Codependency, or “relationship addiction,” is a learned behavior that affects individuals from dysfunctional families. As an emotional and behavioral condition, codependency affects an individual’s ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. Codependent people often form relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive, or abusive. In many cases, codependent tendencies are learned by watching or imitating other relatives, such as codependent parents or spouses of people with alcoholism.
Codependency often affects spouses, parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers of individuals experiencing alcohol or drug dependence. Originally, the term ‘codependent’ was used to describe partners in a relationship with an addicted person. Today, the concept of codependency describes any codependent person from a dysfunctional family, according to Mental Health America.
What is a dysfunctional family?
The term ‘dysfunctional family‘ describes a family in which members suffer from pain, anger, fear, or shame that is left ignored. Parents, siblings, or other family members may experience the following challenges:
- Addiction to drugs, alcohol, relationships, sex, or gambling
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Chronic physical or mental illness, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that these challenges exist. Consequently, individuals in codependent relationships learn to repress difficult emotions and ignore their own needs, leading to a lack of trust, confrontation, affection, attachment, and fulfillment.
Instead, family members focus their attention and energy on their loved one facing addiction and may sacrifice their own needs to take on a caregiving role. When a codependent person places others’ needs before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, emotions, identity, and sense of purpose.
Signs of Codependency
Although codependence has important implications in the field of substance abuse, it is not an official diagnosis under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). As a result, definitions of codependency vary significantly. However, there are some common traits that codependent people share:
- Experiencing low self-esteem or symptoms of depression
- A lack of interpersonal control, i.e., difficulty making decisions or putting your own needs first
- Feeling like you’ve lost a sense of yourself in the relationship
- A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
- Feelings of shame
- Problems with boundaries or intimacy
- An exaggerated sense of responsibility for others’ behavior
Because many individuals struggling with codependency experience low self-esteem, they find it hard to “be themselves.” Some codependent people turn to alcohol, drugs, or other substances to feel better, while others may develop addictions to gambling or sex.
Although codependent people have good intentions, caretaking can become overwhelming, often leading them to take on the role of martyr within their family. For example, the partner of a dependent person may make up excuses for their partner’s irresponsible behavior, or a mother may act as a confidante for a mentally ill child. Unfortunately, this repeated caring behavior allows the dependent person to continue on a destructive course and become even more dependent on their caregiver.
What should you do if you’re in a codependent relationship?
If you’re in a codependent relationship, it’s important to work closely with your health care professional to establish an effective treatment plan. Some helpful interventions to manage your mental well-being include:
- Talk therapy. Talk therapies in individual, group, and couple contexts can help codependent individuals understand codependent behavior and work toward a healthy relationship. If challenges such as alcohol or substance abuse, addiction, or emotional abuse are present in the codependent relationship, this should also be addressed in therapy.
- Talk to friends and family members. For many codependent people, one of the most common codependent traits is withdrawal from friends and family members. It’s important to stay connected and reach out for social support if you need it.
- Join a support group. If you have a hard time opening up to loved ones about your codependence, consider joining a support group who have experienced this type of relationship. Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) provides the opportunity to share and learn from others in similar situations.
- Practice self-care. If you’re feeling consumed by the needs of others, it’s important to make time for yourself and spend some time doing things you enjoy. Try some new hobbies, eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and check in regularly with your own feelings.
- Educate yourself. The first step in changing codependent behavior is to recognize it. It’s important for individuals struggling with codependency and family members to educate themselves about the cycle of addiction, extreme sacrifices, and the concept of codependency. Libraries, drug and alcohol abuse treatment centers, and mental health centers often provide educational materials on codependency.
- Call a helpline. If you need immediate mental health support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re experiencing abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1800-799-7233.
Therapy for Codependency
Because codependency is typically rooted in childhood experiences, therapy often involves exploring early childhood issues and their relationship to codependent patterns of behavior. With the help of a psychologist, you’ll learn how to get in touch with feelings that were buried during childhood to recognize your own needs and experience your full range of feelings again.
Several different therapeutic approaches can help codependent people foster healthier relationships and manage their mental health, including:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Couples counseling
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT)
To find a therapist, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a licensed therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. Whether you’re navigating an unhealthy relationship or searching for a sense of purpose, one of our experienced therapists will help you manage your mental health and recognize your own needs.