Many dysfunctional families look healthy, but their internal dynamics revolve around denial or shame. Problems and crises are never discussed, such as a family member’s addiction, absence, or illness. Parents believe that if they act normal and pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it may disappear, and their children won’t notice it.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true. This pretense makes a child doubt their perceptions because authority figures don’t acknowledge what they see and feel. Denial portrays the idea that you can’t talk about something frightening or distressing. In turn, the child learns not to question or trust their parents, perceptions, feelings, or themselves—even as adults.
When people feel emotionally abandoned, they may repress their needs, observations, feelings, or thoughts. In doing so, they learn to distrust others, numb their hurt, and become self-sufficient in unhealthy ways. They may hide behind false personalities, disassociate, or develop compulsive behaviors for coping and acceptance.
What is Codependency?
Codependency is a compulsive behavior that sustains the pattern of toxic and unhealthy relationships. It is a dysfunctional helping relationship style rooted in generational trauma.
This behavioral and emotional condition affects a person’s ability to have healthy, mutually satisfying relationships. Those with codependency often create or sustain abusive, emotionally destructive, or one-sided relationships. Because of these unhealthy bonds, people also refer to codependency as “relationship addiction.”
Often passed down from family to family, codependency is a learned behavior. Researchers first identified it after decades of studying interpersonal relationships in families with alcohol addiction. We now understand that codependent behavior develops by watching and imitating others who display the behavior.
People often discuss codependency as a by-product of substance use disorder in family systems. While this is common, codependency can also stem from other dysfunctional family systems, such as trauma, illness, rigid control, and lack of empathy or acceptance. The strongest predictor of a child developing codependency is codependent parents.
Is Codependency a Mental Health Disorder?
Physicians initially used codependency to describe partners of those with substance use disorder. We now understand that while codependency can include addiction, its relationship dynamics are not limited to addiction.
Despite its prevalence in society, the DSM-5 does not recognize codependency as a mental health disorder. However, many mental health professionals argue that codependency should classify as a disorder.
Even though the DSM-5 does not list codependency as an “official” disorder, it does not mean the condition is “fake.” Codependency can significantly negatively affect a person’s life, creating the demand to be hyper-vigilant about meeting another person’s needs. This pattern creates a relationship that is destructive and dysfunctional for all involved.
Codependency is neither a mental illness nor an officially recognized personality disorder. Instead, it is a unique psychological construct that overlaps significantly with other personality disorders.
Are Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD) and Codependency the Same?
Codependency symptoms overlap significantly with dependent personality disorder (DPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD). While people with codependent personalities can exhibit traits from DPD and BPD, many do not show symptoms of either.
Codependency shares the most overlap with DPD, but the main distinction is the nature of the relationship. Codependent people display dependent traits focused on a specific person — those with DPD display dependent characteristics towards everyone.
Similarly, a person with BPD struggles with stability in interpersonal relationships. However, codependent individuals have an extreme dependence on certain loved ones. Unlike BPD, affected individuals with codependency feel responsible for the dependents’ actions and feelings.
How Does a Codependent Person act?
Codependency can feel isolating and shameful. Codependent individuals usually feel they do not fit in. They find it hard to be “themselves” and have trouble in romantic and platonic relationships.
Those with codependency often struggle with low self-esteem, perfectionism, control, and fears of abandonment. Due to coping difficulties, they may look for anything outside themselves to feel better. Many self-medicate through alcohol, drugs, or nicotine. Others develop compulsive behaviors like indiscriminate sexual activity, gambling, or workaholism.
Codependents often take on a victim role and become “benefactors” to those in need. While they have good intentions in attempting to care for those experiencing difficulty, the act becomes compulsive and defeating.
What’s a Codependent Relationship?
A codependent relationship is a dysfunctional dynamic where one partner assumes the role of “the giver,” sacrificing their needs and well-being for the sake of “the taker.” The relationship doesn’t have to be romantic. It can occur between parents, children, friends, and family members.
Codependency is circular. As reliance increases, the “giver” generates a sense of reward and fulfillment from being “needed” by the enabler (the taker). Over time, the giver feels worthless unless they are needed by or making sacrifices for “the taker.”
When the caretaking becomes compulsive, the codependent person feels choiceless and powerless in the relationship. Still, they cannot break away from the cycle of behavior that caused it.
Codependency does not refer to all caring behaviors, only those excessive to an unhealthy degree. It exists when the commitment to relationships with others outweighs a responsibility to self.
Is the Codependent Person the Taker or the Giver?
A codependent relationship requires a “giver” and a “taker” dependent on the other’s dysfunctional behavior. Psychologically, the giver needs the taker “to take,” and the taker needs the giver “to give.” Both parties in a codependent relationship need healing.
A codependent person may take on the role of the taker or the giver. When they are the taker, they have little regard for the sacrifices of the giver, and develop some sense of dependence on them. When they are the giver, they place their self-worth in being the primary caretaker of their partner, allowing them to continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors
The giver is often assumed to be selfless and generous. However, this assumption is a significant misunderstanding. The excessive caregiver is just as unhealthy as the one engaging in poor behavior. The giver will endlessly offer help, even at their own expense. They will incessantly self-sacrifice to meet the taker’s needs.
