Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Codependency refers to the tendency to be reliant on another person, mostly observed in relationships. This may be a sign of insecurity, immaturity, low self-esteem, and mental health issues.


What Is Codependency?

Codependency refers to a psychological construct concerning an unhealthy relationship that people might share with those closest to them. A person may be physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually codependent on their romantic partner, family members or even friends. Such tendencies may hint towards a toxic and unhealthy relationship. This type of relationship is prevalent in marriages, cohabitation relationships, families, and friendships. The term refers to a dysfunctional relationship, where one person facilitates or encourages another person’s addictions such as –

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Gambling
  • Mental health issues
  • Underachievement
  • Immaturity
  • Irresponsibility

It occurs when individuals do not take strong measures or initiatives to support the affected individual but continue to defend, excuse, and/or deny the extent of the problem behaviors. According to a 2014 study 1 , the concept originates from the understanding of chemical dependency. “Initially, codependent individuals meant women who dominated their partners and took care of them, while women actually were dependent upon their husbands,” explains the study. But now experts believe that men may also become reliant on others and the concept is “not limited only to the relationship.” In psychology, the condition describes a person’s behaviors and attitudes rather than the relationship on the whole. The person who is codependent will establish his/her identity or personality around helping others. They may “depend” on others to validate their self-worth while denying their own desires or emotions. Thus, this concept in psychology involves sacrificing one’s personal needs in order to meet the needs of others.

Codependency often appears in unbalanced and unhealthy relationships. A person with such unhealthy patterns often tries to save others from themselves. They may get hurt trying to “cure” a partner’s addictions or abusive behaviors. Codependency does not qualify as a mental health diagnosis, mostly because the symptoms are so widely applicable. Yet, it can still cause severe distress. Codependency may lead a person to develop other mental health concerns such as anxiety. A therapist can help a person reduce codependent behaviors and develop healthier relationships.

Understanding Codependency

The term is commonly used to describe relationships where a person is needy or dependent upon another person. In other words, it marks a dysfunctional relationship model. A person who is codependent will outline their entire life revolving around satisfying the other person, or the enabler. The codependent’s self-esteem and self-worth will come only from sacrificing themselves for their partner, who receives their sacrifices happily.

Here, one person depends on the other for satisfying (almost) all of his/her emotional and self-esteem needs while enabling another person to continue with his/her immoral, addictive, or underachieving behavior. According to another 2014 study 2 , psychologist E. Young reported that the ”external referent is manifested in the absence of boundaries”. Codependent individuals lack the ability to feel their emotions as they happen to be under a very strong influence of the emotions that arise from other people. However, German psychotherapist B. Hellinger believed that while the concept gives individuals the opportunity to ”discover, and promote personal growth, it also forced them to follow the goals that are not always considered a person’s personal aspirations and desires”.

As the condition describes a dysfunctional relationship as being caring, highly functional, and helpful, thereby facilitating the person’s irresponsible or destructive behavior, one must create emotional distance from the troubled loved one. It is a way to expose them to the negative consequences of their behavior. The reliable, caring, and nurturing character of the co-dependent partner is perceived to be manifesting the weaknesses of his or her own – from low self-esteem to an excessive need to please others. The concept has also been applied to other kinds of mental health and behavioral problems, including domestic violence and emotional abuse. The term is also often used colloquially, to describe close relationships without carrying any strict psychological meaning.

History Of Codependency

It has been more than a decade since the term ”codependency” was established. Although it was originally applied to spouses of alcoholics, the features of codependents were much more prevalent across the general population as well. A study 3 states that the “historical discussion about codependency exhibits a complex and interconnected range of terms, theories, and models associated with the construct’.” It is disputed that the idea was interpreted differently over time, “possibly indicating a set of values and meanings carried by the communities operating in these different periods.” This has given codependency a complex historical background, which comprises a range of historical moments.

Early interpretations of the concept began in the 1940s in the United States of America. It was associated with behaviors presented by wives of alcoholics 4 . However, some of these initial descriptions might have been inspired by the early concepts of Karen Horney, a neo-Freudian psychoanalyst prominent in America around the 1940’s. Horney proposed the notion of a woman’s ‘morbid dependence’, described by her as a ‘drive for total surrender’, the ‘longing to find unity through merging with a partner’, and the ‘drive to lose oneself’. Horney identified these behaviors as ‘parasitical, symbiotic relationships’, likely inspired by traditional societal values at the time (Horney 1950, p.258).

