A young African-American woman worriedly looks at her smartphone while hugging her knees.

Codependency is a common, yet widely misunderstood set of behaviors which cause an unhealthy bond of attachment between two people. People in codependent relationships are often unaware of the condition and the harm it can cause.

Understanding Codependency

It may be helpful to remember that the root word of codependent is ‘depend’. A mentally healthy person may be independent. Healthy people may also be interdependent. The state of codependency is different than interdependence, however. People who are interdependent can cooperate and collaborate and rely upon one another. But they don’t feel helpless, lost or adrift without the other person. Put a different way, the codependent person needs the person they depend upon in order to feel ‘okay’. Their sense of self-worth and even their identity can feel inseparable from the person they have formed an unhealthy attachment to.

What Do Codependent Relationships Look Like?

Codependent relationships can form between two codependent people who feel this way towards one another. More often though, they form between a person who is more passive and perhaps insecure and a person who is more dominant or even controlling. Often there are unhealthy behaviors on both sides. The codependent may lack self-esteem and confidence to make even simple decisions for themselves and feel overly reliant on their intimate partner or family member for approval, recognition and direction. The dominant partner may also be excessively controlling and enjoy the sense of power they get from ‘calling the shots’. They be manipulative towards the other person, withholding love, praise or approval in order to manipulate them emotionally.

Why Do People Become Codependent?

The origins of codependency are often as complex as the relationships where these behaviors are predominant. But there are patterns and constants to be found. Codependency often begins in homes where substance use disorders, abuse and/or neglect are found. These behaviors aren’t genetic. They are learned behaviors. In most cases, the codependent person had or has a close relationship with someone who inadvertently taught them that this is what love is supposed to look like.

Codependent behaviors can evolve in a maladjusted family where addiction or abuse reign as a person tries desperately to be noticed, valued and loved. Essentially, codependent behavior is usually either learned by example, like watching your frightened mom trying to deal with your always-angry father. Or your older brother trying to keep your mother’s depression or manic episodes at bay. Or it’s a form of adaptive behavior that comes out of desperation. The important thing to remember is that’s not your fault and help is available.

The Roots of Codependency

Another example might be a child who grows up in a household with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder and behaves selfishly. The child learns to focus on the parents needs rather than ever thinking of their own. Anger and abuse can reinforce these behaviors. Growing up in a home where one must walk on eggshells to avoid arousing the anger of a chemically dependent parent can deeply engrain these behaviors. This learned behavior then becomes the status quo for that person and the pattern repeats itself again and again in other relationships. This often happens to the degree that it makes it difficult to have healthy relationships, even as an adult.

How Do I Know if I am Codependent?

Relationships where codependency thrives can be as complex and difficult to unravel as can its origins. Mental health treatment or counseling is often very helpful in this process. In fact, it can seem almost impossible to find your way out of alone. For most people, it isn’t the sort of thing they can overcome with a self-help book and nothing else. Try not to let fear or anything else get in the way of you asking for professional help if you need it. You deserve to live a happy, free and fulfilling life. Knowledge and awareness are the keys to beginning to recover. That begins with understanding what codependency is, what its behaviors look like and then having the awareness and courage to look at your own life.

Five examples of codependent behavior:

1) Making excuses for your partner’s bad habits or actions.

2) Always putting your partner’s needs ahead of your own.

3) Feeling like you can’t function without someone’s presence or approval.

4) Constantly seeking validation and reassurance from your partner.

5) Sacrificing personal values, beliefs, and boundaries to please your partner.

Try to Focus on Solutions, Not Blame

To begin with, it’s important not to assign blame when trying to understand this type of relationship. It takes at least two people for the dynamic of codependency to exist, after all. What matters most is being able to spot the signs of codependent behaviors either in yourself or in someone you have a relationship with. Being able to identify these signs and the ways in which the behaviors are causing harm is essential to unravelling the codependent relationship. But ultimately, you are responsible for your own happiness. You must not let fear, apprehension or guilt stand in the way of you getting the help and support you need. Even if that means leaving the other person behind.

Final Thoughts and Some Things to Remember

We have looked at the definition of codependency as well as examples of codependent behavior. We also talked about why people might become codependent. Finally, we talked about a way out of this cycle of behaviors and that’s where we hope your focus will remain, if you believe you may be in a codependent relationship. There is a way forward and a life after codependency.

Remember that:

  • Codependency remains with you until you get help to work on changing it, simply ending a relationship won’t eliminate the behavior.
  • You deserve help with codependency and there is a lot of it available. From 12-step fellowships like CoDA to mental health treatment and counseling.
  • If you have questions about mental health treatment or help for codependency, give Harmony Health Group a call at (866) 461-4474. We can help.