Understanding Co-Dependent Relationships

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on June 13, 2016Written by Daniela Ginta on June 13, 2016

What is co-dependency?

Healthy relationships are a vital component of life. Signs of a healthy relationship include respecting personal boundaries and a mutual respect and understanding for one another. Dysfunctional relationships can often cause emotional difficulties for one or both partners and their family.

Co-dependency is a type of dysfunctional relationship. In a co-dependent relationship, there are no clear boundaries between partners. One partner takes care of the other partner’s needs at the expense of their own needs. This creates a one-sided relationship and can lead to low self-esteem and emotional or physical abuse, or both.

Co-dependent relationships can also happen when one partner has a substance addiction. That includes drinking in excess or taking recreational drugs.

Symptoms of co-dependency

Co-dependency is a personality disorder. Symptoms may include:

  • lack of self-esteem to the point of depending on other people’s opinion to feel better about yourself
  • tolerance of abusive behavior
  • finding excuses for abusive behavior
  • avoiding conflict
  • fear of being alone or having a relationship end
  • clingy behavior
  • obsessive thoughts about people and relationships
  • feeling insecure about the relationship you are in
  • a desire to fix everything, even when that means neglecting yourself
  • blaming yourself for other people’s problems

A person in a co-dependent relationship may also experience shame to the point of reducing or cutting contact with family and friends, rather than facing the problem and seeking solutions.

Recognizing that you are in a co-dependent relationship can be difficult. Being able to identify the co-dependency is an important step towards recovery.

Risk factors

Growing up in an emotionally restrictive, neglecting, or abusive family can teach a child that love is conditional. It can instill a fear of being abandoned, which can lower your self-esteem and lead you to doubt your worthiness. This can lead co-dependency later in life.

Growing up with substance addiction in the family is also a risk factor for co-dependency. A recent study concluded that women whose fathers or husbands had an alcohol addiction had a higher risk of becoming co-dependent.

A history of depression may also be a risk factor for co-dependency. More research is needed to study the relationship between codependency and depression. A study published in 1998 found that many women who are depressed are also moderately or severely co-dependent.

Seeking help

Identifying that you are in a co-dependent relationship is the first step to overcoming co-dependency issues. Working with a doctor can help you learn to build boundaries and engage in relationships in an emotionally healthy way.

Tell your doctor how you’re feeling. They will work with you to create a treatment plan. Recovery can be a slow process, so be patient as you work to move beyond your co-dependency.

Here are some more things you can do to overcome co-dependency:

  • Make time for yourself and the things you like. If there’s a hobby you always wanted to try, take the time to try it out.
  • Start a journal. Journaling can help you better understand your feelings. You can also use a journal to explore positive things about yourself, like your good qualities and things that give you a sense of worth.
  • If you have a substance abuse problem, talk to your doctor or a counsellor about ways to break your addiction.
  • If your relationship with your partner does not involve abuse and you both want to stay in the relationship, go to couples counselling together. Learning to communicate openly with one another can help your relationship become healthy and fulfilling.
  • Learn to say no. Being able to say no is an important step in creating boundaries.

Outlook

Co-dependency develops over time. It often happens without people being fully aware of it. All relationships involve a certain amount of give and take. But if one person is giving a lot more than the other person, they may be in a co-dependent relationship.

If you identify yourself as a codependent, know that change is possible. It may take a while to happen. Stay committed to learning to engage in healthy, mutually respectful relationships.

Q:

I think my friend is in a co-dependent relationship. How can I help them?

A:

The first step is for your friend to realize that they’re in a co-dependent relationship. You can point out the evidence, but your friend must come to the realization on their own. They must also want to do something about it. If they accept your help, encourage them to contact their doctor for a referral to a mental health professional.

Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNPAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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