American medical professionals, such as Price (1945), Whalen (1953), and Furtherman (1953), began to consider these behaviors as common in wives of alcoholics, suggesting, on the basis of observation, that such responses often contributed to their husband’s addictive cycle. Price conducted an observational study, including wives of 20 alcoholics; describing these women as typically dependent, fostering their husbands’ alcoholism. Whalen presented some case studies of wives of alcoholics who attended a local family care service, suggesting that these women married men with alcoholism problems to fulfill their own personalized needs. Agreeing with these views, Furtherman suggested that wives of alcoholics tended to unconsciously encourage their husbands’ alcoholism.

Overall, these early studies suggested a linear causal relationship between the nonalcoholic spouse’s behavior and the problem drinking of the alcoholic husband. These authors argued that wives of alcoholics engaged in problematic interaction patterns, as a result of pursuing relationships based on unconscious maps that were developed during childhood.

Prevalence Of Codependency

A 2008 study 5 describes codependence as a relational problem that often, but not always, occurs in ”association with familial alcoholism”. Researchers have observed a prevalence of 25% of codependence. Another 1998 study 6 states that seven million American women are depressed, and 40 million Americans, primarily women, have been identified as codependent. The study also proved that depression and codependency are strongly related, defined by low self-worth and hiding self traits that correlate most strongly with depression. In another 1999 study 7 , the prevalence was found to be slightly higher in men than women.

Difference Between Codependence And Dependence

It is essential to understand the difference between depending on another person (a positive and desirable trait) and codependency, which is harmful. While both the concepts may look confusing, they belong to two different worlds altogether. Here are the differences between dependence and codependence.

1. Love, Care And Support

Dependent: Here, two people rely on each other, both value their relationship while caring and supporting each other.

Codependent: Here, the codependent person feels useless unless they are needed by someone and they are making any drastic sacrifices. The enabler gets satisfaction from getting every need met by the other person.

2. Enjoys The Outer World

Dependent: While making their relationship a priority, they also enjoy the world beyond their relationship with friends or engage in their hobbies.

Codependent: The codependent has no personal integrity, interests, or values outside of their codependent relationship.

3. Emotionally Expressive

Dependent: Both the individuals express their emotions and needs and find ways to make the relationship beneficial for one another.

Codependent: Here, one person feels that their desires and needs are insignificant and neglect other important areas of their life to please their partner. This may cause damage to:

  • Other relationships
  • Their profession
  • Their everyday responsibilities

Symptoms Of Codependency

Symptoms Of Codependency

It is typically identified by a set of hallmarks or signs that are agreed upon by most therapists. A person is recognized as codependent if he/she:

  1. Expresses an unnecessary and unhealthy tendency to rescue and take responsibility for other people.
  2. Obtain a sense of purpose and increase their self-esteem via excessive self-sacrifice to satisfy the needs of others.
  3. Prefer to become a part of lengthy, high-cost caretaking and rescuing relationships.
  4. Regularly trying to manage the change of troubled, addicted, or the under-functioning person whose problems are far bigger than the person’s abilities to fix them.
  5. Seems to entice low-functioning people looking for someone to take care of them so they can evade adult responsibilities, duties or consequences, or attract people in constant crisis, unwilling to change their lives.
  6. Have a pattern of practicing well-intentioned but ultimately unfruitful, unhealthy helping behaviors, such as enabling.

Other common symptoms of codependency may include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Low levels of narcissism;
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Lack of ability to say no
  • Low emotional expressivity
  • Having poor boundaries
  • Showing emotional reactivity
  • A need for control, especially over others
  • Inability to communicate honestly
  • A need to be liked by everyone
  • Fixating on mistakes
  • Confusing love and pity
  • Trouble of intimacy
  • Displaying fear of abandonment

Causes Of Codependency

Codependency is a learned behavior that usually originates from past behavioral patterns and emotional difficulties. It can result from a range of situations as mentioned below.

