What is codependency and what are its symptoms?

A codependent relationship is dysfunctional in that a person’s self-esteem and happiness are completely tied up in their partner’s wellbeing instead of their own. Codependency involves unhealthy helping and even enabling behaviors, a lack of inner boundaries, and a need to feel needed.1 While codependency most frequently applies to romantic relationships, such as spouses or partners, virtually any relationship can be affected by codependency.

Codependency and Addiction

Codependency often goes hand in hand with addiction, as spouses or partners of someone battling addiction may regularly enable them to continue problematic drinking or drug-using behaviors, making excuses for them and helping them to cover it up. A codependent spouse often enables the user by making excuses for them, cleaning up their messes, and taking care of them when they are intoxicated or sobering up.1

Someone who suffers from codependency needs to be needed and goes out of their way to help their partner or loved one regardless of any personal consequences. This is, of course, unhealthy and does not serve either person in the relationship as it allows the same mistakes and unhealthy behaviors to be perpetuated and ignored.

A codependent person may appear selfless and strong; however, these types of relationships are highly dysfunctional and unhealthy. Codependent relationships and maladaptive behaviors are unlikely to improve on their own. In fact, they will likely get worse over time, Psych Central warns.2 With treatment that targets these behaviors along with other mental health problems, codependency is reversible, and relationships may be salvageable.

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What Does Codependency Feel Like?

Someone suffering from codependency will not be able to self-soothe and will rely on their partner in order to meet their own emotional needs.3 Codependence can cause an irrational fear of rejection and being alone. Codependence can be one-sided, or both partners may suffer from it.

In a codependent relationship, individuals put the other person’s needs before their own, often sacrificing their own integrity and sense of self in the process. Codependency can cause a person to have an overinflated belief that they alone are responsible for affecting the beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of those around them, Psych Central publishes.4

A codependent relationship allows the parties involved to avoid their fears and problems, serving to promote bad behavior and maladaptive patterns instead of improve upon and learn from them, Psychology Today reports.5

What Creates Codependency?

Although a number of predictors have been proposed for codependency, there is no consensus on the exact causes of the behavioral pattern. Research suggests that the following factors may have a role in developing codependent tendencies:6

  • Codependency is often thought to be a result of living with alcoholic parents or other family members who struggle with substance abuse.
  • Codependency may begin in childhood, as children often grow up modeling behaviors after a parent who may have been codependent or in a codependent relationship.7
  • Codependency may also be the result of a traumatic event, whether in childhood or adulthood.
  • A complex relationship between codependency and narcissism has been established, indicating that the two often go hand in hand, and even sometimes overlap.8

While childhood abuse, traumatic experiences, and exposure to narcissistic behaviors of parents and/or partners seem to play a role, it is difficult to predict codependency on the basis of any of these factors alone.

Signs and Symptoms of Codependency

Generally speaking, there are two main forms of codependence: passive and active.9 Someone who is passively codependent is more likely to avoid conflict and confrontation, going to great lengths to keep things smooth and not rock the boat. Active codependency is often more manipulative, and an individual may try to push their partner into behaving a certain way in order to fill their own emotional needs.

Both forms of codependence have many things in common, however. Some common signs of codependency include:2

  • Putting the feelings of others above oneself: Someone who suffers from codependence will often sacrifice their own feelings and wellbeing in order to make their partner happy.
  • Self-worth dependent on validation from others: Self-esteem is closely tied to others’ perceptions and approval.
  • Constrained ability to assert oneself: With codependence, a person will rarely stand up for themselves, and if they do, it is often followed by intense bouts of guilt.
  • Ability to set and stick to boundaries is highly restricted: A person will likely allow others to “walk all over them” and be unable to deny demands made upon them.
  • Fear of rejection, abandonment, and isolation: The fear of being alone can be so intense that many behaviors are molded around this. A person may go to extreme lengths to hold on to relationships.
  • Accepting blame where it doesn’t belong: Codependency can cause a person to take the fall for things they are not actually at fault for. Making excuses for a partner’s addiction or resulting behaviors is an example of this.
  • Trouble making decisions without others: A person may be so wrapped up in their partner’s needs and wants that they are unable to assert their own.
  • Emotions that are closely tied to the partner: Codependent relationships often act as mirrors, as one partner’s emotions may dictate the other partner’s emotions. If one partner is having a bad day, for instance, so might the other partner.
  • Overlooked personal values: Individuals often let their own integrity and values take a backseat to their partner in a codependent relationship.
  • Loyal to a fault: Codependency can cause a person to go to extremes to protect a relationship no matter what occurs or the personal cost that may come from it.
  • Extreme reactivity: Poor inner boundaries cause someone suffering from codependency to absorb the actions and emotions of those around them, reacting to their feelings and thoughts easily and often becoming defensive or threatened.
  • The need to please: Individuals in codependent relationships are often people-pleasers; they work hard to be accepted and have others like them.
  • Need for control: Codependency breeds a strong need to control one’s environment and people around them.
  • Difficulties sharing emotions and communicating: Individuals battling codependency may not even recognize their own thoughts or feelings; thus, they often have trouble expressing them. Even if they do know how they truly feel, they are reluctant to own up to it for fear of how it might affect others.
  • Difficulties with intimacy: Sex may be used as a tool for acceptance, but real emotional intimacy is often lacking in a codependent relationship.
  • Efforts to be the one others depend on: Codependency can cause a person to feel the overwhelming need to be the caretaker and thus become indispensable to those around them.

How to Stop Being Codependent?

It is important for both partners to see a therapist and undergo treatment when codependency is involved. One spouse may battle addiction and the other codependency, for example, and both will need to work through the negative and destructive emotions and patterns of behavior that are attached to each issue.

Spouses, or partners, will need to learn how not to enable a loved one who suffers from addiction. Families and spouses are encouraged to attend some form of treatment and therapy that offers help for codependency with a loved one who is battling addiction while they are also in a treatment program.10

Codependency can hamper addiction treatment and recovery if it isn’t addressed and managed at the same time as the addiction issue. Addiction treatment programs often offer support and educational programs for families and loved ones of those in treatment to help them better understand the disease of addiction and their own role in recovery going forward.11 With therapeutic intervention, a codependent relationship may be improved, and both partners may be able to recognize the dysfunctions within the relationship and move forward in a healthier manner.

Not all codependent relationships may be saved, however, as both members need to invest in change and commit to getting necessary help. Abuse often accompanies codependence, and this cannot be tolerated. Both partners in a codependent relationship will need to commit to change and work together toward recovery in order for the relationship to be salvaged.