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What Is Codependency?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 28, 2023

Table of Contents

Codependency is a psychological concept and a learned behavior. Codependency is often passed from generation to generation.

This condition is both behavioral and emotional. Codependency impacts your ability to form healthy and mutually satisfying relationships.

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Codependency is sometimes referred to as relationship addiction because of the typically one-sided and often abusive relationships maintained by those with this condition.

First identified in the 2000s, codependency came to light following years of research into the interpersonal relationships in the families of alcoholics. As codependence is mimicked by other family members, this is especially disturbing.

So, before we explore this thorny issue in more depth, a bit more background on the condition.

Codependent Personality Disorder: What Is It?

The term codependent was first used to describe someone living with an addicted person.

The modern understanding of codependency now refers to a relationship addiction that’s characterized by extreme dependence on and preoccupation with another person. This can be social, emotional, and sometimes even physical dependence.

Although the concept of codependency still applies to families plagued with substance abuse issues, it’s also used in a much broader sense.

The primary consequence of codependency is that codependents are often so busy taking care of others that they forget to take care of themselves. This results in a stunted development of identity.

In 1986, Cermak proposed that codependency should be defined in the following edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), suggesting that diagnostic criteria should be borrowed from alcohol dependence, BPD (borderline personality disorder), DPD (dependent personality disorder), histrionic personality disorder, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Cermak’s argument was unsuccessful and the revised DSM-III still didn’t reference codependency as a personality disorder. Even in the latest edition of this manual, DSM-5, DPD is mentioned, but not codependency.

Some research has dismissed the idea of codependency as a standalone personality disorder. This is due at least partly to the substantial overlap between codependency and the symptoms of both BPD and DPD. That said, some people exhibit codependency without manifesting other symptoms of BPD or DPD.

There is a distinction between codependency and DPD. While people with DPD depend on people in general, codependents are dependent on specific people.

When comparing codependency and BPD, there is also a key difference evident. BPD sufferers typically experience instability in their interpersonal relationships, but they are not dependent on others.

So, while codependency is still not recognized as a distinctive personality disorder and there is some considerable overlap with other types of personality disorder, there’s also some research to show that codependency is a distinct psychological construct.

How, then, can you tell if you or a loved one might be suffering from codependency?

Signs Of Codependency

Here are some factors that have been shown to correlate with codependency:

  • Anxiety
  • Always need to be in a relationship
  • Compulsion to care for others
  • Confusion between love and pity
  • Denying your own needs
  • Depression
  • Difficulty saying no
  • Emotionally reactive
  • Familial dysfunction
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Low self-esteem
  • Fixating on mistakes
  • Intimacy issues
  • Low emotional expressivity
  • Need to be liked by others
  • Low levels of narcissism
  • Need to control others
  • Poor boundaries
  • Problems with honest communication
  • Stress

You should also keep an eye out for some common characteristics shared by codependent people, including:

  • Tendency to love people that can be pitied and rescued
  • Exaggerated sense of responsibility for how others act
  • Often do more than their fair share
  • Feeling hurt when their efforts are not recognized
  • Lack of trust, both is self and others
  • Extreme need for approval
  • Need to control others
  • Unhealthy dependence on relationships
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Guilt when trying to assert themselves
  • Difficulty adapting to change
  • Chronic anger
  • Difficulty isolating and expressing feelings
  • Dishonesty
  • Problems with decision making

While none of these signs on their own should be considered red flags, if your loved one exhibits several of these signs, there’s every chance they could be codependent.

We’ll look next briefly at who is typically impacted by codependency.

Who Does Codependency Affect?

Codependency often affects the partner, friend, parents, or co-worker of someone with alcohol use disorder or drug dependence.

While originally used to describe the partners of those with chemical dependency, the current definition is broader. Codependency now refers to anyone in a relationship with an addict.

The term as we use it today, then, describes any codependent person from any type of dysfunctional family.

How do these relationships start in the first place, though?

Why Do Codependent Relationships Form?

The research available on codependency suggests that neglect and emotional abuse increase the risk of codependence. If, for example, you learned to put your own needs second to those of a difficult parent, you are likely to follow this pattern throughout other similar relationships in your life.

There is also a school of thought suggesting that codependency stems from trauma theory, implying an underlying traumatic event during formative years.

If you have certain personality traits or beliefs, this can make it easier for you to fall into the trap of a codependent relationship.

Codependent givers are still able to satisfy some basic needs such as mattering to another person, feeling competent, and feeling close to another person. Codependent takers can be manipulative and selfish, but they are often clouded by addiction, troubled in general, and lacking in crucial life skills.

A study in the Journal of Substance Abuse shows that both men and women tend to remain loyal to their partners in codependent relationships in spite of the incessant stress.

The difference comes in male and female codependents. Codependent women exhibit 5 characteristics expected of codependency (control, change orientation, rescue orientation, worth dependency, and exaggerated responsibility), while codependent men show only 2 characteristics (exaggerated responsibility and control). For male codependents, then, their sense of self-worth is not as strongly linked to their partners as female codependents’ sense of self-worth.

