People can develop an unhealthy dependence on a person the same way they can develop an unhealthy dependence on a substance. This is called a “codependent” relationship.
In healthy relationships, people find ways to be close while still maintaining some degree of individuality. But in codependent relationships, individuality is often seen as a threat.
Codependent people place so much emphasis on their relationships that they lose their sense of self. They form an unhealthy attachment to another person. And this causes them to neglect their own needs and wants.
Often, codependent people seek relationships with other people who have addictions as well. They usually then assume responsibility for that person’s problems, feelings and needs.
Codependency and addiction are closely linked. The term “codependent” was first used to describe enablers often found in close relationships to people addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Enablers protect a person with an addiction from experiencing the consequences of their addiction. This, in turn, enables the person with an addiction to keep using.
What is Codependency?
Some researchers describe codependency as a kind of relationship addiction. This is because a codependent person will stay in a relationship even after it has become unhealthy, destructive and toxic.
Their relationship becomes so central that it consumes most of their time, energy and attention.
Codependent people rely on being needed, loved and appreciated by the other person. The relationship gives them emotional stability, security, self-worth, and a sense of identity.
Some of the common patterns found in codependent relationships include (1, 2, 3):
- Extreme preoccupation with one person or relationship: codependent people often stay in toxic relationships for fear of being alone. After a breakup, a codependent person will often find another relationship fast and develop the same patterns.
- Emotional stability and self-esteem are conditional on the other person: codependent people depend on their relationships for their emotional stability and self-esteem. They are often not “ok” unless their relationship is going well and their partner is happy. When there is conflict in the relationship, a codependent person may become emotionally unstable, jealous, or begin acting erratically.
- An inability to spend time apart: Codependent people feel threatened when their partner wants to spend time alone or with others. They will often become controlling, manipulative or use guilt to coerce their partner to only spend time with them. They may feel threatened when their partner thinks or feels in a way that is different from their own. Often, they believe that any degree of separateness means the relationship is ending.
- Extreme ups and downs: Codependent relationships are often emotional. They will alternate between extremes of suffocating closeness and intense conflict. Codependent relationships may be “amazing” one moment and “terrible” the next ad nauseam. A codependent person will adore their partner when things are going well. But in times when things are not going well, they often go to the other extreme.
- Lacking identity or individuality: Codependent people have trouble identifying who they are, what they want or how they feel outside of their relationship. Because their primary focus is on their partner, they often describe feeling lost without them. When in a new relationship, a codependent person will often change their personality to adapt to the other person.
- Controlling patterns: Codependent people will often exhibit controlling tendencies. They will need to know where their partner is, who they are with, and what they are doing at all times. They might take primary control of their partner’s responsibilities, making it their job to “manage” most aspects of the other person’s life.
- Self-sacrifice and martyring: Codependent people often ignore or neglect their own wants and needs. This extreme self-sacrifice can be used to provoke validation, approval or guilt from the other person. Codependent people may become resentful or bitter towards their partner if they feel their sacrifices are unappreciated, unnoticed or taken for granted.
- Fear of abandonment and being alone: Codependency comes from a deep fear of abandonment and loneliness. These fears tend to surface in times when there is conflict or separation in the relationship.
How Codependency is Formed
Codependent patterns often develop in childhood. When children in dysfunctional homes take on the roles and responsibilities of a caregiver, a pattern forms (3).
Being “needed” by their parents provided them with a sense of security, identity and self-worth. As adults, they continue to attract people who have issues or problems. This allows them to recreate the same dynamic.
People with the following risk factors may be at higher risk of codependency (2, 3):
- A history of childhood trauma, abuse, neglect or family dysfunction
- Existing problems with stress, depression or anxiety
- A parent/caregiver who had a mental illness or addiction
- A parent/caregiver who displayed codependent tendencies
- Higher levels of neuroticism (tendency to experience negative emotions)
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Low self-esteem, shame, and self-consciousness
- Insecure attachment styles (a fear of abandonment)
- Difficulty expressing emotions in a healthy way
- People-pleasing or perfectionist tendencies
It is possible for people to overcome codependency and develop healthier relationships. But this usually requires a lot of time, effort, and sometimes the help of a professional counselor.
To have healthy relationships, codependent people need to address the underlying issues. These usually include childhood trauma, low self-esteem, insecurities and intense fears of abandonment.
One of the most important and challenging aspects of overcoming codependency is the need to develop a healthier sense of identity and self-worth. People who are codependent need to learn to like and accept themselves as they are, and to be “ok” even when they are not in a relationship. Often, this involves building new routines that center around their own goals, priorities, wants and needs.
Some of the things that codependent people can do to form healthier relationships include:
- Being separate from their partner, doing things on their own and spending time alone
- Learning to take space and give their partner space after a conflict to cool down
- Learning to say no and set boundaries with others
- Expressing feelings, opinions, and needs, even when they conflict with someone elses
- Developing other relationships with people besides their partner
- Learning to regulate their emotions during times when they are upset, scared or angry
- Holding their partner accountable for their own responsibilities and actions
- Knowing when to end a relationship that has become unhealthy or toxic
- Learning to validate themselves and find self-worth internally
How to Get Help for Codependency
Codependency is not a diagnosable condition, but is generally understood by most therapists. Therapists who specialize in relationships, couples counseling or addiction are familiar with it.
Treatments used in treating other unhealthy relationship patterns are also helpful with codependency. These include individual counseling and group counseling. Couples or family counseling are very important as well.
In many instances, the cost of counseling is covered by a person’s insurance. EAP benefits offered through an employer might cover the costs as well.
Codependents Anonymous, Al-anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics are also helpful resources for overcoming codependency. These 12 step groups are offered in most communities in the US and are free of charge.
These groups provide a safe space for people struggling with unhealthy relationships. Members can get helpful information and get support as they develop healthier boundaries.
Addicts in codependent relationships must also seek treatment for their addiction.
Many options for addiction treatment exist. Two of the main ones are inpatient rehab and outpatient programs.
People interested in learning more about codependency and overcoming codependent patterns can find more information in the following links:
- Boundaries: a book to help people learn to set and maintain healthy boundaries
- Codependent No More: a best-selling book written to help people overcome codependency
- The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Love: a TED talk explaining the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships
- Bacon, I., McKay, E., Reynolds, F., & McIntyre, A. (2020). The lived experience of codependency: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 18(3), 754-771.
- Dear, G. E., Roberts, C. M., & Lange, L. (2005). Defining codependency: A thematic analysis of published definitions.
- Fuller, J. A., & Warner, R. M. (2000). Family stressors as predictors of codependency. Genetic Social and General Psychology Monographs, 126(1), 5-24.