What is codependency and how does it occur?

Codependency is characterized by a relationship pattern in which one person places another’s needs above their own. It is commonly associated with guilt, unclear boundaries, fear of rejection, a need to please others, a need for control, and an inability to form loving relationships. A telltale sign of a codependent is an inability to differentiate between love and pity. If a person can be pitied, or an attempt can be made to ‘save’ them from themselves, a codependent will view their tendencies as love, making it all the more difficult for them to see clearly.

It has often been noted that parental substance abuse plays a role in the development of codependency. Those who were raised in households with an addicted parent may have to ‘grow up’ too quickly, assuming an adult role that is not appropriate for their stage of development. As a result, there may be an onset of intimacy and control issues. Codependency is considered by some experts to be a warped response to difficulties in childhood.

There is no doubt that life as a codependent is difficult. People who are considered codependent are often also dealing with an underlying mental illness like depression or anxiety, so their ability to assess their circumstances and make a productive decision about what’s best is already compromised.

Codependency and Addiction

Other than childhood difficulties, it has been speculated that these issues come about as a response to a relationship with a partner who is abusing substances. In the throes of addiction, people tend to make poor choices that affect a partner or their family, so the partner may feel the need to step in as a caretaker and resolve the issue.

Codependency was initially associated with people in relationships with an alcoholic partner, and still today, it is typically associated with addiction.

The addict often suffers from a number of issues as a result of their addiction. These issues include work and financial problems, issues with other interpersonal relationships, risky behaviors, and an unceasing need for emotional support.

A partner who is codependent will try their best to be there for the addicted partner through all of these issues, even at the detriment of their own health and wellbeing. There may be a lack of understanding from the codependent that to truly help someone you must first help yourself. The codependent will often enable the addicts’ behavior by providing financial or other types of support, or by cleaning up and covering for them. A child in the same household may witness the behavior of the codependent and adapt those tendencies into their own adult life, creating another codependent. It’s a vicious cycle.

Dangers of Codependency

Codependency is a trait that is toxic to the individual. Those who are codependent very often have low self-esteem and may turn to external methods of pleasure in order to feel better. There is a risk that a codependent will turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictive behaviors as a means of coping, but end up becoming addicted themselves.

The caretaking behavior often becomes compulsive and exhausting, and the codependent becomes a martyr for the addict’s lifestyle. Repeated attempts to ‘save’ the addict end up enabling them to continue with their destructive behavior. They will continue on this destructive path and the need for the caretaker will keep growing. The feeling of being needed provides the codependent with an inner sense of satisfaction, so the cycle continues.


Treatment for codependency in the case of addiction is often sought after the addict faces a crisis and must make important decisions and changes in their life. Treating a codependent can prove to be difficult as this partner may not see how their own behavior is part of the problem. They often consider themselves helpful and believe they are acting out of love, so when treating codependency it helps to treat the addiction at the same time. The treatment process may involve individual and couples therapy, with some of the aims being to illustrate to the codependent how their behavior is more harmful than helpful, to encourage and motivate them to make rational decisions, and how to cultivate or improve honest, open communication.

Further elements of treatment for codependency include learning how to set boundaries, seeking fulfillment within oneself, distancing oneself from codependent relationships, and cultivating support from healthy, independent friends.

If you are codependent in a relationship with an addicted partner, then seeking treatment is of utmost importance. Without treatment, the destructive patterns of behavior from both sides in the relationship can cause a lot of pain and suffering, a tragic occurrence considering that help is readily available.

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