Codependency involves excessive reliance on another person, and it’s common in relationships where one party has an addiction. Essentially, one party enables the other person’s destructive behavior, such as covering or lying for them when they are hungover or paying their bills when they come up short because they have spent their money on drugs.
Whether codependence is “real” in the medical and psychological sense is debated, but at the very least it is possible to be in toxic, lopsided relationships. Below, we identify potential signs that you’re in such a relationship and offer advice on breaking out.
What Is Codependency?
Today Codependency, is also commonly used to refer to more generally toxic, unbalanced relationship patterns.
Codependency is a controversial topic. It isn’t a term that has ever been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). If they accept it as a real phenomenon at all, many experts believe that the way codependency is discussed is flawed.
While the ways it’s defined varies, codependency is usually said to be a type of relationship in which the people involved in that relationship are heavily reliant on each other in a way that is destructive and imbalanced.
It seems to have originally been used to refer to the caretaking patterns of those in relationships with alcoholics, but then, it evolved to refer to people in relationships with those more generally struggling with addiction.
Types of Codependency
Codependency can describe a number of different relationship dynamics, often between romantic partners but not exclusively, including these:
This type of codependency describes a relationship in which one person’s caretaking behavior for a loved one struggling with addiction has grown toxic and may actually be enabling their drug use. In an effort to remain helpful and always avoid conflict, the caretaker might potentially prevent a loved one from getting the help they need to combat their addiction.
Emotional codependency can describe a relationship dynamic in which one person in a relationship constantly feels the need to emotionally support a loved one even to the significant detriment of their own health and needs. In essence, they may devote so much of themselves to emotionally supporting the person they care about that they fail to fill their own personal needs.
In some of these relationships, a person’s loved one may be actively emotionally abusive or manipulative, knowingly playing with the emotions of the person in the caretaker role. In others, the loved one may simply be very passive or otherwise have significant difficulty reciprocating emotional support, if they are trying to reciprocate at all.
Violent codependency describes a physically abusive relationship in which one person is so devoted to supporting their loved one that they tolerate physically abusive and potentially outright dangerous behavior patterns.
Of the types of codependency described thus far, this is often one of the most destructive. This type of codependency can make it difficult for a person to recognize critical signs that their relationship isn’t just unhealthy but may also genuinely be putting their life (and the lives of others in the household) at risk.
Codependency & Addiction
Codependency is most often discussed in relation to addiction, which makes sense for a number of reasons. It was heavily influenced and pushed as a term by Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1960s and 1970s. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the term and its varying definition, it’s clear that some relationships between people struggling with addiction and their loved one can take on toxic traits. The codependency label can and has helped people define a shorthand for these kinds of destructive relationships.
One study found four distinct themes that are common in the descriptions of relationships given by a small group of people who self-identified as being in codependent relationships. These themes were as follows:
- A reduced sense of self
- An emotional and occupational imbalance
- A sense of abandonment and control in childhood
- A discovery that the codependency label seems to explain many of their relationship’s dynamics
What Causes Codependency?
One common trait among codependents seems to be a strong desire to adapt to the needs of their environment and relationship so they can feel safe and like they belong.
Because it isn’t a medical diagnosis and doesn’t have one set definition, it is difficult to fully discuss what can cause codependency. Many people who are codependent struggle with feelings of abandonment and have a history of being overly controlled as children.
Very broadly, a codependent relationship needs two components.
The first is a person able to fill the caretaker role and who is overly devoted to that role, acting with such devotion to their loved one that it represents a serious risk to their physical or mental well-being or causes them to overlook significant issues with their loved one’s behavior. The second component is an individual who either chooses not to or cannot reciprocate the love they’re given and who may grow reliant on that love despite not reciprocating their caretaker’s efforts.
What Makes Codependency Harmful?
Codependency can be a major cause of stress in a relationship, with the person in the caretaking role potentially finding the relationship incredibly mentally and emotionally draining while also tolerating patterns of behavior that it would be in their best interest not to tolerate.
The person receiving that care can also potentially be harmed depending on what their caretaker is enabling. For example, if a caretaker fully supports a person’s harmful behaviors, such as facilitating and endorsing drug misuse, that is going to make it very difficult for that person to get help for their addiction.
While relationships involving addiction are complicated and the line between compassion and enablement isn’t always obvious, there does come a point where a loved one needs to step in and prevent, or at least not actively enable, certain addiction behaviors.
Signs You May Be in a Codependent Relationship
One struggle when in a relationship with someone who has an addiction is recognizing signs that things have become actively codependent. Addiction is a disease, and a person struggling with addiction will naturally have greater needs at times than someone who is physically and mentally healthy. That person needing your help or being less emotionally available than you isn’t necessarily a meaningful sign of codependency.
A sign of a truly toxic codependent relationship is when you tolerate or enable behaviors you normally would not find acceptable. If a person regularly mistreats you, regardless of how apologetic they are afterward, that is a common sign of codependency.
Another sign is if you’re enabling dangerous behaviors, such as getting a person drugs (either directly or by paying for them), ignoring bad or dangerous patterns of behavior (such as stealing), or otherwise allowing them to drain you without making a real effort to support you or at least make positive, healthy changes in their own life.
In a healthy relationship, you shouldn’t feel used. In healthy relationships, the people in that relationship support each other. While everyone’s needs are different, and it’s okay to sometimes need more or less help than other people you care about, you should at least be able to see the other person is making an effort to reciprocate the care you give and help you when they can. If they aren’t, it’s a sign of an unbalanced relationship.
How to Break the Cycle
Any relationship in which you regularly tolerate emotional abuse or acts of violence (or threats of violence) is harmful and needs to be fixed, often by leaving that relationship and getting somewhere where you are safe and not mistreated. In less severe cases, relationship counseling or even just honest conversations about how someone makes you feel may be enough to have them begin correcting their behavior, but this is very dependent on the situation.
If you’re ever unsure if you’re in a codependent relationship, it’s worth talking to a mental health professional. Even if you’re not, the fact that the thought occurred to you likely means a change should occur in your relationship. A mental health professional can help you process those feelings and give advice on the best steps to take next.
- Codependency. Psychology Today.
- The Lived Experience of Codependency: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. (August 2018). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.
- The Lived Experience of Codependency: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. (August 2018). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.
- Codependency and Pathological Altruism. (2012). Oxford University Press.
- Living With Addicted Men and Codependency: The Moderating Effect of Personality Traits. (April 2016). Addiction & Health.
- The History of the Term, Codependency. PsychCentral.