Codependency

If you wonder how to know if you or someone else are codependent, here are the main codependency symptoms in relationships and how to deal.

Last updated on October 11, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on July 10, 2022.

Codependency often has you funneling your energy into supporting the people in your life without making space for — or even considering — what you need for yourself.

The main sign of codependency is consistently elevating the needs of others above your own. Other signs include controlling behaviors, self-sacrifice, and fear of rejection. But these aren’t the only ones.

Understanding what codependency is and recognizing the signs of codependency in your behavior is an important first step toward building healthy boundaries and honoring your own needs.

What is codependency?

Codependency is a way of behaving in relationships where you persistently prioritize someone else over you, and you assess your mood based on how they behave.

Vicki Botnick, a marriage and family therapist in Tarzana, CA, explains that codependency often involves a sense of forgetting “where you end and your partner begins.”

The more you focus on providing the support you believe others need, the more heavily they may begin to lean on you. Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle yourself.

Codependent traits can eventually:

Experts originally introduced the term “codependency” in the 1940s to help describe specific behavior patterns they noticed in partners and family members of people living with alcohol use disorder.

By this original definition, “codependent” might describe loved ones who “enabled” alcohol use, and the signs included:

However, today experts agree that codependency has a more nuanced and complex meaning — and can show up in many situations, not just ones involving substance use.

“Codependency refers to any enmeshed relationship in which one person loses their sense of independence and believes they need to tend to someone else,” Botnick explains.

According to a 2018 research review, patterns of codependent behavior generally involve four main themes:

  1. self-sacrifice
  2. a tendency to focus on others
  3. a need for control, which may fuel conflict
  4. difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions

These themes can show up across various types of relationships — and even in the way you relate to yourself.

How to know someone is codependent: Main signs

Codependency isn’t considered a mental health condition, and experts have yet to outline specific diagnostic criteria for it. There is, however, some general agreement on what codependency usually involves.

Common signs of codependency include:

  1. a deep-seated need for approval from others
  2. self-worth that depends on what others think about you
  3. a habit of taking on more work than you can realistically handle, both to earn praise or lighten a loved one’s burden
  4. a tendency to apologize or take on the blame to keep the peace
  5. a pattern of avoiding conflict
  6. a tendency to minimize or ignore your desires
  7. excessive concern about a loved one’s habits or behaviors
  8. a habit of making decisions for others or trying to “manage” loved ones
  9. a mood that reflects how others feel, rather than your own emotions
  10. guilt or anxiety when doing something for yourself
  11. doing things you don’t want to do, simply to make others happy
  12. idealizing partners or other loved ones, often to the point of maintaining relationships that leave you unfulfilled
  13. overwhelming fears of rejection or abandonment

With codependency, the need to support others goes beyond what’s generally considered healthy.

If you behave in codependent ways, you don’t just offer support temporarily, such as when a loved one faces a setback. Instead, you tend to focus on caretaking and caring for others to the point that you begin to define yourself in relation to their needs.

Codependency vs. dependency

Some level of dependency is healthy in relationships. It may be tough to make it through life alone, and most people thrive with companionship and social support.

Interdependent relationships work better for both people involved. In other words, partners depend on each other. This means you don’t just focus on their needs or draw your value from self-sacrifice, but you’re available to support them when needed.

As Katherine Fabrizio, a therapist in Raleigh, NC explains, “A healthy, supportive relationship involves listening, striving to understand, and keeping in mind the concerns of another person. Codependency is when that caring behavior crosses the line into trying to direct or control them.”

Occasionally depending on others — and allowing them to depend on you — for help and support is perfectly valid. You can depend on someone for some things while still maintaining your own identity and sense of self.

Healthy dependence also means you:

In short, you support others — but not at the expense of your own needs.

Where does codependency become evident? Examples

Codependency most often shows up in romantic relationships.

According to Ellen Biros, a psychotherapist in Suwanee, Georgia, codependency can make it difficult to:

As a result, you might go on to “pick emotionally abusive partners or friends, have trouble recognizing when you need to protect yourself, and remain in dysfunctional relationships,” Biros says.

