Understanding Codependency

Codependency is often used to describe a type of person or relationship but what exactly does it mean? Originating from Alcoholics Anonymous, codependency was first used to illustrate how individuals in an alcoholic’s support system act to enable the addictive behavior rather than promote recovery from it.  This concept was developed after a pattern was identified among this population in which individuals sought acceptance and approval by focusing on and becoming engrossed in an addict’s behavior instead of being able to find healthier avenues for meeting their own needs. 

Over time, codependency became applicable to other dynamics outside of alcoholism and can generally be understood as a relationship in which one person enables problematic and unhealthy behavior in another person.  Codependency is a “dysfunctional helping” type of a dynamic that is the result of one individual’s inability to function on his or her own and instead relies on an ill, unhealthy individual’s behavior to build self-esteem and meet emotional needs.  Just as a drug addict becomes addicted to a substance, a codependent individual becomes dependent on the addictive behavior of another individual.

Codependent behavior is viewed as excessive and compulsive and results in individuals losing sight of who they are and what they need because of a preoccupation with the needs of someone else. Many codependent individuals confuse their behavior as caring and empathetic however most efforts to help are not a conscious decision in which consequences to one’s self are acknowledged.  An individual who is considered healthy is able to be attentive to his or her own needs while providing help to others in appropriate ways which is an ability that a codependent individual struggles with.

Codependency can occur in any type of relationship including intimate, family, work, friendships, or groups as well as to varying degrees of dysfunction.  Here are some common behaviors associated with codependent relationships:

  • Poor boundaries
  • Denial and deceitfulness
  • Unhealthy communication
  • High reactivity and conflict
  • Instability
  • Absence of trust
  • Intimacy problems
  • Power and control issues/manipulation
  • Worthlessness
  • Avoidance of being alone
  • Resentment
  • Excessive sacrifices made for other person
  • Clinginess or enmeshment

Codependency that goes untreated has been found to put individuals at risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, addictive behavior, physical and psychosomatic illness, as well as other unhealthy behaviors.  However, codependency issues can be resolved effectively through a number of treatment methods that include psychotherapy, support groups, or psychotropic medication to treat co-occurring mental health disorders.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT