Codependency: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and More
Codependency, a dysfunctional relationship pattern often related to childhood trauma, is not an official mental health diagnosis, but usually requires therapy to address.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
June 30, 2023
Table of Contents
What is codependency?
While not an official mental health diagnosis, codependency is a psychological concept that refers to a dysfunctional relationship where one person excessively relies on another to satisfy their self-esteem and emotional needs. Sometimes described as a “relationship addiction,” it’s characterized by an imbalanced relationship pattern where one person takes on the role of a caregiver or “savior,” often neglecting their needs on behalf of someone else’s.
It’s important to note that codependent relationships go beyond normal levels of interdependence in a healthy relationship. They involve the codependent person prioritizing the other person’s needs over their own, leading to an unhealthy attachment. This dependency can be so intense that the other person’s behavior significantly affects the codependent person’s mood and well-being.
Codependent people often find themselves in one-sided relationships and lack mutual satisfaction. They may continually invest effort into “saving” or changing their partner, even if it comes at a personal cost.
Codependent traits are not just limited to romantic relationships but can also occur with a family member or in a platonic relationship. The root cause of codependency can vary but often stems from past traumatic experiences or dysfunctional family relationships during childhood.
Recognizing codependent behavior is the first step toward addressing it. Symptoms of codependency may include low self-esteem, people-pleasing behaviors, poor boundaries, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility for others’ feelings and actions.
Treatment for codependency typically involves therapy, where people learn to establish healthy boundaries, develop self-esteem, and cultivate more balanced relationships.
8 signs you may be codependent
Recognizing the signs of codependency can be a crucial step in addressing it. Here are eight potential signs that you might be codependent:
1. Difficulty making decisions
Making decisions in your relationship is hard and you often defer to your partner’s preferences or opinions.
2. Struggling to identify feelings
You have trouble recognizing and expressing your own emotions.
3. Low self-esteem
Your sense of self-worth is heavily influenced by what others think about you, or you constantly seek approval from others.
4. Overly focused on others
You excessively worry about other people’s problems or needs, often to the detriment of your own well-being.
5. Fear of abandonment
You have a deep-seated fear of being rejected or abandoned, making you go to great lengths to hold onto unhealthy relationships.
6. Poor boundaries
You find establishing and maintaining personal boundaries difficult, often allowing others to infringe upon your personal space or rights.
7. People-pleasing tendencies
You often go out of your way to please others, even at the expense of your needs or desires. You find it challenging to say “no.”
You ignore or downplay problems in your relationship and may make excuses for your partner’s harmful behavior.
If you recognize several of these signs in your behavior, seeking professional help such as therapy might be beneficial. Codependency can lead to a cycle of dysfunctional relationships, but with the right support, it is possible to break this cycle and develop healthier relationship patterns.
What are the signs of codependency in parents and children?
Codependency can manifest in many relationships, including parent-child relationships. Here are some signs of codependency in parents and children:
- Overprotection: The parent may be excessively protective, often to the point of stifling the child’s independence.
- Enmeshment: The parent struggles to see the child as a separate individual with their own needs and feelings.
- Control: The parent may attempt to control all aspects of the child’s life, including their friendships, activities, and even their thoughts and feelings.
- Conflict avoidance: The parent may avoid conflict at all costs, often at the expense of addressing important issues or setting necessary boundaries.
- Need for validation: The parent might heavily rely on the child for emotional support or validation, often blurring the line between parent and friend.
- People-pleasing behavior: The child may constantly strive to keep their parents happy, often suppressing their needs and feelings.
- Fear of abandonment: The child may develop an intense fear of rejection or abandonment, leading them to go to great lengths to maintain parental approval.
- Difficulty setting boundaries: The child might struggle to establish personal boundaries, often allowing their parents to infringe upon their personal space or rights.
- Low self-esteem: The child’s self-esteem may largely depend on parental approval, leading to a lack of self-confidence.