1. Poor Parental Relationships

People who grow up codependent are often assumed to have faced problems with their parental relationship as a child or teenager. Such children or teenagers grow up with the notion that their own needs are less important than that of their parents’ needs, or probably, not important at all. In such families, the child is taught to focus on the parent’s needs and to never think of themselves. As a result, the child starts ignoring his/her own needs and thinks only cares about other’s needs at all times.

In these situations, one of the parents may have:

  • An alcohol or drugs addiction problem
  • A dearth of maturity and emotional development, thus, leading to their own self-centered needs

These conditions result in emotional development gaps in the child, leading them to look for codependent relationships later. According to a 2009 study 8 , this tendency is primarily noticed in –

  • Coercive parenting styles, where parent(s) have inappropriate ways of connecting with others
  • Controlling parenting styles where parent(s) are overly preoccupied with their children

The phenomenon is found “to be positively correlated with maternal compulsive behaviors, coercion, control and non-nurturing parenting styles, as well as paternal coercion, control and non-nurturing parenting styles,” explains the study. The researchers also observed that the tendency was also observed in children of authoritarian parents, mainly fathers, with low support and high control. This shows that this tendency develops partly due to parental dysfunction, such lack of communication and support, aggression, domestic violence and substance abuse.

2. Mentally or Physically Ill Family Members

Codependency may also occur when someone lives with a person who is chronically ill, thus caring about him or her round the clock. By playing the role of caregiver, especially at a young age, may result in neglecting his/her own needs while developing a habit of only helping others. A person’s self-worth is defined by the need of another person and receiving nothing in return. In a 2016 study 9 , 140 women were selected, of which 70 were the wives of addicted men and 70 were the wives of non-addicted men. As per the results, codependency was notably higher among the wives of men with addiction. According to the 2016 study, however, some women married to addicts may not necessarily be codependent. It adds “women with a high level of neuroticism and low level of openness and agreeableness were more vulnerable to the stress of living with an addict and to codependency.”

3. Abusive Family or Partner

Physical, emotional, and sexual exploitation can cause psychological problems that last for years. One of the many psychological problems that can develop from past events is codependency. A child or teenager who is abused will eventually learn to suppress their feelings as a defense mechanism against the pain caused by the abuse. As an adult, this learned behavior results in taking care of only other’s feelings and not acknowledging their own needs. Such people will also seek out abusive relationships in the future as they are only accustomed to this type of relationship, thus ending up with a partner who is an abusive alcoholic. This further manifests a codependent relationship.

According to a 2008 study that analyzed this pattern among young women, here are the few influencing factors:

Hypothesis 1: Women with a family history of alcoholism are more likely to exhibit codependence.

Hypothesis 2: Women with a partner who abuses alcohol are prone to display codependence.

Hypothesis 3: Women with a family history of mistreatment are more likely to manifest codependence.

Hypothesis 4: Mistreated women by their partner are more likely to display codependence.

Hypothesis 5: Women who have suffered early affective losses are more
likely to display codependence.

Hypothesis 6: First-born daughters also tend to display codependence than other women.

Hypothesis 7: Women with cynical cultural female scripts are more likely to represent codependence.

Treatment Of Codependency

When it comes to treating codependency, it is essential for both partners to undergo various therapy sessions. While one spouse can battle addiction, the other will battle codependent characteristics. Through the various forms of therapies, spouses, or partners will learn to control the addiction being suffered by the loved one.

It must be noted that some individuals can overcome this condition by themselves while some require professional help. Some may learn about their codependent tendencies through books or articles while others stop being codependent when they experience environmental changes. However, for most cases, it requires professional treatment, however. Treatment is generally different types of therapies, the most popular ones being group therapy, family therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. The following are mentioned below.

1. Group Therapy

There are numerous group interventions that may show positive results in treating codependency. The group dynamic enables the individuals to build healthier relationships in an appropriate space. Group therapy commonly involves giving positive feedback and holding individuals accountable. Group therapy is extremely effective in treating the condition while building social security for the codependent person who wants to obtain new information in a predictable and appropriate space. Additionally, group therapy makes it simpler to control various relationships that cannot be controlled easily. It is effective in recalling the symbolic behaviors while building a space like a family. In other words, the protection and support of relatives apart from that of the therapist’s are valuable in the treatment process.

