What is Codependency?

codependency partners wearing one red scarf together

You’re probably familiar with the term ‘codependency’. Like many labels of this nature, it’s often bandied about and liberally applied by armchair psychologists around the world. This may have something to do with the fact that ‘codependency’ isn’t technically a clinical diagnosis nor a formally categorized personality disorder. 

As it tends to encompass a wide range of overlapping mental health issues, addictions, and attachment styles, codependency eludes easy definition. In point of fact, psychiatrist Timmen Cermak proved unsuccessful in his attempt to get codependency included as a distinct personality disorder in the DSM-III-R. Moreover, this 2018 paper, The Lived Experience of Codependency: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, begins as follows:

“Codependency is a complex and debatable concept, which has been used over the years by mental health professionals to inform their practices. Researchers have attempted to identify the main problems associated with codependency; however, their evidence is still inconclusive.”    

After decades of research, the term remains as slippery as ever. That being said, anyone who’s witnessed or been in a codependent relationship will understand just how challenging, paralyzing, and palpably real it can be. 

The meaning of codependency

Essentially, codependency refers to when partners in a relationship become psychologically, emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually dependent on one another. This can apply to one or both partners but isn’t just limited to romantic partners, as friends and family can also develop dependency issues. In most cases, this kind of reliance is typical in relationships where one partner has a substance abuse problem. 

The dynamic usually comprises a ‘giver’ and a ‘taker’. Its foundation is an imbalance of power that serves the taker’s interests, one where the giver is forced to keep giving, often at their own expense. 

Those with codependency tend to hold onto past relationships, spending excessive amounts of time trying to fix them or regain what they had before the relationship ended. Moreover, dependent people tend to rely on external validation from their partner rather than trusting their own judgment and struggle to set healthy boundaries. 

It’s important to clarify that codependency can be misapplied, erroneously pathologizing healthy human behaviors such as loving and caring. Therefore, it’s advised to be cautious before identifying it within a relationship. 

The history of codependency

The concept of codependency was first used by professionals working in the field of substance abuse. While the word itself can be traced back to the 1800s, the modern conception of ‘codependency’ was first coined in the early 1980s.

Around this time, several drug treatment programs began using the phrase ‘chemical dependency’ to better represent the parallels between alcoholism (alcohol addiction) and other drug addictions. Co-alcoholism was renamed ‘co-chemical dependence’ to reflect the shift. However, being something of a mouthful, it was eventually reduced to ‘co-dependence’.

Though it has since grown to encompass much more, in its inception, the word codependency indicated a person’s compulsive tendency to be in relationships with chemically dependent partners. 

What are the causes of codependency?

happy male couple cooking in the kitchen

While there are innumerable manifestations of codependency, fundamentally, it arises as a result of poor boundaries and a lack of self-worth. Common causes can include the experience of growing up in an environment with enabling or neglectful parents, unresolved childhood trauma, and stressful life experiences that lead to unaddressed issues such as low self-esteem. 

Ultimately, three central interrelated factors can contribute to codependency. These are social, biological, and psychological.

Social 

Codependency can develop in relationships due to societal expectations for certain roles within gender dynamics or power imbalances inside marriages and partnerships. Despite the varying forms it takes, understanding the social component is necessary for both breaking old patterns and preventing new ones from forming.

Biological 

In the past, codependency was often viewed as a purely emotional and behavioral trait, but recent research has shown that it has a significant biological foundation. Studies have demonstrated that individuals with codependency exhibit altered production or response to certain hormones like oxytocin, norepinephrine, vasopressin, and cortisol—all of which play a role in our physiological response to stress, attachment to others, protection of self-interests, loyalty to family members and friends, responsiveness to intimate partners, and ability to form secure relationships. 

Psychological 

Codependents may be psychologically wired to prioritize the needs of those around them. Personal tragedy, including witnessing or experiencing parental conflict, neglect, or emotional abuse, may lead a person to adopt a ‘giving’ role at the expense of their own needs.

How do you recognize codependency? 

sad depressed woman fight with husband

Some people can become so entrenched in a codependent relationship, they often don’t even realize they’re in one. This has nothing to do with intelligence in the conventional sense, for without specific knowledge and tools, liberation can feel insurmountable. 

However, there is hope — and it starts with recognizing the signs. 

Those struggling with codependency must delve into both its origin and patterns so that they can understand their behavior and learn how to modify it. As family therapist Darlene Lancer says:

“When it comes to addiction and codependency, denial isn’t healthy; in fact, it can be dangerous. By not facing the problem, you deprive yourself of learning constructive measures that can improve and potentially save your life and those of others.”

If any of the signs below ring true for you, it may be an indication you’re in a codependent relationship. 

  • Attempting to cure the problems of problematic, addicted, or under-functioning persons when it’s beyond your means.
  • A need to keep the other person updated and/or seek approval before completing routine chores/tasks.
  • Showing compassion for the other person even when they have wronged you.
  • Making a conscious effort to avoid upsetting the other person (‘walking on eggshells’).
  • Having to be the one to say sorry, even if you haven’t done anything wrong.
  • Putting yourself out there for the other person even if it’s not comfortable for you to do so.
  • Feeling like you’ve lost your identity because of the relationship.
  • Elevating the other person to a level of importance they don’t deserve.
  • An insistence that you need the approval of others to feel good about yourself.
  • Finding it difficult to create space for yourself, particularly if your time is routinely sacrificed for the other person.

Overcoming codependency

man and woman counseling together

Many people who feel trapped in codependent relationships don’t take action until their lives are coming undone. The advice of experts is to be proactive — and it all begins with awareness. 

Once you recognize the signs, you’ve taken your first step toward healing. Next comes mindfulness, self-care, and seeking support. 

Below is some advice to help you on your journey:

  • Start with baby steps to establish some space in your relationship. 
  • Seek out new acquaintances and hobbies outside of the partnership. 
  • Strengthen yourself from the inside out by working on your self-esteem.
  • Find out what characteristics define you and build on those.
  • When you find your mind wandering to other people, consciously bring it back to yourself. 
  • If you don’t want to do something, don’t feel bad about telling the person asking if you don’t have to.
  • Stand up for yourself when subjected to criticism, undermining, or attempts to exert control. 
  • Be patient with yourself as it will take some time to make changes and feel comfortable with them.
  • If individual therapy doesn’t sound appealing, consider joining a support group or trying out group psychotherapy.

There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Properly tending to the needs of one, whether platonic, romantic, or familial, is among the greatest challenges of being human. Ultimately, the difficulties we face in relationships can be boiled down to the simple fact of individuality. 

Each person has their own quirks, needs, and psychology borne from a unique series of circumstances. Fostering a healthy relationship requires that each person’s individual needs and independence are respected, but not to the point where it negatively impacts the partnership. 

When addiction raises its head, codependency isn’t far behind. Without taking action or seeking support, relationships can suffer.

Liberating yourself from a codependent partnership can be incredibly difficult, especially when love is involved. However, your needs must be prioritized and, in many cases, creating space, and distance is the healthiest course of action.

We understand the vital importance of healthy relationships in overcoming addiction, and we offer comprehensive family support that can help those who may be dealing with the negative effects of codependency. 

Our passionate team has decades of experience helping people tackle this issue, as well as substance abuse. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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