What Is Codependency?

Recognizing the Signs

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What Is Codependency?

Codependency refers to a mental, emotional, physical, and/or spiritual reliance on a partner, friend, or family member.

“The term was originally coined in the 1950s in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous to support partners of individuals who abused substances, and who were entwined in the toxic lives of those they cared for,” says Dr. Renee Exelbert, a licensed psychologist and author based in New York.

This is still true — but today, codependency covers a much broader spectrum.

Codependency is not a clinical diagnosis or a formally categorized personality disorder on its own. Generally speaking, codependency incorporates aspects of attachment style patterns developed in early childhood, and it can also overlap with other personality disorders, including dependent personality disorder.

The Varying Forms of Codependency

Codependency can come in all shapes and sizes and varying levels of severity. “Foundationally, it is due to poor concept of self and poor boundaries, including an inability to have an opinion or say no,” says Dr. Mark Mayfield, a licensed professional counselor (LPC).

He adds that codependency can develop in all sorts of relationships, such as parent-child, partner-partner, spouse-spouse, and even coworker-boss.

Signs of Codependency

As outlined above, codependency refers to an imbalanced relationship pattern where one person assumes responsibility for meeting another person’s needs to the exclusion of acknowledging their own needs or feelings. 

Dr. Exelberg

“Codependency is a circular relationship in which one person needs the other person, who in turn, needs to be needed. The codependent person, known as ‘the giver,’ feels worthless unless they are needed by — and making sacrifices for — the enabler, otherwise known as ‘the taker.'

— Dr. Exelberg

Codependent relationships are thus constructed around an inequity of power that promotes the needs of the taker, leaving the giver to keep on giving often at the sacrifice of themselves. According to Dr. Mayfield and Dr. Exelbert, signs of codependency might include some, but not necessarily all, the following:

  • A sense of “walking on eggshells” to avoid conflict with the other person.
  • Feeling the need to check in with the other person and/or ask permission to do daily tasks.
  • Often being the one who apologizes — even if you have done nothing wrong.
  • Feeling sorry for the other person even when they hurt you.
  • Regularly try to change or rescue troubled, addicted, or under-functioning people whose problems go beyond one person's ability to fix them.
  • Doing anything for the other person, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Putting the other person on a pedestal despite the fact that they don’t merit this position.
  • A need for other people to like you in order to feel good about yourself.
  • Struggling to find any time for yourself, especially if your free time consistently goes to the other person.
  • Feeling as if you’ve lost a sense of yourself or within the relationship.

Why Codependency Is an Unhealthy Dynamic

While everyone has loved ones and feels responsible for those loved ones, it can be unhealthy when someone’s identity is contingent upon someone else. 

“Codependency does not refer to all caring behavior or feelings — but only those that are excessive to an unhealthy degree. Responsibility for relationships with others needs to coexist with responsibility to self,” says Dr. Exelbert.

“This dynamic has also been referred to as a ‘relationship addiction’ because people with codependency often form relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive, and/or abusive.”

In that sense, the inherent problem of codependency is that the individual loses their true sense of self since they’re pouring so much into someone else.

Even if “the giver” doesn’t feel this way immediately — they likely enjoy giving their love and being relied upon — it can develop to very unhealthy degrees as the relationship progresses.

Another inherent issue is that it becomes difficult for “the giver” to extricate themselves from the relationship since they might feel the other person relies on them so much — even if they know in their gut it is the right thing to do. Conversely, “the taker” will feel so reliant on the other that they can have difficulty leaving a toxic relationship, as well.

How to Reduce Codependent Tendencies

The first step in reducing codependent tendencies is to focus on self-awareness. This can be done on your own, of course, but Dr. Mayfield also stresses the importance of therapy to help you really unravel your codependent tendencies.

He adds, “Many who struggle with codependency don’t seek help until their life begins to fall apart. My advice is to be proactive and seek help.”

Once you’re on that journey, try your best to do the following:

  • Become president of your own fan club. “Learn to speak lovingly and positively to yourself, and resist the impulse to self-criticize,” says. Dr. Exelbert.
  • Take small steps towards some separation in the relationship. Seek activities outside of the relationship and invest in new friendships. Focus on figuring out the things that make you who you are, and then expand upon them.  
  • When tempted to think or worry about someone else, actively turn your attention inward. This takes practice, so be kind to yourself along the way.
  • “Stand up for yourself if someone criticizes, undermines, or tries to control you,” says Dr. Exelbert. By working on building your own sense of self-esteem, you’ll find more strength in yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid to say "no" to someone when you don’t really want to do something.
  • If one-on-one therapy doesn’t appeal to you, consider trying grouping psychotherapy, suggests Dr. Exelbert.

There’s even an organization called Codependence Anonymous (CoDa) that addresses “needing to be needed” and past relationship dynamics.

A Word From Verywell

Codependency is a nuanced behavior that comes in many forms and levels of intensity. It often leads to an unhealthy relationship dynamic that progressively gets worse over time as the codependent person loses a sense of themselves. Self-awareness and active redirection from the behavior is key in reducing codependent tendencies; be kind to yourself as you work through years of learned behavior.   

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