Discover why we sometimes invest way too much in our relationships.
Therapists and psychologists have come up with many definitions for codependency. Consistent across these definitions are several key elements (Dear et al., 2004).
First, people who are codependent are far more focused on others’ experiences than their own.
Second, people who are codependent are self-sacrificing to a degree that is often clearly unhealthy.
Third, people who are codependent experience lots of interpersonal conflict, often because they want to control how others are feeling.
Finally, people who are codependent suppress their own emotions because they are afraid of how their emotions will impact others.
Understanding why people become codependent can explain many codependent behaviors. It is generally thought that people’s early life experiences shape their tendency to become codependent (Weiss, 2019). In particular, people who do not get their attachment needs met in childhood seem more likely to end up in relationships in adulthood where they will replay the same experiences.
For example, if a parent is emotionally immature and relies on their child for emotional support, that child may grow up to seek out relationships with similarly emotionally immature people. In those relationships, that person experiences being needed – and being let down in their needs – in the same ways that they were as a child (Weiss, 2019). It’s thought that these childhood experiences, combined with susceptible personality traits, are what create and sustain codependency (Wright & Wright, 1991).
Signs & Symptoms
Although codependency looks different for each person, there are common signs and symptoms that might suggest you or somebody else is codependent (Bacon et al., 2020; Spann & Fischer, 1990; Wells et al., 1999):
1) Defining oneself through relationships. If you have a hard time thinking of yourself as anything other than somebody’s child, partner, or parent, you may be codependent with that person. A good question you can ask here is, “If I didn’t have this relationship in my life anymore, would it be difficult to say who I am, or what my purpose in life is?”
2) Holding feelings back. If you live in fear of having your own emotions negatively impact the people close to you, because you can’t bear the thought of being the cause of their discomfort or unhappiness, you may be overly invested in their emotions, and not putting enough value on your own emotions.
3) Your emotions depend on somebody else’s emotions. If your life feels out of control because you can only be happy when somebody else is and you find yourself trying really hard to make sure they’re happy, you may be codependent.
4) You experienced parentification or abandonment as a child. Many people who grow up to be codependent had to start caring for others at an early age. This is sometimes called parentification. If it ever seemed like you were the parent in your household – like you had to parent your own parents – you may be at risk of becoming codependent with others. Similarly, being neglected or abandoned as a child can make people want to control their adult relationships as much as possible, leading to codependency as well.
5) You have low self-esteem and experience lots of shame. When people don’t feel deserving of relationships, they may try to please others, becoming dependent on validation from those relationships. Over time, this develops into deriving a sense of self-worth primarily from how you make other people feel.
How to Overcome Codependency
Setting Boundaries: Setting boundaries is a central – although very difficult – task in overcoming codependency (Gemin, 1997). It looks like starting to take care of oneself before taking care of others (Beattie, 2008). The parent of a person in addiction might need to stop supporting their child because their own financial security is at risk. A teen who regularly covers up for her older sister’s transgressions, even as it gets her into more and more trouble, would benefit from recognizing how she is enabling her older sister and setting a boundary around her own needs.
Healing & Recovery: Healing from codependence means taking a renewed interest in oneself (Hazelden, 2014). It does not require ending relationships, but it does mean resetting those relationships, often at great emotional cost. After all, both parties in a codependent relationship have become very enmeshed in their dynamic (Weiss, 2019).
Therapy & Treatment: If you are interested in more formal treatment for codependency, it may help to know that it can take the form of group, family, or individual therapy (Abadi et al., 2015). Across all these treatment types, emphasis is placed on changing how the codependent person sees themselves and thinks about relationships.
Investing in relationships and relying on others is natural and healthy. As you might have noticed, most of the advice about healing from codependency emphasizes changing relationships, not ending them. If you think you or somebody you know is in a codependent relationship, understand that this is a common situation, with plenty of support and even community to heal in. Many people have healed from codependency and live in healthier relationships with better boundaries.
Abadi, F. K. A., Vand, M. M., & Aghaee, H. (2015). Models and interventions of codependency treatment, systematic review. Journal UMP Social Sciences and Technology Management, 3(2).
Bacon, I., McKay, E., Reynolds, F., & McIntyre, A. (2020). The lived experience of codependency: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 18(3), 754-771.
Beattie, M. (2008). The new codependency: help and guidance for today's generation. Simon and Schuster.
Dear, G. E., Roberts, C., & Lange, L. (2004). Defining codependency: a thematic analysis of published definitions. In S. Shohov (Ed.), Advances in Psychology (Vol. 34, pp. 189–205). New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
Gemin, J. (1997). Manufacturing codependency: Self-help as discursive formation. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 14(3), 249–266.
Hazelden, B. (2014). Whose fault is it? Exoneration and allocation of personal responsibility in relationship manuals. Journal of Sociology, 50(4), 422–436.
Spann, L., & Fischer, J. L. (1990). Identifying codependency. The Counselor, 8, 27.
Weiss, R. (2019). Prodependence vs. codependency: Would a new model (prodependence) for treating loved ones of sex addicts be more effective than the model we’ve got (codependency)? Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 26(3-4), 177-190.
Wells, M., Glickauf-Hughes, C., & Jones, R. (1999). Codependency: A grass roots construct's relationship to shame-proneness, low self-esteem, and childhood parentification. American Journal of Family Therapy, 27(1), 63-71.
Wright, P. H., & Wright, K. D. (1991). Codependency: addictive love, adjustive relating, or both? Contemporary Family Therapy, 13(5), 435–454.