What is Codependency?

Published On: June 14, 2022

Codependency is the ‘excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction’. [1] The word was originally used at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), to describe the partners of the alcohol addiction sufferer. The partners, although not alcoholics themselves, were addicted to the alcohol abusers.

People in relationships that involve codependency often find themselves in a controlling pattern of psychological reliance on someone with a condition. [2] [3] This is a psychological diagnosis, characterised by an attachment that manifests emotionally, physically, or spiritually. A codependent relationship can exist between lovers, family, or friends.

What Causes Codependency?

Research has shown that codependency is often caused by a lack of self-confidence, poor boundaries and poor sense of self. This is accompanied by an inability to say ‘no’ to people, often with the idea of people-pleasing.

There are three elements that can contribute to a codependent relationship, biology, psychology, and society. For someone who is codependent, their prefrontal cortex may be failing to suppress empathic responses. This leads to an excess of empathy, causing weak personal boundaries and being overly sensitive to others’ emotions.

It is common for people who are codependent to be psychologically predisposed to care for others. This usually happens when the person has grown up around abuse or neglect. Codependency may also be the result of a shift in societal views, whether that be the role of women in the household or the exposure to substance abuse.

Basing our existence, character, and behaviour on other people means that our identity hinges on others. This is unhealthy; relationships with others are as important as the relationship we have with ourselves.

It is not uncommon for there to be a vivid ‘giver’ and a ‘receiver’ in a codependent relationship, coined as a ‘relationship addiction’. These relationships become emotionally abusive and often one-sided. ‘Givers’ lose their true identity by focusing on making the ‘receiver’ happy, meaning the ‘receiver’ becomes narcissistic and accustomed to this dynamic.

Signs of Codependency

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There are five elements that form a codependent relationship:

  1. Denial
  2. Low self-esteem
  3. Compliance
  4. Control
  5. Avoidance

Codependents often find it challenging to identify how they truly feel, minimising or changing their emotions to fit with the relationship. They dedicate their time and emotions to making sure others are doing well, ignoring their own issues or thinking they don’t need help.

Codependents have low self-esteem. They often seek recognition or praise for doing certain things, hoping for validation from others. They are unable to ask for what they want and find it difficult to set boundaries.

Codependents are loyal to the point that they will stay in toxic environments and harmful relationships for too long. This compromises their own personal values in order to avoid rejection and hurt.

Putting aside your own interests and wants in order to satisfy the needs of others means disregarding yourself. You cannot develop as a person if you seek the approval of others and are afraid to express your beliefs and opinions.

It is not uncommon for a codependent person to use sex as a way to gain attention and approval when it is love and affection that they are after. The same works for gifts and favours; codependents will offer things to those they want to influence or impress.

Codependency is an imbalance. In a relationship, one person needs the other (giver) and the other wants to be needed (receiver).

You might be the ‘giver’ if you experience some of the following symptoms of codependency:

  • Feeling like you are always on edge or walking on eggshells around the other person
  • Avoiding conflict with the other person no matter how much they hurt or upset you
  • Constantly checking in and asking if the other person is okay
  • Always apologising for everything
  • Trying to change or rescue someone that is going through a hard time (e.g., addiction)
  • Doing anything that the other person wants even if you don’t want to
  • Putting the other person on a pedestal
  • Feeling that other people’s happiness makes you happy

This is not a sign of healthy relationships, but a sign of an uneven relationship dynamic. Dysfunctional relationships that exhibit codependent behaviours do not have healthy boundaries, turning into destructive relationships.

