Codependency and mental health
Reviewed by Mary T. Johnson, RN, MSN
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/10/2022
What Is Codependency?
Codependency, also known as relationship addiction, involves sacrificing one’s own needs to focus on the needs of a partner, friend, or family member.
Someone who is codependent may rely on someone they have a relationship with to have their spiritual, emotional, mental, financial, and physical needs met. They may also depend on others to validate their self-worth. It is difficult to determine the rate of codependency, but some studies suggest that over 90% of the American population shows some degree of codependent behavior.1
What Is a Codependent Relationship?
In psychology, codependency refers to a person’s behavior in a relationship as opposed to the relationship as a whole. One or both people in a relationship can display codependent behaviors. Codependency can occur in almost any relationship type, including:
- Romantic partnerships
- Parent/child relationships
- Family relationships
- Workplace relationships
- Caretaking relationships
Is Codependency a Mental Illness?
Codependency is a learned behavior, not a mental illness. However, codependency can be correlated with or caused by other mental illnesses and conditions, such as:
- Low self-esteem
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Dependent personality disorder
Although codependency is not a mental illness itself, it’s important to see a therapist to determine if a mental health disorder may be contributing to or worsening unhealthy relationship patterns.
What Causes Codependency?
Codependency is a learned behavior that is usually rooted in childhood and heavily influenced by someone’s family dynamic that they grew up with. Risk factors that can contribute to someone developing codependency include:
- Dysfunctional family: Having a dysfunctional family dynamic that involves bullying or criticism can cause relationship insecurities.
- Childhood neglect: A parent or caregiver who does not acknowledge a child’s needs or puts their own needs above their child’s may be promoting codependency.
- Childhood abandonment: Having one or both parents leave can cause fear of future abandonment, leading to codependent behaviors.
- Anxious attachment: An anxious attachment can form when a caregiver alternates between being affectionate and present, and distant and unavailable. This can lead to codependency later in life.
- Overcontrolling parents: A controlling or overprotective parent can prevent a child 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 that struggles with an untreated mental health condition such as borderline, narcissistic, or dependent personality disorder may cause a child to suppress their own self-identity.
Signs of Codependency
Am I Codependent?
Someone who is codependent may struggle to recognize what they are doing or deny their codependency. The following can be signs that someone is codependent:
- Low self-esteem: A person who is codependent may struggle with self-worth, believing they don’t deserve happiness. A person who doesn’t value themselves may search for validation from others.
- Lack of boundaries: Someone who is codependent may struggle to set boundaries with others and have a hard time saying no and putting their own needs first.
- Perfectionism: Codependent people may struggle to accept criticism, hold themselves to unrealistic standards, and become insecure when they make an error.
- The need to save others: Someone with codependency may feel that it is their job to protect their loved ones and fix things on someone else’s behalf.
- Control issues: Someone who is codependent may feel like their own self-worth is dependent on the well-being of others. Their need to fix and protect others may come off as controlling or possessive.
Codependent Relationship Signs
A codependent relationship lacks balance, with one person taking on the role of protecting and fixing the other. In a codependent relationship, the person who is codependent often takes on the role of giver and may struggle to have their own needs met. A codependent relationship can involve one person or both.
Signs of a codependent relationship include:
- Feeling the need to ask the other person permission before doing daily tasks
- Feeling a sense of “walking on eggshells” around the other person to avoid any conflict
- Trying to change or rescue the other person from abusive behaviors or addiction
- An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the other person’s actions
- An extreme need for approval or validation from the other person
- Doing things for the other person even if it causes personal discomfort
- Needing other people to like and validate them
- Giving up all alone time for the other person
- Feeling a lost sense of self because of a relationship
Examples of Codependent Relationships
It can be hard to spot codependent behaviors in your own life and relationships. Here are some examples of codependency:
- A woman has a partner with a substance use disorder. She thinks they will get sober for her if she shows them enough affection. She may blame relationship conflict on only herself and put their needs before her own.
- A recent graduate is offered her dream job out of state. But because of her mother’s mental health concerns, she decides to decline the offer and stay close to home to put her mother’s needs first.
- A college student moves back in with his parents. Instead of searching for a job, he watches TV all day. His parents still support him financially and let him stay with them.
Treatment for Codependency
Left untreated, unrecognized, or otherwise unaddressed, codependency can lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of emptiness. Those who are codependent often have an unclear sense of who they are and fall into less meaningful relationships or struggle with loneliness and isolation. A therapist can help someone work through their codependency to begin forming healthier relationships with themselves and others.
Common codependency treatment techniques include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on changing unhealthy thought and behavior patterns. CBT can be used to treat someone who is codependent by helping them reshape negative codependent thoughts and beliefs.
- Couples therapy: Couples therapy offers a safe space for codependent couples to learn communication techniques, practice expressing their needs more effectively, and learn to improve independence.
- Family therapy: A family therapist can help address codependency among family members, as well as address childhood experiences that may have led to codependency in adulthood.
Codependency is a learned behavior, which means people are also capable of unlearning it. With the help of a therapist, you or your loved one can begin to address codependent behaviors and help prevent future mental health concerns.
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.