Codependency can leave you feeling as if you lack purpose when you aren’t providing support. But fully devoting yourself to others may prevent you from doing anything for yourself.

For example, maybe you:

If you tend toward codependency, this pattern will likely play out again and again. All those sacrifices you make might eventually add up. This may leave you drained, overwhelmed, and even resentful or angry.

Example of codependency in a romantic relationship

Your partner is vegan. You don’t eat meat, but you decide to also give up dairy for their sake, even though they didn’t ask. Their main interests — sci-fi dramas, backpacking, and craft beers — become your chief hobbies, and you adopt their friends as your own.

You usually spend time together at their apartment, since you know they like being at home. Often, you stop by to help tidy up, put away laundry, and do some cooking. They’re so busy with work that you know they’d let their chores slide if you didn’t help out. Plus, your support reminds them just how much they need you.

When they share concerns and frustrations about work, you’re always ready with possible solutions. When they explain they just wanted to vent and don’t need you to fix anything for them, you become annoyed and frustrated. After all, you’re their partner. Shouldn’t you know just how they should handle the situation?

What causes codependency?

Codependent behaviors are, for the most part, rooted in childhood relationships with your parents and other caregivers.

Experiences in your family of origin can play a major part in lifelong emotional and mental health.

“Most contributing factors to this condition begin with parents who, for one reason or another, have poor boundaries,” Botnick explains. And when your needs continually go unmet, you become unable to assert yourself or even know what you should ask for, she says.

Common causes of codependency

Botnick notes some key situations that might enable or lead to codependency:

In any of the above circumstances, you might grow up believing your own needs don’t matter, or at least that they can wait. As a result, you learn to ignore what you think, feel, and want, both to keep others happy and keep them from leaving.

Perhaps a primary caregiver living with health or mental health concerns put you in a position where you needed to take care of them. The caretaking behaviors you learned may become so natural that you can’t help but carry them into future relationships.

Or maybe you learned that neglecting your own needs to please others earned you praise. You might grow up aiming to please everyone in your life so you can hold on to their affection and approval.

Support for codependency

Codependency is a learned behavior. That means it’s possible to unlearn the codependent traits causing you distress and affecting your relationships and well-being.

Left unaddressed, codependency can lead to:

Lacking a clear sense of who you are can also keep you from engaging in fulfilling friendships and relationships, leaving you feeling lonely and isolated.

Therapy for codependency

The signs of codependency we’ve listed above might offer a starting place, but recognizing codependency in yourself isn’t always a straightforward process.

Benefits of professional support for codependency

A mental health professional can offer support with:

Therapists trained in family and couples counseling can also offer more insight on family-of-origin issues and help you begin to address childhood experiences that may have led to codependent coping techniques.

Couples counseling — you can go alone or with a partner — also offers a safe space to:

How to stop being codependent: Self-care

Biros recommends therapy for codependency because it’s a complex dynamic that a person can’t always resolve properly on their own. The support of a trained professional can help you process any unresolved challenges.

However, if therapy doesn’t feel right for you or isn’t accessible to you right now, there are strategies you can use to help you take the first step.

Spend some time alone

Your relationship with yourself is just as important as the relationships you build with others, so it’s important to balance the time you spend with loved ones with regular time for yourself.

Alone time gives you the chance to:

Yet “alone time” can have a broader meaning, too.

If you find yourself drawn to distressing dynamics with people who rely on you to support them, a temporary break from romantic relationships provides a chance to explore and better understand these codependent traits.

Pursue your interests

Perhaps you haven’t made time for yourself in so long that you barely remember what you used to enjoy.

Establishing greater self-awareness is a large part of overcoming codependency. So, rediscovering the things you like and dislike can teach you more about who you are and what you want from life.

Here are some examples:

Next steps

Codependency is putting somebody else’s needs before your own. While it’s very natural to want to support the people you love, it’s also important to draw a line between your needs and theirs.

A life lived for someone else won’t do much to fulfill you. You’ll also find it much easier to offer support when you prioritize your wellness.

If you have a hard time recognizing your own needs or have difficulty asking for and accepting support from others, a therapist can offer compassionate guidance and support.

Share

More articles you might like

People who are reading “Codependency”, also love these articles:

Browse all articles