It’s likely that if you love someone who has an addiction you may have heard the term “codependency“. It’s a type of relationship dynamic that can occur between two individuals that, while they love each other, aren’t healthy and can lead to many problems.

Research shows codependency is not often identified when people seek help. Quite often they’re diagnosed with other conditions, such as anxiety or depression.[1] This is important to recognise.

While it’s beneficial to be treated for mental health conditions linked to codependency, actually the codependent relationship needs to be addressed too. Doing so leads to healthier relationships, improved self-worth, and more positive future outcomes.

What is Codependency?

two people talking

The Counselling Directory describes codependency as “as a set of compulsive behaviours which are learned over time, in order to cope with and adapt to an environment where there is some type of addiction, neglect or physical or emotional abuse, which causes a significant level of emotional pain and stress.”[2]

A codependent relationship is where two people are reliant or dependent on each other. They take care of each other but are dependent on the other person to fulfil particular needs. These needs might be mental, emotional, physical, social, financial, or literal.

There are two roles characterised by one person needing care and the other person needing to feel needed. The codependent person needs to feel needed and is “the giver” or “enabler”.

They tend to be people pleasers who self-sacrifice in order to feel self-worth. Their focus and energy is on “the taker”, or in many cases, the addicted person.

It has to be pointed out that most people require support at various times in their lives, some more than others. Codependency is different to the idea of requiring support, it’s a type of relationship addiction where one person needs the other as a focus.

There is a circular relationship dynamic where one takes, one gives, and this repeats until behaviours become very ingrained. Lines or boundaries become blurred and the relationship can be harmful to both parties.

With all the goodwill in the world on the part of the giver, codependency actually disempowers the taker and most often than not enables unhealthy behaviours.

Codependent patterns can be found in the following:

  • A romantic relationship
  • Familial relationships
  • Friendships
  • Work relationships, although, in theory, this shouldn’t happen because clear professional boundaries should be in effect in the workplace

Codependency and Addiction

A woman taking a white pill

The concept of codependency was first recognised and coined in the 1930s by the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship group. Codependent relationships are extremely common where one of the people has a substance abuse problem. It defines a dysfunctional relationship for those who support a loved one who has an addiction.

Other places it can develop, though, are where people are connected to someone else who has a chronic illness or mental health condition.

The giver in the codependent relationship can feel caught or even trapped within the loved one’s life and their unhealthy behaviours. The giver tends to be psychologically controlled by the person with addiction; this can be very subconscious and sometimes both parties aren’t aware of the extent of the control or even that it exists.

This is particularly demonstrated through the emotional impact of the codependent relationship. The person without the addiction, as a common example, might not be able to have a good day unless they know their loved one is safe.

Another example is when the person without addiction supports the addicted person around budgeting and liaising with professional establishments in order to keep their loved one out of trouble. While this might seem important to the giver, it’s detrimental to the addicted person as it prevents them from facing consequences and enables unhealthy behaviours.

While codependent relationships are common where a family member has an addiction, it doesn’t develop in every case.

For those who tend to end up in these types of relationships, it’s very likely to be linked to the attachment styles the giver developed in childhood in connection to their caregiver.

For instance, when a child has a parent who has an addiction, personality disorder, or other mental health condition, they’ll learn patterns of behaviour as a way to manage the situation and these patterns make it much easier to develop the same type of relationship with others in the future.

Interestingly, there is a link between people with personality disorders and codependent relationship patterns.[3]

What Causes Codependency?

Codependency is linked to learned behaviours typically gained from parents or caregivers during childhood.

People who are codependent lack the ability to implement boundaries and to maintain those they try to put in place. This is especially characterised when you struggle to say no. It’s likely you’re a people pleaser and saying yes and feeling needed is how you create a feeling of worthiness.

It’s a relationship that is most commonly linked to substance use disorder and alcohol or drug addiction but is also linked to mental disorders such as dependent personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder.

The dynamics of this type of relationship can be linked to insecure attachments as well as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

Research shows codependency can be caused by biological, psychological and social factors.

  1. The biological is where the prefrontal cortex can inhibit empathic responses.
  2. The psychological is when some personality types are more predisposed to care for others and can be linked to “a multitude of aversive experiences in a dysfunctional family (e.g. parental conflicts, emotional abuse, neglect and parentification)”
  3. The social is often linked to “the emergence of substance abuse in the family”.[1]

Dysfunctional Families and Codependency

Codependent relationship patterns tend to pass down through generations (much like addictions do). In families where codependency is apparent, trauma linked to substance abuse, gambling, abuse, and mental or physical illnesses is common.

The symptoms of codependency are demonstrated when family members remain unaware of their problems and unhealthy behaviours, they don’t confront them, and even repress and avoid them.

It’s quite often an “us against the world” mentality. Where one person might then try to heal and separate from the family to work on themselves, the rest of the family can sometimes turn on the person (i.e. they might accuse the person of being selfish).

Be Kind to Yourself if You’re Codependent

woman with hand on chest

Perhaps you feel frustrated, annoyed, or even angry at reading some of the codependent characteristics. You might feel defensive. You have a right to your feelings and what can be helpful to remember here is that codependent traits come from a very human space.

Despite the unhealthy relationship that develops, part of this style of relationship comes from wanting to connect, wanting to experience love, and worrying about your loved one.

Also, useful to remember is that the ingrained behavioural patterns learned in childhood because you were living in a particular environment then take a lot of work to identify and change.

It’s your outlook, reactions, and behaviours that you control and that can make all the difference in the future.

