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Codependency is a concept used to describe a dysfunctional pattern of behavior or a dysfunctional relationship dynamic. A codependent relationship typically involves one person (the codependent) excessively relying on another person for their emotional well-being and self-esteem.
Codependency is a dynamic process that typically involves two primary roles: the enabler and the enabled.
The enabler is the person who takes on a caretaking or protective role in the relationship. They often end up in a relationship with a person who presents with dysfunctional behavior, such as substance misuse or narcissistic tendencies.
The enabled person relies on the enabler to meet their needs and rescue them from their problems. This person often becomes increasingly dependent on the enabler for emotional support, financial assistance, and other aspects of daily life.
The codependent dynamic arises because these two roles reinforce each other’s patterns. The enabled person’s behavior triggers the enabler’s need to care for and protect them, and the enabler’s behavior reinforces the enabled person’s reliance on them.
Signs of a Codependent Relationship
The idea of two partners who feel they are nothing without each other and who derive their entire sense of self from one another is a common romanticized trope in literature, songs, television, and movies. However, this portrayal actually describes a codependent and unhealthy relationship dynamic.
“Codependent relationships are a specific type of dysfunctional helping relationship in which one person supports or enables the other person’s underachievement, irresponsibility, immaturity, addiction, procrastination, or poor mental or physical health.”Shawn M. Burn Ph.D.
While it’s natural for couples to rely on each other for emotional support and companionship, it’s also important for individuals in a healthy relationship to maintain their own sense of identity, self-esteem, and independence.
The following are some signs of a codependent relationship:
1. Excessive Caretaking
Codependents may feel compelled to take care of and fix the problems of the other person, often at the expense of their own needs. They may take on an excessive and unhealthy level of responsibility for the other person’s life, making decisions for them and attempting to control their choices.
In this dynamic, one person is in distress and takes on the role of the enabled, while the other takes on the role of the caretaker, or the enabler.
The enabler derives their sense of closeness and love from helping and rescuing the enabled person. They enjoy being needed and find a sense of purpose and identity in being a caretaker.
The enabled person, on the other hand, feels loved and validated when they are receiving help and support from the enabler. They may become dependent on this support to cope with their distress, and this dependence reinforces their own sense of inadequacy.
The two individuals become interdependent in an unhealthy way, with the enabler’s identity and self-worth tied to their caregiving role and the enabled person’s sense of self linked to their need for help and support.
2. Low Self-Esteem
Codependent individuals typically have low self-worth and seek validation and approval from their partner to feel better about themselves.
As a result, they will go to great lengths to meet their partner’s needs and avoid conflict, in the hope of gaining affirmation and validation.
They may feel that they are only valuable or lovable when they are fulfilling the role of the enabler or caretaker, which can lead to a sense emptiness or worthlessness when not engaged in caretaking.
This often fuels a fear of abandonment, driving codependent individuals to go to great lengths to prevent any actions that might push their partner away, even if it means compromising their own needs and boundaries.
3. Enabling Behavior
Enabling behaviors in a codependent relationship typically involve actions that allow or perpetuate the codependent dynamic and dysfunction.
- Giving money to the enabled person to cover their expenses
- Making excuses or covering for the enabled person when they fail to fulfill their responsibilities
- Continually bailing the enabled person out of difficult situations caused by their actions
- Tolerating mistreatment, abuse, or neglect from the other person without setting boundaries
- Offering constant emotional support and reassurance, even when the other person’s behavior is harmful
Enabling may also involve supporting or even participating in the other person’s self-destructive habits or unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to maintain the relationship (e.g., substance misuse).
4. Difficulty with Assertiveness
Codependents often struggle to assert themselves, say no, or express their own feelings and needs freely.
This struggle often stems from a fear of rejection, conflict, or abandonment as they fear that asserting themselves will lead to conflict or disapproval from their partner.
Saying “no” can be especially challenging for codependents because they think that doing so will result in the other person’s anger, disappointment, or withdrawal of affection.
Codependents may find it hard to openly express their own feelings, especially if those feelings conflict with the desires or expectations of the partner. Instead, they suppress their emotions to avoid upsetting the other person.
5. Trust and Control Issues
Codependents may resort to controlling or manipulative behaviors as a way to maintain the relationship or cope with their own fears and insecurities.
These controlling and manipulative behaviors can be driven by a deep-seated fear of abandonment, a need for validation, or a desire to maintain a sense of power and control in the relationship.
For example, they may use guilt, passive-aggressive tactics, or emotional manipulation to make their partner feel responsible for their happiness or well-being.
Or, they might isolate their partner from friends and family, limiting their social connections and support systems.
Feeling in control may soothe their inner insecurity and give them a sense of stability; however, these behaviors are usually counterproductive in the long run as they can erode trust, create resentment, and further contribute to the dysfunction in the relationship.