Dependent Personality Disorder

Family in field

Dependent personality disorder is an anxious personality disorder. This mental health condition causes someone to be dependent on someone else for both physical and emotional requirements. [4]

Those with a dependant personality disorder often:

  • Struggle to make decisions
  • Feel helpless and lost when alone
  • Feel unable to take care of themselves
  • Feel the overwhelming need for someone else to take care of themselves
  • Seen as needy or clingy by others
  • Exhibit submissive behaviour rather than seeming self-sufficient or independent
  • Have a fear of abandonment
  • Feel incapable of handling responsibility
  • Feel sensitive to criticism
  • Unable to disagree with others

These symptoms begin in young adults, and the causes are unknown. However, research has shown causes that may contribute to dependent personality disorder:

  • Abusive past relationships
  • Childhood trauma or negative experiences
  • Genetics
  • Culture and society

Addiction and Codependency

Symptoms of addiction

It is common for codependency to occur in relationships where there is drug or alcohol abuse. Codependent relationships between the addiction sufferer and enabler allow for addiction to grow. This happens because the addict goes consequence free whilst the enabler constantly reassures them and comes to their aid.

By providing comfort and love at their lowest points, addicts then cannot understand the gravity of the situation at hand. A lack of accountability means that the addict does not know when they are doing something wrong, allowing for no real improvement in the situation.

Many people enable addiction sufferers because they don’t want to lose them to alcohol or drugs, and they want to try and remain in control of the situation. Addiction and codependency have a two-way relationship. Addiction can lead to codependency, and codependency can lead to addiction.

Relationships can trigger addiction and other addictive behaviours. People with codependency can also seek out other people with alcohol or drug issues.

It may seem positive to support someone with addiction, but it is the opposite. Enabling through codependency leads to engaging in unhealthy behaviours that allow alcoholism and drug addiction to progress.

Fuelled by fear, enablers want to make the addiction sufferer happy and content. In doing so, this worsens all existing issues.

Codependent addictive relationships are often marked by:

  • Making excuses for damaging or inappropriate behaviour, such as getting drunk in the morning or at an important occasion.
  • Take on the responsibility for their behaviour, or say that you caused their behaviour
  • Avoid conflict by ignoring the behaviour
  • Accept and don’t discourage addictive behaviour

How to Stop Being Codependent

Woman support

Codependency is a form of relationship addiction. This inhibits people’s ability to develop themselves naturally in a healthy manner. Some people find it easy to overcome codependency on their own once they are made aware of it, but overcoming denial is the first hurdle.

Similar to addiction, it is difficult for people to see or believe what is happening.

However, sometimes the harm caused during codependency is so hurtful that it will open your eyes to your situation. Learning about why and how codependency occurs can help you change your behaviour that has now become a habitual routine.

Here are some simple steps you can take to overcome a codependent relationship:

  • Try and understand what a healthy relationship looks like. Talk to friends and do some research to help break you out of the negative cycle. Common signs of a healthy relationship are making time for each other whilst looking after yourself, independence, honesty, affection, and equality in the relationship.
  • Try and set new boundaries. The boundaries that you have do not currently give you the time and space you need to grow as an independent person. Whilst you should be supporting one another, it is important that you maintain boundaries and respect each other’s space. Boundaries establish what is acceptable and not acceptable in your relationship, so you will have to learn what you are willing to do or accept. This involves declining requests from other people, setting limits, and learning your physical and emotional needs.
  • Those in codependent relationships suffer from low confidence and self-esteem. Relying on others all the time for your own happiness is not healthy. In order to change this, you have to put yourself first sometimes. Taking care of yourself and your needs starts by understanding your value and the things that make you truly happy. This involves dedicating time to things you love, even if they are not loved by other people.
  • Severe codependency may require medical help and professional treatment. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help with regard to relationships, they are difficult to navigate.

There are different types of therapy that may be useful to you:

  1. Talking therapy
  2. Group therapy
  3. Family therapy
  4. Couples therapy
  5. Cognitive behavioural therapy


[1] https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/

[2] American Psychological Association. Codependency.

[3] Salonia G, Mahajan R, Mahajan NS. Codependency and coping strategies in the spouses of substance abusers. Scholars J App Med Sci. 2021;9(7):1130-1138. doi:10.36347/sjams.2021.v09i07.002

[4] National Library of Medicine. Personality disorders. Medline Plus.

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