It’s normal and healthy to depend on those around us. But when natural dependency turns into codependency, we can begin to lose ourselves in unhealthy and unsatisfying relationships.
Codependency is a term used to describe an unhealthy relationship dynamic where a person relies too much on someone else, generally stemming from a desire to feel wanted or needed.
Here, we’ll explore what codependency is, what can cause it, and offer tips to help you overcome it.
What is codependency?
Codependency is a behavioural style that interferes with a person’s ability to develop healthy, mutually satisfying relationships. The term refers to patterns within a relationship where one person’s life revolves around someone else’s wants and needs – with this person willingly enabling it. Codependent people might consider themselves to be someone else’s helper, carer, or emotional rock; but the dynamic generally means that someone else takes centre stage in your own life.
The concept was originally used by 20th century psychologists to describe the wives of alcoholic men who’d go to extreme lengths to protect their husbands from alcohol use – for example, purchasing alcohol to avoid him driving under the influence, or calling in sick on his behalf when he’s actually hungover. The idea behind the theory of codependency was that the wife enabled the addiction in order to keep her husband dependent on her, in the same way she depended on him to feel needed.
However, the concept of codependency has since expanded and today is understood to occur in a range of circumstances beyond just romantic relationships, or where one person has an addiction. For example, it can occur between family members and friends too.
It’s easy to confuse codependency with people-pleasing, but while they have many similar traits – for example, a desire to help and finding it difficult to set boundaries – codependency is more extreme. Being codependent means that the person on the other end of the relationship is also dependent on you for getting their needs met.
Codependency isn’t formally categorised as a personality disorder. Instead, it’s usually the result of a mix between personality and the attachment styles we develop in childhood.
What can cause codependent behaviour?
There’s no single cause of codependency, however, research suggests that there are a few common factors that typically play a role.
Codependency usually stems from childhood experience and the relationships we had with our parents (or primary caretakers). As such, codependency is generally recognised as a learned behaviour, because science shows that children subconsciously repeat the behaviours displayed by the adults around them. Actions of both over and under protective parents can result in codependent traits.
For example, overprotective parents that hold their children back from building confidence by never letting them fend for themselves or who’re overly critical; and underprotective parents where children lack a safe and secure base, and experience emotional neglect. Similarly, growing up with an alcoholic parent can lead people into codependent relationships later in life because the pattern of neglecting their own needs is so familiar.
Though, of course, parenting techniques aren’t always the cause. Trauma and abuse at any stage in life can also lead to codependent behaviour. For example, some people will learn to repress their feelings as a defence mechanism against the pain of abuse, while others may continually seek out abusive relationships because it’s the only relationship dynamic they’re familiar with.
What are the common characteristics and signs of codependency?
Because codependent relationships involve an imbalance of power, codependent people often display a range of characteristics that are centered around pleasing another person.
These traits will be different for everybody, but some of the most common signs of codependency include…
Finding it difficult to accept or adjust to change
Codependents can find change incredibly difficult to deal with, often because they fear they’ll lose control or that it might alter the dynamic of their relationship. This can feel particularly scary because they’re so dependent on the other person that they simply can’t see their life any other way.
Therefore, any change big or small can often cause codependent people to experience high levels of stress and anxiety.
Neglecting personal needs
Many codependent people will sacrifice their own needs in order to care for others. They may find it difficult to separate their own feelings and desires from that of the other person. If and when they do take some time for themselves, they’ll often feel guilty for it.
Struggling to make decisions
Because codependent people have a tendency to sacrifice their own needs to meet others’, it’s not unusual for them to feel out of touch with their own emotions and beliefs, so making decisions can feel difficult.
In addition, they may fear any consequences of making the ‘wrong’ decision and upsetting the other person.
In order to keep their relationships on track, codependents will often do whatever they can to avoid conflict. This can mean accepting another person’s behaviour or agreeing with everyone else to avoid upsetting anyone.
By avoiding conflict at all costs due to the fear of damaging their relationships, it’s not unusual for codependent people to end up feeling resentful.
This can begin to manifest in passive-aggressive behaviours such as sarcasm, silence, or irritability. Resentment can be particularly heightened if the codependent person doesn’t feel appreciated.
Feeling overly-responsible for other people’s needs
Codependency can often lead people to feel responsible for lifting other people up and fixing their problems.
In fact, research shows that codependents are prone to seeking out partners or friends who actively unload their problems onto others and don’t take responsibility for their actions. This is largely down to their desire to feel needed.
