Codependency describes a pattern where your life revolves around someone else’s wants and needs.
You might consider yourself as that person’s carer, helper, emotional rock, or guardian angel. Whatever name you use, though, this dynamic generally means they’ve become the main character in your own life.
Originally, 20th-century psychologists used “codependent” to describe the wives of men living with alcohol addiction.
They described a “codependent” wife as someone who’d go to extreme lengths to protect her husband from the consequences of alcohol use, often by:
- going out to purchase more alcohol for him so he wouldn’t drive under the influence
- “managing” his mood by providing compliments and reassurance
- calling out sick for him when he’s actually hungover
- making excuses to family and friends
According to the theory behind this idea of codependency, the wife “enabled” the addiction in order to keep the husband dependent on her, in the same way she depended on him.
This idea earned plenty of debate. Critics said it victim-blamed people in potentially abusive relationships. Supporters, on the other hand, said it emphasized the need for treatment to address the overall family dynamic, not just one person’s behavior.
Over time, the concept of codependency expanded beyond the realm of addiction and relationship conflict.
Today, codependency describes any relationship dynamic where one person overextends themselves to support another person. That could be a helicopter parent micromanaging their college kid’s school life. Or a twenty-something financially carrying an unemployed cousin at the expense of their own wallet.
But how do you draw the line between codependency and simple kindness? Read on to find out.
Few relationships are completely equal all the time. On some days, your partner might lean on you, and on other days, you might find yourself leaning on your partner.
What’s more, if you’re in a caregiving relationship — maybe you parent a young child or provide support for an older relative with a disability — you can typically expect some dependency.
That said, helping others can become unhealthy when it consistently comes at your own expense.
Some common signs and examples of codependent tendencies:
You’re a social chameleon
Maybe you find yourself subtly shifting your behavior to better align with your loved one’s needs.
You’re naturally a quiet person and prefer to stay in rather than go out. But when they urge you to join them at parties and gatherings, you agree rather than explaining how drained socializing leaves you.
Or you might tend to say whatever you think others want to hear, even if you secretly disagree.
Say your friend asks what movie you want to watch. You recommend a new horror movie, even though you hate jump scares, because you know they find romantic comedies boring. You decide you’ll watch the latest rom-com on your own time.
You base your identity on what you do for others
You may believe others only keep you around for what you can do for them. In short, your role as a helper might provide your sense of worth and purpose. You might have few relationships or hobbies that are yours alone — in other words, not related to the person you provide care for.
Perhaps you’ve been looking after your parents for years, bringing them meals and doing housework. Eventually, they decide to hire a live-in nurse to give you a break. Feeling rejected and replaced, you try to convince them a nurse can’t care for them as well as you do.
You put your loved ones first, no matter what
You might tell yourself you can handle hunger or fatigue so long as your loved ones don’t have to suffer. Sometimes you even put their temporary desires over your long-term needs.
Say you have your annual physical coming up. You’ve had some health troubles recently, so you’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to connect with your doctor. When your older brother asks you to babysit your niece so he can go on a camping trip, you mention your appointment. But he insists you’re the only sitter available on short notice. In the end, you cancel your checkup so he can take his trip.
You hide negative feelings with a happy face
Do you find yourself trying to avoid conflict at all costs? When a loved one says or does something hurtful, you may try to forgive them for the sake of your relationship. But ignoring your pain and anger can foster feelings of frustration and resentment and eventually cause those buried emotions to bubble over.
For your fiancé’s birthday, you find the perfect present — front-row tickets for their favorite indie artist’s concert. But when your birthday comes around, they give you a cheap box of peanut brittle. You smile and say you love the candy because you don’t want to sound ungrateful. In reality, you feel disappointed and hurt, especially since you’ve told them before you can’t eat hard candy.
You believe your life would fall apart if you weren’t holding everything together
Even when you have some awareness that your relationship is unbalanced, you might not trust the other person to pick up the slack. The risk of letting everything collapse can seem much greater than the risk of burning yourself out.
Maybe you and your spouse both work, but you handle virtually all the child care. You wash laundry, cook nutritious meals, and enforce bedtimes. You’d love for them to pitch in and give you a day off. At the same time, you worry you’d come home to paint on the walls and your toddler face-deep in cake.
You feel the need to save other people from themselves
It’s natural to care deeply for your loved ones and want to keep them from experiencing pain. If you suspect a problem looms on the horizon, you may want to dip in and solve it before anyone gets hurt.
But it can help to remember you don’t always have all the information about what’s best for others. Your attempts to jump in and help — which some might consider meddling — may backfire.
Maybe your daughter puts off applying for an internship after graduating college. Every time you remind her to send out applications, she says she wants to wait to find the perfect paid opportunity. Finally, you fill out an application form and send it in on her behalf. When they reply to accept her, she’s elated — until she realizes it’s not the paid opportunity she did, in fact, apply for, but the unpaid program you applied for.
You don’t know how to relax
Do you tend to feel restless or guilty when you have free time? Maybe you often feel like there’s more you should do to help out.
Say you cooked dinner, so your roommate agreed to clean the kitchen and wash dishes. After dinner, though, you feel lazy watching TV while they’re scrubbing pans. So you pause your show and help them load the dishwasher, even though they didn’t ask for your help.
Codependency isn’t an official mental health diagnosis, but it does often occurs alongside mental health concerns.
One 2012 study considered data from 49 members of Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) along with 301 adults in the general population. The study authors found that people who score higher on measures of codependency often also have:
- higher levels of depression
- higher levels of anxiety and stress
- lower self-esteem
- more difficulty expressing emotions
- increased dysfunction in family relationships
Codependency often stems from emotional neglect. If your parents never comforted or praised you, then you might grow up desperate to earn affection. You may tell yourself you’re willing to do anything for love, that you’re happy so long as you aren’t alone. But others may exploit this people-pleasing attitude for their own gain.
Children can also become codependent as a result of overly critical parenting. Maybe your parents demanded perfection and let you know every time you fell short of their expectations. You may grow up unconsciously repeating those patterns, feeling as though you need to “manage” your children or partner for their own good.
Chances are, you developed codependent behaviors to adapt to an unhealthy environment. But those behaviors, though they might have helped you at the time, can cause problems in your relationships — both for you and your loved ones.
You can take steps to work through codependent tendencies, though. These strategies offer a place to start:
- Practice saying ‘no.’ You don’t have to drop everything at once, but you can start by turning down low-stakes requests now and then. The other person may be more understanding than you expect.
- Let people fight their own battles. You don’t need to take on the role of judge and jury every time your loved ones have a fight. Challenge yourself to keep your opinions and advice to yourself, unless someone asks what you think.
- Schedule self-care. It can be easy to say you’ll rest once your life is less busy. In all honesty, though, something new could always come up. One way to make sure you get a break anyway? Plan ahead for it.
Of course, breaking a habit of codependency can be easier said than done. If you’re finding it difficult to address these patterns on your own, a therapist can offer more guidance and support.
Connecting with a mental health professional can always have benefit if you have a history of trauma or abuse, in childhood relationships or romantic ones.
A therapist can:
- help you unpack the effects of abuse
- identify and practice helpful coping strategies and self-care techniques
- explore more productive relationship behaviors
If you have codependent tendencies, you’re probably used to helping others. But it’s okay to accept help too. You deserve to feel the love and support you so often give to others.
If a pattern of codependency begins to affect your everyday life, overall well-being, or relationships with others, reaching out for professional support can be a helpful next step.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.