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Dec 23, 2022

Codependency: What It Is & How To Overcome It


From the outside, codependency can be perplexing. If you’ve ever had a friend in an unhealthy relationship, then you’ll know exactly what this feels like:

“Their partner is treating them so poorly! Why don’t they just leave?”

But it’s rarely that simple. Your friend may be in a codependent relationship. 

Codependency can form in so many kinds of relationships—even non-romantic ones. It can happen to the partner of someone with a substance abuse problem or a behavioural addiction. And it can form in families between a parent and their child.

You hear the word “codependency” get used a lot. But you might not be completely clear on what it is, why it’s harmful, or how to regain your independence.

How do you tell the difference between a healthy attachment and codependency? The latter looks like… 

  • Relying on another person for validation, self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and happiness
  • Being so attached to the person that being separated even for a brief period causes distress
  • Ignoring your needs to care for another person
  • Inability to maintain boundaries
  • Staying in the relationship despite poor treatment 

By learning about what codependency is, you can start building healthier relationships with others. Let’s get into it:

What Is a Codependent Relationship?

It’s any relationship where one person feels an incredibly strong reliance on the other for happiness, self-esteem, and purpose. They spend most of their time caring for that individual, and they neglect their own needs. 

A codependent person loses their sense of identity in the relationship to the point where they see the other person’s actions as their own responsibility. 

Codependent people invest all of themselves into a relationship and may be resentful when the other person doesn’t do the same. Their lives revolve around that person, and they may have obsessive thoughts about them. 

A codependent person struggles to spend any time away from the person, may deal with jealousy issues, and might even feel as though they’re “addicted” to the relationship.

Signs of Codependency

Are you at risk of being in a codependent relationship? If you recognize the following feelings and behaviours in yourself, you may be forming a codependent attachment: 

A desire to be needed

In codependent relationships, one person’s life revolves around caring for and rescuing the other. They might see it as their responsibility to “cure” that person of their problems or to support them financially. 

In return, they want to be needed in the same way. They feel satisfied when the other person relies on them as well, and they feel validated when their sacrifices are recognized.

Feeling trapped and growing resentful

Over time, codependency takes its toll on a person. A codependent gives and gives, even when it comes at the cost of their own well-being. Due to this imbalance, they may feel a growing resentment toward the other person. But despite that, they maintain the relationship because the idea of being without that person is much more painful. 

Another aspect of codependency is martyrdom—when the codependent sees their actions as selfless and expects to be praised for their sacrifice. When their actions go unnoticed by the other person, they’re internally angry about it—but may be afraid to voice this to their partner. 

A deteriorating relationship

An unhealthy attachment leads to an unhealthy relationship. Instead of feeling safe and secure with the other person, someone who’s codependent feels a lot of anxiety. 

They worry about what may happen if the other person leaves, they feel growing frustration that their dependency is not reciprocated, and they seek pity instead of love and acceptance. The result? An environment that feels toxic

Causes of Codependency

To understand how to overcome codependency, we’ll start by unpacking what causes it. 

So, what makes someone form an unhealthy attachment? How does a codependent relationship develop in the first place? 

It often starts with good intentions. One person wants to love, care for, and look after the other. But their attachment begins to overshadow all aspects of their life, becoming the priority even when it’s causing them harm. 

Below, we’ll take a look at two main reasons why codependent tendencies form: 

A partner’s substance use disorder

Originally, the term “codependency” was used to describe a relationship where one person enabled the other’s addiction. Now, it’s used more broadly—but it still applies to these situations. 

In efforts to keep their person happy, the codependent may end up enabling their substance or behavioural addiction. They may even supply them with drugs or money for gambling. 

One of the greatest risks of these relationships is that the codependent person could also develop a substance addiction themselves. 

This can also happen to children whose parents have an addiction—the child takes on more and more household responsibilities as the parent loses the ability to be a caretaker. 

Past experiences

There’s also a generational factor at play here. Often, we learn how to love by observing the behaviours of those closest to us. So if you grew up around codependent relationships, you’re more likely to pick up the behaviour yourself.

In other cases, you may have had a codependent relationship early on in life. For example, if you had to be a caretaker for a parent or friend when you were young, you learned that this was a normal relationship, and so it’s stayed with you in your adult life.