Having issues with trust
As a result of their upbringing, codependents often experience issues with trust. This can manifest in both a lack or trust, or trusting too easily, depending on previous experience.
For example, those with overprotective parents are more likely to have issues with trusting too easily, and vice versa.
Offering unsolicited advice
Another way that codependent people feed their desire to feel wanted and needed is to offer advice to try and help or fix people, even when it’s not asked for or needed.
If their advice is negatively received, codependents may feel upset or insulted.
Fearing rejection and abandonment
Because their identity feels so closely connected and intertwined with another person, codependents may associate their self-worth with how they’re viewed and treated; sometimes only like themselves when they feel liked back.
This can make rejection and abandonment very frightening as they may feel that losing the other person means losing themselves too.
Being a people-pleaser
A lot of codependents will display people-pleasing behaviours, such as naturally taking the blame and agreeing to do things they don’t want to, in order to do all they can to keep the other person happy and dependent on them to prevent their fear of it ending or of being abandoned from coming true.
Making excuses for others’ bad behaviour
In many circumstances co-dependent people may find themselves excusing another person’s bad behaviour or denying it exists. In some circumstances, they may even take the blame themselves in order to defend them.
For example, in an abusive romantic relationship where one partner gives silent treatment, the other may excuse their behaviour because they didn’t have dinner ready on time – therefore blaming themselves.
Having a broad sense of anxiety, depression, or helplessness
Because codependency often means that personal needs take a back seat, research has found that the trait often occurs alongside mental health issues.
For example, this study found that people with codependent behaviours also had higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, lower self-esteem, and difficulty expressing emotions.
What does a co-dependent relationship look like?
Some common examples of what codependent relationships can look like include…
In a romantic relationship…
- Investing a lot of time and energy caring for a partner with a alcohol or substance abuse problem.
- Making excuses for your partner’s bad behaviour.
- Neglecting your own needs, including work, self-care, and other relationships, for your partner.
- Not allowing your partner to take responsibility for their own decisions.
- Enabling your partner’s unhealthy or destructive habits.
In family relationships…
- Doing everything for an adult child who should be independent.
- Finding your sense of purpose through financially supporting an adult child.
- Neglecting other responsibilities and relationships to care for a parent.
- Never addressing or talking about problems in family relationships.
4 tips for coping with and breaking away from codependency
By practising various techniques, the good news is that a lot of people are able to overcome codependency on their own.
Some steps that you can take to help you overcome codependency include…
1. Learning what a healthy relationship looks like
In order to break away from codependent behaviours, it’s important to understand what a healthy, balanced relationship looks like.
Signs of a healthy relationship include open communication, showing affection, making time for each other, maintaining independence, and being equals, which you can read more about here.
2. Setting healthy boundaries
Healthy relationships involve being supportive of one another without continually sacrificing your needs. So, taking some time to establish personal boundaries about what you will and won’t accept in a relationship can be useful.
For example, you could work on listening to the other person without allowing their problems to consume your life, or practise saying ‘no’ to requests that overstep your boundaries. Our article, The power of saying no – 8 ways to say no and why it’s important, should offer more help and insight on this.
3. Taking care of yourself
4. If needed, taking a break from the codependent relationship
Sometimes, making positive changes means distancing ourselves from the environments that allow our unhealthy behaviours to thrive. And when it comes to codependency, this can mean stepping away, either temporarily or permanently, from the relationship that you’re codependent in.
Naturally, this can be very difficult, so don’t worry if you need to take small steps to get there. For more help, Clearview Treatment has some useful tips on how to break away from your codependent relationship.
I’m still struggling - can codependency be treated professionally?
If codependency is impacting your life and you’re struggling to create any positive changes, you might want to consider speaking with your doctor or referring yourself to an NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT) directly.
While codependency can feel difficult to reverse, research has shown that methods such as talking and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can be effective in teaching people how to break away from codependency and improve their quality of life. Support options will be different for everyone but will typically focus on reversing irrational thoughts and getting to the root cause of a person’s codependent tendencies.
In the meantime, you might like to visit CoDependents Anonymous (CoDA), which is a fellowship of people learning how to develop healthy relationships. CoDA offers various resources exploring the nature of codependency, as well as ideas and tools to help people overcome it. You can also use the search tool on their website to find online and in-person support groups near you.
Codependency can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. But with a little practise, patience, and support, you can learn to overcome codependency and move towards developing healthy, balanced, and loving relationships. Just remember to take it at your own pace, one step at a time.