Most enabling behaviors aren’t intentional. Enablers often think they’re doing the right thing. They may not even realize the dynamic is unhealthy. Unfortunately, their actions (or inactions) allow the cycle of codependency to continue and possibly even worsen. Over time, the partners become frustrated, angry, or resentful.
What’s the Difference Between Codependent and Interdependent Relationships?
All relationships require some dependence. However, codependency and interdependency mean different things.
A codependent relationship occurs when one partner is dysfunctionally dependent on the other. An interdependent relationship occurs when the partnership is mutually beneficial. The roles are equal, and the support for the other is “give-and-take.”
Here are some distinctions between the two.
Both partners prioritize their relationship but pursue separate interests and hobbies
Both partners express their needs and desires concerning each other
Both partners find value, respect, and love in the relationship
The codependent partner has no interests or hobbies outside of the relationship
The codependent partner considers their own needs and desires as unimportant
The codependent partner only feels deserving when making sacrifices
Why is Codependency Unhealthy?
Being reliant on another person does not mean that you are codependent. In healthy relationships, each person can rely on the other for various needs, love, and support. Codependency is harmful because one person assumes the role of constant caregiver, creating an imbalance of met needs.
Everyone has loved ones they feel responsible for in some shape or form. However, codependency allows a person’s identity to be contingent upon someone else. In this way, the giver loses their sense of self because they’ve poured so much into the taker.
Another problem with codependent relationships is that the giver cannot remove themselves from the situation. Even if they know it is the right thing to do, they may refrain from ending a toxic relationship because the other person “depends” on them. Conversely, the taker may feel so reliant on their partner that they cannot leave.
What are the Signs of Codependency?
There are five patterns of codependency. To be “diagnosed” with codependency, a person does not need to experience them all. While some people experience many symptoms, others may exhibit only a handful of the patterns listed below.
Negativity or aggression expression in indirect and passive ways
Inability to recognize the unavailability of others to whom they are attracted
Minimize, alter, deny, or struggle to identify feelings
Pain masked in various ways, such as anger, humor, or isolation
The belief that you can take care of yourself without help from others
Low Self-Esteem Patterns:
Difficulty making decisions
Inability to identify or ask for what you need or want
Judging what you think, say, or do is never good enough
Self-perception as unlovable or unworthwhile
Seeking recognition and praise to overcome feeling “less than”
Trouble setting healthy priorities and boundaries
Compromise of values and integrity to avoid anger or rejection
Extreme loyalty, remaining in harmful situations for too long
Hypervigilance regarding the feelings of others
Put aside interests to do what others want
Taking on the feelings of others
Attempting to convince others what to think, do, or feel
A view that people are incapable of taking care of themselves
Must feel “needed” to have a relationship with others
Offering advice and direction without being asked
Use of sexual attention to gain approval and acceptance
A belief that displays of emotion are a sign of weakness
Addiction to people, places, or things distracts from achieving intimacy in relationships
Avoidance of emotional, physical, or sexual intimacy to maintain distance
Pulling people towards you but pushing them away when they get “too close”
Suppression of feelings or needs to avoid vulnerability
Is There a Link Between Codependency and Addiction?
Codependency and addiction often co-occur. Adults in codependent relationships often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. A child may develop codependency after witnessing one or both parents struggling with addiction.
In healthy situations, when someone struggles with drug or alcohol misuse, their loved ones play a vital role in seeking help and providing support through recovery. Unfortunately, codependent relationships have the opposite effect.
When a person with substance use disorder enters a relationship with another codependent person, it can make overcoming the addiction even more challenging. Codependents may have difficulty making it through their recovery process because they help and enable each other in unhealthy ways, furthering dependence and self-destruction.
How is Codependency Treated?
People find freedom, love, and stability in recovery from codependency. Hope lies in learning. Therefore, the first step in changing unhealthy patterns is understanding the behavior.
Individuals and their family members may seek treatment in the form of individual or group psychotherapy. Reaching out for information and assistance from an experienced mental health professional can help you live a healthier, more fulfilling life. The more you educate yourself on the effects of codependency, the better you can develop healthy coping skills.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people recognize and change unhealthy patterns and behaviors. Because codependency tends to be rooted in a person’s childhood, CBT often explores the relationship between current destructive behavioral patterns and early childhood issues.
This process helps codependent individuals rediscover themselves and identify self-defeating behavior patterns. It also allows patients to reconstruct family dynamics and get in touch with buried feelings.
Modification and growth are necessary for the codependent individual and their family. Any caretaking behavior that enables or allows abuse must be recognized and stopped. The codependent person must identify and embrace their needs and feelings. This process may include learning to say “no” in loving yet stern ways.
Finding the Right Kind of Help
It’s difficult but possible to see a situation clearly from the stage. However, a more transparent understanding often comes from a balcony view. Similarly, psychotherapy helps a patient view their situation from a different perspective.
We understand that being emotionally attached and overwhelmed can compromise the ability to find successful solutions. Our treatment helps people experience freedom from self-defeating patterns of the past while creating new, healthy behaviors for the future. At Inner Balance Counseling, all you need to do is reach out, show up, and feel better.
Click here to see the counseling services we offer and request a consultation.