Read More About Group Therapy Here

2. Family Therapy

Family therapy addresses the problems in dysfunctional family dynamics. Family members recognize their dysfunctional patterns which they learn to improve in their relationships. Improved communication is often a key goal of family therapy while concerns that have never been discussed may also be raised during the therapy sessions. Sometimes, one individual creates a change that can result in the change of the entire family dynamic.

3. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive therapy targets the thought pattern of the codependent person that leads to unhealthy relationship patterns. The goal of the therapy is to create positive behavior modifications while allowing the other individual to act with more responsibility for their own actions. Treatment often includes examining a person’s childhood since most codependent individuals in their adulthood maintain a relationship after the ones they grew up seeing. Therapy may help someone to get in touch with their emotions while helping them explore a wide range of feelings.

Read More About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Here

Coping Techniques


There are several self-help activities and exercises that one can do at home to work through codependency recovery. The following are mentioned below.

1. Acknowledge The Reality Of The Relationship

After learning about codependency, one must examine himself/herself along with the partner to identify the red flags within the relationship.

2. Learn About Healthy Relationships

The person must compare a healthy, dependent relationship to a codependent one. He/she must understand the positive effects of a healthy relationship versus the damaging effects of a codependent one. This will help the person to realize what he/she values and wants to change.

3. Take Responsibility

It is difficult for a codependent person and his/her partner to take responsibility for their own feelings and shortcomings. However, each person should take charge of themselves while reminding each other that they are in control of their own emotions and behaviors which can help break the cycle.

4. Gather Knowledge From Books

Books on the topic can be a great way to understand the condition and can help you to act thoughtfully.

5. Take A Break

One must take a break from relationships to focus on himself/herself for a while. Additionally, it is essential to resist starting a new relationship immediately after ending one.

6. Set Boundaries

When someone breaks off a relationship, resistance from the partner is common and expected. It may turn toxic as the partner may get angry, manipulative, and persistent. Thus, the person must draw clear boundaries by consistently upholding them. It will send a powerful message, thus compelling them to build a healthier relationship with someone else.

Approach Relationships With Positivity

Codependency is confusing and recognizing it within oneself is not easy. While codependency gives birth to toxic relationships, the good news is it can be managed and overcome. Whether one decides to stay in the relationship or leave it behind, it is essential to learn about codependency, acting thoughtful and, if required, talking to a professional can help one learn more healthy ways to advance in relationships.

Codependency At A Glance

  1. Codependency often appears in unbalanced and unhealthy relationships.
  2. The term is commonly used to describe relationships where a person is needy or dependent upon another person.
  3. Codependency is a learned behavior that usually originates from past behavioral patterns and emotional difficulties.
  4. Cognitive therapy targets the thought pattern of the codependent person that leads to unhealthy relationship patterns.
  5. There are several self-help activities and exercises that one can do at home to work through codependency recovery.

Take This Free Codependency Test

👇 References:
  1. Knapek E, Kuritárné Szabó I. A kodependencia fogalma, tünetei és a kialakulásában szerepet játszó tényezők [The concept, the symptoms and the etiological factors of codependency]. Psychiatr Hung. 2014;29(1):56-64. Hungarian. PMID: 24670293. []
  2. Raklova, Y. (2014). Psychological Analysis of Codependents. Horizon Research Publishing. []
  4. Stafford LL. Is codependency a meaningful concept? Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2001 Apr-May;22(3):273-86. doi: 10.1080/01612840121607. PMID: 11885212. []
  5. Noriega, G., & Lira, L. R. (2008, May). Prevalence of Codependence in young women seeking primary health care and associated risk factors. ResearchGate. []
  6. Hughes-Hammer C, Martsolf DS, Zeller RA. Depression and codependency in women. Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 1998 Dec;12(6):326-34. doi: 10.1016/s0883-9417(98)80046-0. PMID: 9868824. []
  7. Donna S. Martsolf, Cyrilla Hughes-Hammer, Patricia Estok, Richard A. Zeller,
    Codependency in male and female helping professionals, []
  8. Carfora, R. E. (2009). Codependency among only children as predicted by parenting styles practiced in family-of-origin. Smith Scholarworks. []
  9. Panaghi, L., Ahmadabadi, Z., Khosravi, N., Sadeghi, M. S., & Madanipour, A. (2016). Living with Addicted Men and Codependency: The Moderating Effect of Personality Traits. Addiction & health8(2), 98–106. []
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