you feel trapped in your relationship?
  • Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?

Causes of Codependency

What is codependency, and what causes codependency in relationships? There are several factors that can contribute to codependency, including substance abuse, low self-esteem, and a lack of boundaries. 

Common causes of codependency include:

  • Overprotective parents: Children with overprotective parents may never learn basic life skills, making them dependent on their parents or a romantic partner in the future. They also tend to develop other unhealthy behavior.
  • Childhood trauma: Research shows a strong link between codependent behaviors and childhood neglect and abuse. In some people, codependency is a learned behavior.
  • Mental health conditions: There’s a direct correlation between codependency and mental health conditions, such as depression, according to some research and findings.

The Effects of Codependency

A codependent relationship can be deeply toxic to both parties. When you’re codependent, it can feel as though your identity and self-worth depend entirely on another person. This dynamic can make it difficult to pursue your own interests or forge interpersonal relationships with others.

A codependent individual may become so reliant on another person that they cannot live independently. A person who’s in a relationship with a codependent person may feel: 

  • Depressed
  • Angry
  • Frustrated, they continually set aside their wants and needs

“Codependency can impact many categories, but largely, there can be too much focus on one or several particular people and a neglect of others. We can be intimidated to do different activities alone, and we may have difficulty getting to work or school or completing chores and responsibilities without a person or group of people.” – Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC

What to Do About Codependency

Once you understand the signs of a codependent relationship, you’ll be able to take steps to change your codependent behavior and learn how to stop being codependent, such as attending either in-person or online therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (or family therapy for people with kids). Whether you’re the “taker” or the “giver” in the partnership, rest assured, you can break the cycle and develop the skills you need to have healthy, rewarding relationships in the future.

As the “taker”

If you recognize signs of codependency in your own behaviors, try to become more aware of these tendencies. Learn more about yourself and discover what keeps you from becoming more independent. You may want to work with a therapist who can provide you with support and guidance on your journey. 

If the “giver”

If you’ve been setting aside your own needs for the sake of another person, start making yourself a priority. Focus on self-care and put some distance between yourself and the person you’ve been supporting to establish healthier relationships. Try to get in touch with your own feelings. Set boundaries and share consequences if they’re not respected.

No matter what definition of codependency you use, a codependent relationship has the potential to become a highly toxic relationship. Once you learn to recognize the signs of codependency, you can take positive, effective steps to change harmful habits and build mutually satisfying healthier relationships with others. 

Sources: 

1. Young L, Timko C. Benefits and Costs of Alcoholic Relationships and Recovery Through Al-Anon. Substance Use & Misuse. 2014;50(1):62-71. doi:10.3109/10826084.2014.957773. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25268181/. Accessed October 1, 2022.

2. Panaghi L, Ahmadabadi Z, Khosravi N, Sadeghi MS, Madanipour A. Living with Addicted Men and Codependency: The Moderating Effect of Personality Traits. Addict Health. 2016;8(2):98-106. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5115643/. Accessed October 1, 2022.

3. EVGİN D, Sümen A. Childhood abuse, neglect, codependency, and affecting factors in nursing and child development students. Perspect Psychiatr Care. 2021. doi:10.1111/ppc.12938. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34448498/. Accessed October 1, 2022.

4. Hughes-Hammer C, Martsolf D, Zeller R. Depression and codependency in women. Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 1998;12(6):326-334. doi:10.1016/s0883-9417(98)80046-0. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9868824/. Accessed October 1, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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