- Lack of independence: The child may struggle to make decisions or take actions independently, often relying on their parents to guide every aspect of their lives.
If signs of codependency are apparent in a parent-child relationship, professional help such as family therapy can be beneficial. It’s crucial to address these dynamics early to prevent long-term psychological impact and to promote healthier, more balanced relationships.
Is codependency a mental health condition or diagnosis?
While codependency can significantly impact a person’s well-being and interpersonal relationships, it is not officially recognized as a distinct mental health disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the primary guide mental health professionals use to diagnose mental illnesses.
Although codependency shares some similarities with other recognized disorders—such as dependent personality disorder—it is generally viewed more as a behavioral pattern than a formal diagnosis. Codependent behaviors can be harmful and limit a person’s ability to have healthy, mutually satisfying relationships.
Despite it not being a formal diagnosis, codependency is a serious issue that can be addressed with professional help. Therapists and counselors are equipped to help individuals understand and navigate their codependent tendencies, developing healthier ways of relating to others.
Mental health conditions associated with codependency
Codependency can be linked to a variety of mental health conditions. For instance, it is often found in relationships where one person has a chronic illness or addiction, and the other person takes on a caregiver role. Here are some mental health conditions that can be tied to codependency:
The constant stress and emotional drain of a codependent relationship can lead to sadness, hopelessness, and lack of interest in activities once enjoyed, all symptoms of depression.
Codependency often involves excessive worry about others’ problems and fear of abandonment, which can trigger anxiety disorders.
Dependent personality disorder (DPD)
While codependency isn’t officially recognized as a disorder, it shares similarities with DPD, which is characterized by a pervasive psychological dependence on others.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Codependency can develop as a response to trauma. Individuals with PTSD may become codependent as they seek out relationships where they feel needed and valued.
Substance use disorders
Codependency is common among individuals who have a close relationship with someone struggling with substance use disorders. The codependent person may neglect their needs and enable the behaviors of their loved one struggling with addiction.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
People with BPD often have an intense fear of abandonment and unstable relationships, both of which can lead to codependent behaviors.
If you or someone you know is dealing with codependency and any of these associated mental health conditions, seeking professional help from a mental health expert can provide strategies to manage these issues and improve overall well-being.
How to differentiate between a healthy and a codependent relationship
Distinguishing between a healthy and a codependent relationship can be challenging, as both involve emotional investment and care for the other person. However, the key difference lies in the balance of mutual respect, independence, and personal growth. Here are some characteristics to help differentiate the two:
- Mutual respect: Both people value each other’s opinions and feelings. They listen to each other and make decisions together.
- Independence: While they enjoy spending time together, both parties also maintain their separate interests, hobbies, and social circles.
- Open communication: Open, honest, and respectful communication is a hallmark of a healthy relationship. Both parties feel safe expressing their needs and concerns.
- Balance of giving and receiving: A balanced exchange of support, care, and love exists. Neither party feels like they’re always the giver or the taker.
- Personal growth: The relationship encourages both individuals to grow and evolve. It supports their personal goals and aspirations.
- One-sided: One person tends to give more than they receive, often neglecting their needs.
- Lack of independence: One or both individuals may rely heavily on the other for validation and emotional support, often sacrificing their interests and personal growth.
- Poor boundaries: There’s a lack of clear boundaries, with one person often taking on the responsibility for the other’s feelings or actions.
- Fear of abandonment: There may be an intense fear of rejection or abandonment, leading to clingy or controlling behavior.
- Denial: Problems or conflicts may be ignored or downplayed, and resistance to change or seeking help often exists.
If you recognize codependent patterns in your relationship, it may be helpful to seek professional guidance such as therapy to help navigate these complex dynamics and work towards a healthier relationship balance.
End the codependency cycle with Charlie Health
Charlie Health connects adolescents, young adults, and families with evidence-based mental healthcare. Our intensive outpatient program (IOP) combines one-on-one therapy, groups, and family therapy to help you build resilience, begin healing, and break free from codependent relationships. Get started today.