Signs that You Could Be Codependent

The most common signs of codependency include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Becoming “the martyr”, being in the rescuing role and exhibiting excessive caretaking behaviours
  • Feeling good about yourself when someone else approves of something you do or say
  • Focusing, usually obsessively, on the other person and their needs
  • Trying to solve the other person’s problems, trying to protect or manipulate them
  • Putting the other’s person’s needs and desires before your own
  • Feeling hurt or upset when others don’t see what you’re doing to help
  • Your hopes and dreams being intertwined with that of the other
  • Putting the other person on a pedestal
  • Not prioritising yourself or your needs – not knowing what your own needs are
  • Feeling rejected and abandoned when your loved one spends time with others
  • Struggling to say no or have boundaries
  • Your enjoyment in life being controlled by how the other person’s life is

The Negative Side of Codependency

The unhealthy side of codependency is that everything about who you are, what you do and how you interact with others somehow links back to this codependent relationship.

The relationship is one-sided. The giver pours all of their reserves into the relationship and the other person. They want to feel needed (though they might be in denial of this, or not see it). This type of relationship is detrimental to the taker as well as the giver.

While it’s important to love and look after others it becomes unhealthy when care becomes obsessive and detrimental to the mental, emotional, and physical health of either party.

The Problems Caused by Codependency

One of the main problems caused by codependency is the fact that the taker is often protected from the negative consequences of their behaviours. These are important for them to face in order to reach a place where they can grow and recover.

As well as this, the giver loses their own identity and in some cases, this can lead to resentment and create very toxic interactions where both parties feel “stuck” in their roles.

The giver might also find it hard to introduce boundaries, space, or leave the relationship because an environment has been created where they think the other person needs them.

It’s important to remember that in order to help another, you must learn how to look after yourself effectively first. Only after this can healthy relationships with others be formed.

How Healthy Relationships Differ from Codependent Relationships


It’s useful to draw attention to what a healthy relationship looks like as it can help shed light on the codependent relationship.

Of course, it’s important for people to seek support and rely on others to an extent. This is necessary in healthy relationships, it means peoples’ needs can be better met. This is an equal exchange where there is a healthy balance between the two people who have healthy boundaries and respect this.

Codependency is when one person gives more than the other and where there is no emotional distance.

An easy example to contemplate is when the addicted person might call at any time of the day or night without consideration of the giver’s routines. The codependent person will pick up every time or return the call as soon as possible.

In a healthy relationship, the non-addicted person would put in boundaries such as, “I love you and love to hear from you, but I go to bed at nine so please don’t call after nine pm, unless there’s an emergency.”

What To Do if You’re Codependent

If you’re codependent, first take a moment to recognise that realising so is a massive step in a positive direction. Developing self-awareness, especially around our own unhealthy behaviours shows you’re taking accountability for yourself and is the place to start in order to heal and grow.

You’ll want to continue to grow in self-awareness. This can come from asking yourself where these behaviours originated from, what you think makes you continue in these behaviours, and how you might be able to change.

It might be difficult as some people realise codependent behaviours stem from childhood trauma (this might not be obvious; trauma can also be “emotional” and therefore might seem “invisible”).

Once you start seeing the reasons behind the behaviours, you can start developing self-compassion. This is important in the healing process.

Your codependent traits can be treated. If you’re struggling to see how to change and heal, then accessing emotional or mental health professionals through therapy or counselling can help you to address attachment patterns, develop new ways of coping and build boundaries with your loved one.

You might decide to work with a family therapist so that you and your loved one can work on developing healthy family dynamics going forward.

All of these steps help to build self-worth and make it easier to avoid codependent patterns in the future.

Tips on How to Build Self-Worth

If you display codependent behaviours there are things you can do to help yourself and these focus on building self-worth. This supports you to learn how to say no, implement boundaries, and discover contentment that isn’t dependent on the other.

To start with, ask yourself, “What am I interested in?” If you’re stuck, think about what you liked in childhood as a starting place. From here start to pursue hobbies and healthy activities (i.e. walking in nature, painting, dancing, singing, sports etc.).

The key is to develop a relationship with yourself. You need to learn how to show up for yourself and tune in to your own wants and needs. This must be done separately from the other person.

You can read in order to educate yourself. Self-help books about codependency are particularly useful especially if authored by a psychological relationship expert.

Finally, if you’re still finding it a challenge, you can enter behavioural therapy. This will provide techniques, skills, and perspectives to support you in recovery.

If Someone You Love is Affected by Addiction

A woman talking on the phone with a ring on her hand

If someone you love has an addiction, it’s important you know that it’s not up to you to fix them. What you can do is encourage them to access professional rehabilitation services so that they can learn how to fix themselves with the help of addiction specialists.

Because you and your needs are important too, there are also organisations set up for those who are connected to people with addictions:

  • Al-Anon
  • Nar-Anon
  • AdFam

Seeking help from these organisations will help you understand how to set boundaries with your loved one, improve relationship dynamics, and make yourself a priority.

Final Thoughts…

The codependent relationship is characterised by poor boundaries between a giver, who needs to feel needed around their self-worth, and a taker, who is often a person with an addiction.

It’s a relationship that is often linked to childhood issues, trauma, and family dynamics, as well as psychological and social issues. It can take a lot of work to understand how to change behaviour so that your needs are met.

Individual or family therapy provides effective ways to take emotional healing to a higher level if you struggle to implement new behaviours on your own.

Please note; if you love somebody who has an addiction, they can contact OK Rehab to find out what private clinics are in your local area.


Two women talking and looking at a tablet

What are the signs of a codependent person?

The most common traits of a codependent person are needing the approval of others, having low self-worth, and putting others before yourself to the detriment of your own health.

What is codependent, and why is it bad?

Codependency is when you need someone else to feel good. The codependent person will give everything, not prioritise themselves, and enable unhealthy behaviours of the addicted person.

What is the best therapy for codependents?

The best type of therapy for people who are codependent depends on the individual, however, cognitive behavioural therapy is often recommended.