Codependency Vs. Caring

Everyone likes to feel needed sometimes. It’s normal to feel sad when your partner is away for a while and to feel satisfaction when you make them happy.

But where do you draw the line between healthy love and one that borders on codependency? 

A codependent person cares so deeply for another that it comes at the expense of their own well-being. They neglect their needs and responsibilities to keep the other person happy. And instead of helping and supporting the other person, a codependent tends to enable unhealthy behaviours. Without the relationship, codependents feel as though they have no identity or purpose. 

In a caring relationship, there is a deep sense of love and attachment, but both people still have an identity outside of the relationship. They look after and care for themselves while supporting their partner and encouraging them to be their best selves. They gain happiness and satisfaction from areas of their lives other than the relationship. 

In summary: Caring relationships add value to someone’s life, while codependent ones cause people to neglect their own needs. 

Examples of Codependency

What does a codependent relationship actually look like? It’s one thing to understand it on paper but another to recognize codependent tendencies within yourself or those around you.

As we mentioned, codependency can happen outside of romantic relationships, too. Here are a few examples:

A parent who is codependent on their child

A codependent parent is someone who is so attached to their child that they attempt to control their life to an unhealthy degree. Adults with children may become codependent when they…

  • Continue to take care of all their child’s needs and responsibilities, even when they are an adult
  • Derive all sense of purpose and identity from being a parent
  • Support their child financially so they remain dependent on the parent
  • Are reluctant to let the child be independent in any way
  • Become very controlling of the child

A child who is codependent on their parent

On the other hand, a child may be codependent if they rely on their parents well into adulthood. This type of relationship is more common with children whose parents are narcissists or struggle with addiction. A codependent child may:

  • Pass up on career and education opportunities to stay closer to their parent
  • Put friendships and other relationships aside to focus on spending time with the parent
  • Bite their tongue about any issues they have with the relationship in fear of upsetting the parent

A romantic relationship

What does it look like to love someone codependently? The codependency might go one way, or in other cases, both partners are dependent on each other. A codependent may:

  • Believe that they can “fix” the other person’s problems or addiction
  • Give their partner more financial support than they can afford
  • Allow their mental health to deteriorate because their sole focus is their partner
  • Perform poorly at school or work due to the relationship
  • Not make time for self-care or other friendships
  • Tolerate abuse because they don’t want the other person to leave
  • Hide the way their partner treats them from others, in fear that people will criticize their partner

Risk Factors for Codependent Relationships

How is it that some people form healthy relationships, while others put their needs aside for the people they love?

We’ll list the risk factors for codependency, but keep in mind that even if you identify with some of these traits, that doesn’t necessarily make you codependent. However, you may want to speak with a mental health professional if you feel this list describes you to a T. 

Studies show that you may be more likely to have codependent traits if you:

  • Had a traumatic childhood (for example, if you lived in a house that felt out of your control, or you were raised by neglectful parents)
  • Are in a romantic relationship with or related to someone who struggles with substance abuse
  • Seek approval from others and have low self-esteem 
  • Feel undeserving when other people give back to you
  • Lose interest in relationships where the other person does not have an ongoing problem
  • Have trouble communicating; you may lie to cover up your real thoughts and feelings (in fear that your true self will push the other person away)
  • Struggle to make decisions on your own
  • Tolerate poor treatment from other people
  • Have a deep fear of abandonment or being single/by yourself
  • Feel angry that other people don’t appreciate what you do for them
  • Have trouble trusting others and getting intimate with new people
  • Seek external validation to maintain your self-worth
  • Feel responsible for other people’s actions and needs
  • Struggle to maintain healthy boundaries with others

Identifying a Codependent Relationship

How do you know if you’re in a healthy relationship? To answer that, consider how the relationship makes you feel. Ask yourself the following:

  1. Do you make time to take care of yourself, even when you’re in a relationship?
  2. Do you pretend like you’re okay, even if someone is upsetting or bothering you?
  3. Are you constantly worrying or thinking about the other person?
  4. Do you spend more time looking after your partner's needs than they look after yours?
  5. Do you have a hard time saying “no” to people?
  6. Do you only find fulfillment from your relationships instead of your personal hobbies or goals?
  7. Do you find that being with the other person comes at the expense of your physical or mental health?
  8. Do you feel like you lose yourself when you enter a new relationship?

Again, if what we described above resonates with you, you may be caught in a cycle of codependency. 