6. Lack of Boundaries
Lacking boundaries can be a sign of a codependent relationship.
Here are some ways a lack of boundaries can manifest:
- Codependents may find it extremely challenging to say “no” to their partner’s requests or demands
- They frequently sacrifice their own well-being, interests, and desires to meet their partner’s needs
- Codependents may take on responsibilities that should be handled by their partner
- Codependents may engage in overprotective or controlling behaviors, attempting to manage their partner’s life, decisions, or actions
- Personal self-care and well-being often take a back seat to prioritize their partner’s needs and happiness
What is the Difference Between Codependency and Caring?
Codependency and caring both involve emotional and supportive behaviors in a relationship, but they have distinct differences in their nature, dynamics, and effects.
Healthy caring is motivated by genuine love, concern, and empathy for the well-being of the other person. It is based on a desire to support, nurture, and contribute positively to the relationship without sacrificing one’s own well-being or identity.
Codependency, on the other hand, is often motivated by a fear of abandonment, a need for external validation, or a compulsion to control and fix another person’s problems. Codependents may feel that their self-worth is tied to their ability to care for and please the other person.
Caring individuals are also able to maintain their independence and sense of self within the relationship. They do not rely on the relationship for their self-worth or identity, and they have their own interests, goals, and self-esteem.
Codependent individuals, however, become emotionally enmeshed with the other person, losing their sense of independence and self-identity. They may feel incomplete without the relationship.
Codependency vs. Interdependency
Codependency and interdependency are two distinct concepts related to how people relate to and rely on others in their relationships.
As discussed in this article, codependency refers to a dysfunctional and unhealthy reliance on another person. Interdependency, on the other hand, refers to a healthy and balanced mutual support and reliance in a relationship.
The word “inter” means reciprocal. Thus, interdependency represents a relationship based on common or shared goals in which both partners are equivalents. It involves two people contributing to each other’s well-being while maintaining their individual identities.
In an interdependent relationship, individuals respect each other’s personal boundaries and understand that it is healthy to have separate interests and needs. They do not lose themselves in the relationship or rely on the relationship to fill emotional voids.
These relationships are generally characterized by emotional stability, with both partners having a strong sense of self-worth and self-esteem. There is open and honest communication with both partners addressing conflicts and differences in a constructive manner without manipulation or control.
Put simply, codependency involves unhealthy, imbalanced, and often enabling relationships, while interdependency represents a balanced, supportive, and mutually satisfying connection.
Types of Codependent Relationships
Codependent relationships can manifest in various forms, and they are not limited to just one type. Here are some examples of common codependent relationships:
Caretaker (Enabler) and Addict
In this type of codependent relationship, one person assumes the caretaker role. They feel an intense need to take care of, rescue, and “fix” their partner, who is usually struggling with addiction or substance abuse.
These individuals often derive their self-worth from their caregiving role and believe that their partner’s recovery hinges on their efforts.
The caretaker may engage in enabling behaviors, such as covering up the addict’s actions, making excuses, or providing financial or emotional support that indirectly sustains the addiction.
The person struggling with addiction in this dynamic may become increasingly dependent on their caretaker for support, financial stability, and to rescue them from the consequences of their actions.
Overbearing Parent and Dependent Adult Child
In this type of codependent relationship, one partner assumes the role of an overbearing and controlling parent figure. They may dictate the adult child’s decisions, make choices on their behalf, and maintain an unhealthy level of control.
The other partner takes on the role of a dependent adult child who seeks constant approval, validation, and care from the overbearing parent figure. They may struggle to assert their own independence and autonomy.
The overbearing parent often feels the need to protect and control the adult child, believing that they know what is best for them, while the dependent adult child may fear rejection or abandonment if they assert their independence.
Rescuer and Victim
The rescuer in this codependent dynamic sees themselves as the savior, always trying to help and save their partner who portrays themselves as the victim.
The person taking on the victim role often portrays themselves as helpless and perpetually in need of rescue. This person may appear unable to take responsibility for their own actions, while the rescuer is consistently over-involved in trying to alleviate their partner’s suffering.
The rescuer is motivated by a desire to make the victim happy, save them from their problems, and gain their love and approval. The victim, in turn, may use the rescuer’s care to maintain their sense of dependence and control in the relationship.
Why is Codependency Problematic for a Relationship?
Codependency is problematic for a relationship for several reasons:
Skewed Power Dynamics
Codependent relationships are often characterized by an imbalance of power and control.
In codependent relationships, one partner typically assumes a more dominant or controlling role, while the other adopts a more submissive or dependent role.
The partner with codependent tendencies often believes others are incapable of caring for themselves, so they become overly dominant. They may make most decisions, set the rules, and have a higher degree of control over the relationship.
Although their intentions may not always be malicious, they sometimes will use their position of power to control and manipulate the other. This can involve making unilateral decisions, exerting emotional pressure, or engaging in coercive behavior to get their way.
