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Codependency

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

A woman clings to a man who leans into his hand, thoughtful

What is codependency?

Codependency, also called “relationship addiction,” involves sacrificing your own needs to focus on those of a partner, friend, or family member. In a codependent relationship, one person relies on the other to meet their emotional, mental, financial, spiritual, or physical needs, and to validate their self-worth.

One or both people in a relationship can have codependent behaviors, and codependency can happen in almost any kind of relationship—including between family members, friends, romantic partners, coworkers, and caregivers and their charges.

Is codependency a mental illness?

Codependency is a learned behavior, not a mental illness—but it can be linked to or worsened by mental health conditions including:

While codependency isn’t a mental illness, seeing a therapist can help you learn if a mental health disorder may be contributing to your codependent behavior.

What causes codependency?

Codependency is usually learned in childhood, and it’s heavily influenced by the family dynamic we grow up with. Risk factors for developing codependent behaviors include:

  • Dysfunctional family dynamic: Growing up with bullying or criticism can make us feel insecure in relationships.
  • Childhood neglect: A parent or caregiver who ignores a child’s needs, or who puts their own needs above their child’s, may promote codependency.
  • Childhood abandonment: Having one or both parents leave can make us fear abandonment in other relationships.
  • Anxious attachment: We can form an anxious attachment when a caregiver alternates between being affectionate and present, then distant and unavailable.
  • Overcontrolling parents: A controlling or overprotective guardian can prevent children from learning how to set boundaries for themselves and understand safe limits.
  • Childhood abuse or trauma: Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and other childhood trauma can lead to codependency.
  • Parents with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness: A caregiver’s untreated mental health condition (such as borderline, narcissistic, or dependent personality disorder) may cause a child to suppress their own needs.

Signs of codependency

It can be difficult to recognize or admit to our own codependent behaviors. The following can be signs of codependency:

  • Low self-esteem: Struggling with your self-worth, believing you don’t deserve happiness, or searching for validation from others
  • Lack of boundaries: Struggling to set boundaries with others; having a hard time saying no and putting your own needs first
  • Perfectionism: Struggling to accept criticism, holding yourself to unrealistic standards, or becoming insecure when you make an error
  • The need to save others: Feeling that it’s your job to protect your loved ones and fix problems for them
  • Control issues: Feeling like your own self-worth depends on the well-being of others, and needing to help others (which may come off as being controlling)

What does a codependent relationship look like?

A codependent relationship lacks balance, with one person (or both) taking on the role of “giver” while struggling to voice or consider their own needs.

Signs of codependent behavior in a relationship include:

  • Feeling the need to ask for the other person’s permission before doing daily tasks
  • Feeling a sense of “walking on eggshells” around the other person to avoid conflict
  • Trying to change or rescue the other person from abusive behaviors or addiction
  • Feeling responsible for the other person’s actions
  • Needing approval or validation from the other person
  • Doing things for the other person even if it causes personal discomfort
  • Giving up all alone time for the other person
  • Feeling a lost sense of self because of a relationship

Examples of codependency

Spotting codependent behaviors in our own relationships can be especially challenging. Here are some examples of what it looks like:

  • A woman’s partner has a substance use disorder: She thinks they’ll get sober for her if she shows them enough affection. She may blame herself for any relationship conflict and put their needs before her own.
  • A recent graduate is offered his dream job out of state: But because of his mother’s mental health concerns, he decides to turn down the offer and stay close to home.
  • A college student moves back in with their parents: Instead of looking for a job, they watch TV all day. Their parents still support them financially and let them stay for as long as they want.

Treatment for codependency

If it isn’t addressed, codependency can lead to or worsen anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of emptiness. Codependent people often have an unclear sense of who they are and are at risk of forming less meaningful relationships or facing loneliness and isolation.

If you’re struggling with codependency, a therapist can help you begin to form healthier relationships with yourself and others. Some common treatment approaches include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on changing unhealthy thought and behavior patterns. It can help you reshape negative codependent thoughts and beliefs.
  • Couples therapy offers a safe space for codependent couples to learn communication techniques, practice expressing their needs more effectively, and improve their independence.
  • Family therapy can help address codependency (and its causes) among family members. 

Codependency is a learned behavior, which means that in many cases it can be unlearned. With a therapist’s help, you or your loved one can begin to move toward a healthier relationship approach. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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