Codependency is often referred to as “relationship addiction.” It’s an emotional and behavioral condition that interferes with an individual’s ability to develop a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.
The term codependency was first used to describe the partner of someone with an addiction—whose unhealthy choices enable or encourage the addiction to continue. But over the years it’s been expanded to include individuals who maintain one-sided, emotionally destructive or abusive relationships and those relationships don’t necessarily have to be romantic.
Examples of Codependency
Individuals who are codependent have good intentions. They want to care for a family member who is struggling. But their efforts become compulsive and unhealthy.
Their attempts to rescue, save, and support their loved one allows the other individual to become even more dependent on them. The act of giving often gives a codependent individual a sense of satisfaction as long as they gain recognition. They like to “be needed.”
Their choices often backfire, however. They might feel trapped and grow resentful. They may feel helpless yet unable to break away from the relationship or change their interactions.
The relationship tends to deteriorate over time. It’s often riddled with anxiety, frustration and pity, rather than love and comfort.
For some individuals, codependent relationships become commonplace. They seek out friendships or romantic relationships where they are encouraged to act like martyrs.
Consequently, they devote all their time to caring for others and completely lose sight of what’s important to them.
Codependency can come in many forms. But at the root of a codependent relationship is that the codependent individual loses sight of their own needs and wants to the detriment of themselves and the other individual.
Here are some examples of what a codependent relationship might look like:
Codependency in Parent-Child Relationships
Example 1: A parent constantly cleans up after an adult child who has moved back into the home. The parent gives the child money and manages the child’s day-to-day affairs. They never talk about why the adult child doesn’t have a job or how the money is being spent because the parent doesn’t want to offend the child. Giving them money and caring for them gives the parent a sense of meaning and purpose.
Example 2: A parent is raising a child who is visually impaired. The parent insists on doing everything for the child, even though there are things the child could learn to do for themselves. The child stays almost completely dependent on the parent for everything. The parent refuses any extra support services because they’re convinced they’re the only one who can really assist their child.
Example 3: An adult child always drops everything the moment her mother calls to say she’s having a bad day. She considers it her job to take care of her mother as she knows her mother has a history of depression. She feels as though she’s the only one who knows how to help her mother feel better. She rarely leaves town because she never knows when her mother might need her. Her insistence that she has to help her mother has a negative impact on her marriage.
Codependency in Romantic Relationships
Example 1: A woman invests a lot of energy into caring for her partner with a drinking problem. When he’s too hungover to go to work, she calls in sick for him. She then often calls in sick for herself so she can stay home and take care of him. She rarely engages in any social activities because she’s never sure when he might be drinking. And she’s afraid that if she’s not there, he might choose to drive to the store to buy more alcohol. She makes excuses to friends and family about his behavior and never confronts him about his drinking for fear he’ll get angry and defensive. She schedules her life around him.
Example 2: A man’s partner has a chronic illness. She has mobility impairments and her physician has advised her to follow a certain diet. The man feels sorry for her because she says she doesn’t enjoy the food on the diet plan. So he delivers her food that doctors say isn’t good for her, and discourages her from doing any activity because she says moving around hurts. He makes it his life’s mission to care for her needs.
Why It Happens
Codependency is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior. It’s often passed down from one generation to the next. So a child who grew up watching a parent in a codependent relationship may repeat the pattern.
Codependency occurs in dysfunctional families where members often experience anger, pain, fear or shame that is denied or ignored. Underlying issues that contribute to the dysfunction may involve:
*Addiction to drugs, alcohol, work, food, sex, gambling, relationships
*Abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual)
*Chronic physical illness or mental illness
Problems within the family are never confronted. Codependent individuals don’t bring up the fact that issues exist. Family members repress their emotions and disregard their own needs in an effort to care for the individual who is struggling.
All of the attention and energy goes toward the individual who is abusive, ill, or addicted. The codependent individual usually sacrifices all of their own needs to care for the family member who is struggling. They usually experience social, emotional, and physical consequences as they disregard their own health, welfare and safety.
Risk Factors and Characteristics
While anyone might find themselves in a codependent relationship, there are certain factors that increase the risk.
Studies show codependency is common in adults who were raised by parents with substance abuse problems, who live in chronic stressful family environments, who have children with behavior problems, and who care for the chronically ill. Women are more likely to be codependent than men.
Individuals in the helping professions are also more likely to be in codependent relationships. It’s estimated that one-third of nurses have moderate to severe levels of codependency. Nurses need to be sensitive to the needs of others and often need to set aside their own feelings for the good of their patients.2 They may also find validation in their ability to care for others and that need may spill over into their personal lives.
Researchers have identified several other factors that are often linked with codependency:
*Lack of trust in self or others
*Fear of being alone or abandoned
*A need to control other people
*Poor communication skills
*Trouble making decisions
*Problems with intimacy
*Difficulty establishing boundaries
*Trouble adjusting to change
*An extreme need for approval and recognition
*A tendency to become hurt when others don’t recognize their efforts
*An inclination to do more than their share all the time
*A tendency to confuse love and pity
*An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
Some individuals are able to overcome codependency on their own. Learning about what it means to be codependent and the harm it causes can be enough for some individuals to change their behavior.
Some people learn about their codependent tendencies through books or articles. Others stop being codependent when they experience environmental changes, such as a partner becomes sober or they get a new job that requires them to stop care-taking.
Codependency usually requires professional treatment, however. It can be treated with talk therapy. Research shows that several different types of therapy treatments can be effective in reducing the symptoms and improving the quality of one’s life.
By Amy Morin, LCSW