MUTUAL LOVE AND RESPECT are the hallmarks of any healthy relationship. In some cases, though, relationships can become imbalanced, where one person is constantly giving, nurturing, and being reliable, and the other just takes. At the same time, the giver ignores their own needs and feelings for the other’s sake.
These dysfunctional relationship patterns are signs of codependency.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines codependency as “the state of being mutually reliant; for example, a relationship between two individuals who are emotionally dependent on one another.”
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A codependent person usually means well. They might take care of someone who’s having problems or just generally enjoy supporting a loved one, but the caretaking becomes “compulsive and defeating,” according to Mental Health America. They may develop a sense of satisfaction and reward from being needed and may display martyr-like behaviors.
“I always think of it as well-intended behaviors gone too far,” Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, clinical services instructor at Newport Healthcare says. “On a spectrum of caring, giving, compassionate behaviors, it goes to the extreme where all of a sudden someone is over-giving, depending on the other person’s dependence on them, and often to their own detriment.”
Even though it’s not a diagnosable disorder, codependency can exist in romantic, parent-child, sibling, and friend relationships. The behaviors might seem caring and compassionate, but Dragonette says they’re actually compulsive, controlling, and harmful to everyone in the relationship.
“Codependency comes out of a healthy and natural human need to connect with others,” says Judith Zackson, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and founder and clinical director of Zackson Psychology Group. “But when we connect with others, we’re also hardwired to still be who we are as individuals and want to reach our fullest potential, which we call self-actualization.”
But self-actualization and being your own person are at the opposite ends of the spectrum for a codependent person, she says. That’s what makes the behaviors so unhealthy.
What Is Codependent Behavior?
Codependency is a behavior pattern and not a clinical diagnosis. The term “codependency” originated in the 1940s and was used to describe the behaviors of spouses and family members of people being treated for substance abuse. Originally, it referred to a loved one enabling someone’s alcohol use.
Experts now realize that codependency can appear in many different situations, and a 2018 study suggested that the behavior usually features several themes: self-sacrifice, focusing on others, a need for control, and trouble recognizing and expressing emotions.
Healthy relationships are reciprocal, where everyone involved gives and takes, Zackson says. Codependent relationships tend to focus on the feelings and needs of the “taker.” The codependent person may exhibit low self-esteem, have a strong need to please others, feel responsible for other people’s problems, and struggle to set boundaries.
“The consequence is when you have codependency, your entire identity is very blurred, and you don’t know who you are, so you just stay in that negative cycle,” Zackson says.
Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes codependency, but most agree that it’s linked to childhood relationships with your parents. The behavior may stem from abuse, having parents who ignored a child’s needs, a parent with narcissism or another personality disorder, controlling or overprotective parents, or bullying.
Signs of Codependent Behavior
People can exhibit codependency in different ways and at varying levels. Here are some signs of codependent behavior:
- Lacking boundaries between yourself and others
- Blurring lines in relationships—you struggle to see where you end and the other person begins
- Feeling low self-esteem
- Fearing rejection and abandonment
- Apologizing or accepting blame to avoid conflict
- Being who someone else wants you to be
- Ignoring your own needs
- Putting other people’s needs before your own
- Anticipating and reacting to someone else’s needs, which may be perceived accurately or not
- Feeling like you’ve lost your sense of self
- Needing to control—including making decisions for others or managing them
- Doing things for people that make you feel uncomfortable, just to make them happy
- Taking on too much
- Basing your mood on how someone else feels, not your own emotions
- Resenting not receiving appreciation for your actions
“They can be people who really don’t know how they personally feel, but they know how everybody else around them feels,” Dragonette says. “Our feelings, as the codependent person, have been stuffed and stuffed because we don’t want to upset anyone. Then, we can’t really hold it anymore, and we feel a ramp-up of resentment.”
Codependent people might feel chronic anger related to the situation, as well as guilt and anxiety when they take time for themselves.
The Difference Between Dependency and Codependency
There’s some overlap between codependency and dependency, but the behaviors aren’t the same.
Dependent personality disorder (DPD) is a clinically diagnosable personality disorder where someone has a pattern of allowing others to take responsibility for most of their big life decisions. People with DPD often feel anxiety and helplessness, struggle to make decisions, and need help managing life.
“Codependency is focused on the other person—I need to help you to feel good,” Zackson says. “Whereas the dependent person needs a person to take care of them.”
The overlap comes because both people with DPD and codependent individuals seek approval, Dragonette says. “With codependency, there are more frantic efforts to control an uncontrollable situation, like another human’s emotions or the erratic behavior of somebody, or even help someone not have consequences in their lives.”
Why Codependency Causes Problems in Relationships
The imbalance of codependency—where one person derives satisfaction from giving, at least to a point, and the other person gets all their needs met—makes relationships a challenge.
“The person who keeps giving, even though they feel the need to do it, ends up feeling really bitter,” Zackson says. Someone might also be enabling unhealthy behaviors, such as drug or alcohol abuse, Dragonette adds.
Codependent people are usually responsible and capable individuals. So they end up taking on too much, usually out of an unconscious need to make sure everyone and everything is taken care of. They can also be controlling.
“There can be real ramifications in the relationship when the other person does want to stand on their own two feet or make decisions, and then the codependent person feels like their job is taken away from them or they’re not being appreciated,” Dragonette says.
A codependent person might also lose sight of who they are and experience anxiety and low self-esteem. “Over the long term, that person doesn’t really get their needs met because they haven’t shown up as their full selves,” Dragonette adds.
How Codependent Behaviors Are Treated
Most people don’t walk into their therapist’s office and say, “I have codependency,” Dragonette says. Instead, they’re more likely to seek treatment for depression, anxiety, stress, or relationship problems. “Then, it’s up to the clinician sometimes to have eagle eyes and suss it out,” she adds.
In other instances, people involved with addiction recovery groups learn about the term codependency and seek help, she says.
Codependency is usually treated by delving into a person’s childhood and relationship patterns. Treatment involves learning to rediscover yourself, identifying self-defeating behaviors, learning to get in touch with feelings, and reconstructing relationships. “The goal is to allow them to experience their full range of feelings again,” according to Mental Health America, which offers an online questionnaire to help you understand if you’re experiencing codependency.
“Codependent people don’t think about themselves a lot,” Zackson says. “It makes them too anxious. But, if you don’t have self-respect, self-love, and self-value, you won’t be able to grow to your fullest being because you won’t even recognize when you keep falling into the same unhealthy cycles.”
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.