The Progression of Codependent Tendencies

With any relationship, things change as you grow closer and closer to the other person. But what if you’re attaching to them in an unhealthy way? It may progress through the following stages:

Stage one

In a romantic relationship, this is known as the honeymoon phase, when it’s common to feel infatuated with another person. But a codependent person will take this to the extreme—they’ll have obsessive thoughts about that person and start neglecting other relationships and hobbies to focus solely on their new partner. 

Stage two

At this stage, the consequences of codependency start to show up. The codependent may start to resent the other person for not reciprocating all that they put into the relationship. But in turn, this only amplifies the behaviours described in stage one. 

Stage three

Codependency can have serious consequences on someone’s physical and mental health; they may feel a pervasive sense of anxiety around their partner. They abandon their own hobbies and start putting all of their time and energy into the other person. Even if they’re unhappy, they feel trapped in the relationship, as though they have no worth or purpose without it.

How To Overcome Codependency

What we’ve described above sounds pretty bleak.

But it doesn’t have to reach that point.

If you suspect you’ve become codependent, you aren’t stuck that way. Just as codependency is learned from others, it can also be unlearned. There are ways to change your thought patterns, behaviours, and the way you connect with others. 

We’ll list a few of them below:

Set (and maintain) boundaries

Do you feel like you always lose yourself in relationships?

Part of that may be due to a lack of boundaries.

If you find yourself too eager to please others, then you may accept treatment that makes you uncomfortable. For example, lending someone money so they can pay their bills, even though you have your own bills to pay. Or maybe you agree to spend all your time with them, even when you’re really behind on other tasks. 

To regain control, you can start putting up boundaries. Say “no” when you can’t spare any time for that person. Limit how much you’re willing to financially support them. And once you establish those boundaries, be mindful of maintaining them as you move forward. 

Seek healthy relationships

Are you drawn to people with problems? In other words, do you see yourself as a “fixer”? Through codependency treatment, you’ll learn that other people’s problems are not your fault or responsibility. Instead, you’ll seek relationships where you feel equally supported, appreciated, and respected. 

Distance yourself

If you start putting yourself first, the other person may be supportive of you. Or they might demand you continue giving up your needs to meet theirs.

In that case, the only way to regain your sense of self is to put distance between you and that person. Whether it’s a parent, child, or partner, take a step back, and consider how the relationship is affecting you. Is it adding value to your life? Or would you feel better if you didn’t need to meet that person’s demands?

Sometimes, codependency stems from early experiences in life. We learn how to treat others by observing the behaviours of our friends and family. And if you let it, the past can continue to affect your present. 

If you grew up around dysfunctional relationships—perhaps with your parents or other family members—these behaviours may seem normal and healthy to you. It’s worth considering whether you should distance yourself from these unhealthy relationships in your life.

Make time for yourself

You know what’s truly empowering?

Realizing that spending time with yourself, investing in your own happiness, and meeting your needs…is actually awesome! 

You won’t feel so reliant on other people when you recognize that you are capable of making yourself happy. Through self-care, you’ll become more aware of your needs and goals in life. You’ll start to see the value of developing a relationship with yourself instead of giving all your time and energy to other people.

When you prioritize the most important relationship in your life—the one you have with yourself—you won’t need as much validation from other people. And that’s one of the first steps in becoming independent instead of codependent

Codependency isn’t a condition you can cure with a pill. To make lasting changes, you need to challenge the way you think—and a professional can help with that. 

Seeking Treatment To Overcome Codependency

What does a life without codependency look like?

It’s the ability to be responsible for your own happiness. The freedom to embrace your independence. To not let other people dictate your self-esteem. 

You’ve recognized that being codependent is holding you back in life, and you’re ready to make a change. 

You don’t need to find your way there alone. If you’d like to learn how to overcome codependency, we can help. 

At One Life Counselling and Coaching, we offer individual and couples counselling. We take a down-to-earth and compassionate approach to treatment. It’s our mission to help you become the best version of yourself. 

Ready to book your first appointment? We’re available during the daytime, evenings, and weekends, 7 days a week. Book an appointment today!

I am the founder of One Life Counselling and Coaching LTD and I am honored to lead a team of professional psychologists, psychotherapist’s and life coaches who dedicate their professional lives to helping people to elevate their mindsets, evolve their beliefs and learn to thrive in the present moment.
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