Whether you are the giver or the taker, a codependent relationship is unhealthy. It will not only affect you and your partner, but also the health of your family. To compound the issue, you’ll be teaching your children to emulate this kind of behavior in their own relationships.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have a caretaking relationship with someone who is using you to evade responsibilities or personal change?
  • Is your relationship imbalanced by supportive behaviors like enabling your partner, accepting low-quality excuses, and overlooking breached agreements?
  • Have your attempts to help an addict resulted in them becoming dependent on you rather than on progressing in life?
  • If you’re a taker of codependent behavior, do you engage in these behaviors to avoid your responsibilities?

In order to treat codependency, it’s first necessary to identify the behaviors you want to change, and to understand the cost of codependency for you, your partner, and your families.

How Do Codependent People Behave?

What can you expect from a codependent person in terms of behavior, then?

Often, codependents have low self-esteem. They frequently look outside themselves to feel better about themselves. Common outlets include alcohol, drugs, and nicotine. Others common behaviors include gambling, sex, and workaholism.

Codependents usually have the very best intentions. They attempt to care for someone who’s undergoing difficulties, but that caretaking role soon becomes not only compulsive, but also self-defeating.

In many cases, codependents assume the role of a martyr. This could be a wife covering for an alcoholic husband, or a father using his influence to spare his child from the consequences of unruly behavior. Unfortunately, these rescue attempts simply enable the destructive behavior to continue unchecked. As the reliance continues increasing, so the codependent draws a sense of satisfaction and reward from being needed. While the codependent might feel helpless and without choices in the relationship, they are usually unable to break away from the vicious cycle of behavior fueling this codependence.

While initially believed to be a condition affecting the partners and children of substance abusers or alcoholics, many types of family problems can lead to codependency developing.

Having a codependent parent increases the risk of a child becoming codependent since it’s a learned behavior. Parentification refers to the reversal of parent/child roles with the child taking on more of a caretaking role. This typically occurs because the parent did not have their own developmental needs met as a child.

Unfortunately, the cycle of codependence can then easily continue down the generations.

How To Identify Signs Of Codependency

Rather than codependency occurring as an all-or-nothing phenomenon, instead symptoms manifest on a sliding scale of intensity and severity.

You’ll need to seek out a qualified healthcare professional to diagnose codependency.

Here is a simple questionnaire to give you an indication of whether you might need to explore potential codependency in your relationship further:

  1. Do you often stay silent to avoid arguments?
  2. Have you felt inadequate?
  3. Do you concern yourself with what others think of you?
  4. Are other people’s opinions more important to you than your own?
  5. Do you find it difficult asking for help?
  6. Have you previously lived with someone with a drug or alcohol problem?
  7. Do you feel you’re a bad person if you make a mistake?
  8. Can you comfortably express your feelings to others?
  9. Have you previously lived with someone who used physical violence or belittled you in any way?
  10. Do you question your ability to be the person you want to be?
  11. Are you confused about who you are and the direction you’re taking in life?
  12. Do you find adjusting to change difficult?
  13. Is it hard for you to accept gifts or compliments?
  14. Do you struggle talking to people in positions of authority?
  15. If your child makes a mistake, do you find this humiliating?
  16. Do you find yourself with so many things happening that you can’t devote proper attention to any of them?
  17. When your partner spends time with friends, does this make you feel rejected?
  18. Do you often wish someone could help you get things done?
  19. Do you imagine your loved ones would go steeply downhill without your continuous efforts to help them?
  20. If asked for help, do you find it hard to say no?

Do you identify with several of these above symptoms?

If so, and if you’re dissatisfied with your relationship or yourself, reach out for professional help. A physician or psychologist can give you a diagnostic evaluation to establish whether you’re codependent.

What comes next if you discover that you are codependent, then?

Treating Codependency

Given that codependency is typically rooted in childhood experiences, treatment usually involves exploring these childhood problems and the way they relate to the destructive patterns of behavior you’re seeking treatment for.

Educating yourself about codependency is a part of any successful treatment program. When trying to change any unhealthy behavior, you should always learn as much as possible about the issue. From libraries and bookstores to researching online or visiting drug and alcohol treatment centers for resources, there are plenty of ways to increase your knowledge of codependency to better fight back against it.

Experiential groups as well as group and individual therapy can also be effective for identifying patterns of self-defeating behavior.

During treatment, you can expect to identify and get in touch with feelings you may have buried during childhood.  You’ll also learn how to effectively recalibrate the dynamics of your family so it’s functional and healthy.

The overarching goal of treatment is to help you to experience and embrace your full range of emotions.

In order to successfully move away from codependency, you and your family need to be prepared for a great deal of change and growth. Given that a fear of change is one of the signs of codependency, this can be especially challenging.

It’s vital that all family members learn to recognize and stop any behaviors that allow or enable codependency to continue. At the same time, the codependent needs to start fully embracing their own feelings and their own needs. This could include saying no to requests for help or learning to become much more self-reliant.

If you have a codependent relationship with someone addicted to drink or drugs, it’s key that they seek the appropriate treatment for that issue. Failing to address the root cause of codependency means any treatment for codependency is essentially pointless. Instead, you should urge your loved one to get in touch with a treatment center so they can start a meaningful recovery and set a solid foundation for you to tackle the issue of codependency in your relationship. Call our friendly team here at Renaissance Recovery today at 866.330.9449 and we can help you on the first tentative steps to a lifelong recovery.866.330.9449



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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