The submissive partner often sacrifices their own autonomy and independence to maintain the relationship. They may give up making decisions, suppress their own desires and interests, and even lose their sense of self to please the dominant partner.
Over time, this power imbalance can lead to resentment and frustration. The submissive partner may feel increasingly controlled and powerless, while the dominant partner becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the responsibility of maintaining the relationship.
Boundaries are an important part of a healthy relationship. In codependent relationships, personal boundaries are often weak or nonexistent.
This can result in violations of individual space and privacy, leading to further conflict and emotional turmoil.
A loss of boundaries can also result in a loss of personal autonomy. Codependents may feel compelled to constantly accommodate their partner’s needs and desires, neglecting their own autonomy and sacrificing their individuality. This can lead to feelings of unfulfillment and dissatisfaction.
Negative Reinforcement of Unhealthy Behaviors
Negative reinforcement of unhealthy behaviors is a common issue in codependent relationships.
This occurs when one partner, often the codependent, unintentionally or intentionally reinforces or enables the other partner’s negative or destructive behaviors.
For example, the codependent partner may enable or excuse the other partner’s addiction, irresponsibility, or emotional manipulation, perpetuating destructive patterns.
Negative reinforcement of unhealthy behaviors sustains the other person’s dependency on the codependent. The partner engaging in destructive actions becomes increasingly reliant on the codependent to continue their behavior without facing significant repercussions.
This negative reinforcement perpetuates a cycle of dysfunction within the relationship.
Loss of Individuality
Codependency tends to lead to a loss of identity because the codependent partner will put the other’s needs, feelings, and opinions above their own.
They often have trouble making their own decisions and find it hard to identify what they want and need.
Their self-worth is based on being loved and validated by the other, and they will suppress their feelings to please them.
Both partners become so enmeshed in the relationship that they have difficulty maintaining their own interests, goals, and autonomy.
Codependents often repress their own feelings, needs, and desires to avoid conflict or to cater to their partner. This can lead to emotional suppression and a lack of healthy communication within the relationship.
Additionally, codependency can interfere with effective problem-solving and conflict resolution as the focus may be on avoiding conflict at all costs, rather than addressing issues constructively.
Long-Term Relationship Health
Over time, codependent relationships can become increasingly dysfunctional and unfulfilling, leading to dissatisfaction, resentment, and potential relationship breakdown.
It’s important to recognize that codependency is not a healthy foundation for a long-lasting and satisfying relationship.
Bacon et al. (2020) conducted a qualitative study to explore the lived experience of codependency from the perspective of self-identified codependents.
The participants in the study described that they felt compelled to “change and modify themselves to fit in socially.” But this caused them to lose sight of who they truly are.
Several participants used the metaphor “chameleon” to describe this process of adaptation. One person said they were “like the chameleon… trying to fit in with every situation rather than allowing myself to be who I️ am.”
The participants noted feeling stuck in subservient and passive roles within their relationships. They experienced an “overriding sense of obligation” that forced them to stay, even when the relationship was destructive.
Participants described feeling “imprisoned in their relationships” and “locked” in situations of powerlessness.
How to Avoid Codependency in Relationships
Avoiding codependency in relationships is important for maintaining healthy, mutually satisfying connections.
Codependent relationships usually happen between a person with dysfunctional behavioral patterns (e.g., addiction) and a person with a dysfunctional way of relating to others (e.g., low self-esteem).
That means, to avoid codependency, it is important to work on your own challenges and issues first.
The following elements exist in a healthy relationship:
- Clear and respected boundaries
- Mutual respect
- Independence and autonomy
- Open and effective communication
- A desire to be together rather than a need to be together
- Emotional support and validation
- Healthy conflict resolution
- Shared common values and life goals
To avoid codependency, it is thus important to:
- Build a stable sense of self. Your self-worth should come from within, not solely from external sources like your partner’s validation.
- Establish clear and healthy personal boundaries within the relationship. Learn to say no when necessary and communicate your needs and limits openly and assertively.
- Recognize that you are not responsible for the other person — you can love and support them, but they should be able to make their own decisions.
- Maintain your own interests, hobbies, and goals outside of the relationship.
- Reflect on your own needs, desires, and feelings.
- Foster your independence and autonomy while supporting your partner’s independence and personal growth.
- Develop strong communication skills to express your feelings, needs, and concerns openly and honestly.
- Bacon, I., McKay, E., Reynolds, F. & McIntyre, A. (2018). The Lives Experience of Codependency: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 18, 754-771.
- Codependency Anonymous (2019). What is Codependency? https://coda.org/newcomers/what-is-codependence/
- Happ, Z., Bodó-Varga, Z., Bandi, S.A. et al. (2023). How codependency affects dyadic coping, relationship perception and life satisfaction. Current Psychology, 42, 15688–15695.
Julia Simkus edited this article.