Codependency: What Is It? Am I Codependent?

As humans, our emotional interactions with others can be complicated. It’s in our nature to want to help someone when we see them suffering, but it can be considered codependency when we constantly help others while ignoring our own needs.

Every relationship has its own characteristics and ways of handling everyday conflict. Healthy relationships usually strike a balance of power and interdependence that works well for both partners. But codependency revolves around one person’s needs and the other person’s “need to be needed.” 

While the concept of codependency emerged from the study of substance abuse in the United States in the 1940s, it’s not just a problem centered on addiction. Codependency signals ways a person’s childhood informed their reactions to others as adults. 

That said, codependency isn’t a formal clinical diagnosis, nor is it categorized as a disorder. So, what is codependency, and how can it affect our relationships with others?

Characteristics of a codependent relationship

In healthy relationships, people get their emotional needs met in a variety of ways, both inside and outside the relationship. In a codependent relationship, the emotional power balance is off. One partner has intense physical or emotional needs, and the codependent person spends their time and effort responding to them, often to their own emotional detriment. 

A codependent partner may do one or more of the following:

  • Needs to rescue others who are emotionally troubled or addicted
  • Makes excuses for their partner’s inappropriate behavior
  • Needs others to like them to feel good about themselves
  • Feels sorry for others, even after they’ve been hurt by them
  • Constantly apologizes due to low self-esteem, even when they’ve done nothing wrong
  • Always tries to avoid conflict with their partner (people-pleasing)
  • Gets “lost” in a relationship and loses their sense of self

In most healthy relationships, partners rely on each other in a variety of ways. But a codependent relationship is when one partner gets their needs met while the other gives more than their share. 

How does a codependent relationship develop?

Experts say many of our emotional and psychological traits, good and bad, are rooted in our childhood. Our childhood reality forms our attachment style, or how we relate to others when we become adults.

As children, we don’t have the ability to discern whether what we’re experiencing is healthy or normal. We may live with a lot of family dysfunction and think our unhealthy relationships are acceptable until we have more adult insight. 

Family dysfunction that often results in adult codependency can include:

  • Alcoholic or addicted parents
  • Households that don’t set limits and boundaries
  • Chaotic and unpredictable households
  • Parents who are emotionally or physically neglectful
  • Abusive parents
  • Manipulative parents
  • Secretiveness
  • Parents who blame and shame
  • Parents who set unrealistic expectations for their children
  • Parents who are overprotective or under-protective

Kids who grow up in dysfunctional homes don’t get to experience what healthy relationships look like. When kids live in unpredictable and volatile households and have to take on inappropriate responsibility for their own survival, it can cause them to continue that behavior into adulthood. 

The patterns of learned behavior that protected someone in childhood often become a protective defense throughout their life, seeping into their relationships with others.

How can I tell if I’m codependent?

If any of this sounds familiar, you may be wondering if you are codependent. Some common symptoms of codependency can include the following:

  • You keep finding yourself in relationships with addicted, emotionally troubled, or needy people. While we all have issues, some individuals consistently live troubled lives and make poor decisions. They tend to look for others – like you – who will rescue them and provide them with the strength they don’t have.
  • You find that you define yourself by giving to and taking care of others. While giving is a good attribute, you find that you give too much to people who don’t deserve it or appreciate it, leaving you feeling used and resentful.
  • You struggle with your own sense of self-worth and always feel the need to be perfect. Helping others who seem worse off than you feeds your hunger to be seen as a good and empathetic person. 
  • Your needs get put aside or ignored as you focus on the needs of others. You are often hyper-aware of everything your partner does or says in a quest to control your situation. In the meantime, you may find that your well has run dry, and your own mental health suffers, leaving you feeling anxious, sleepless, and depressed.
  • You lack healthy boundaries. While you believe some behaviors shouldn't be tolerated in a relationship, you find yourself making excuses for those same behaviors in your relationship. 
  • You fluctuate between rescuing and blaming. While you initially set out to help the other individual, if your help fails to improve the situation, you may move into a defensive, controlling, and blaming mode. 

When you have a good understanding of how and why you react the way you do, you gain valuable insight that can help you turn your situation around for the better. 

What are the consequences of codependency in marriage?

When a marriage becomes codependent, partners fall into unhealthy and destructive patterns. Codependency keeps one person from taking responsibility and places the other person in an enabling role, often trapping both in a cycle that serves neither of them. 

Here are some of the consequences of codependency in marriage.

Lack of communication

Marriage requires open and honest communication, but codependency inhibits this when one partner is afraid of “rocking the boat.” Keeping feelings internalized and avoiding important issues has a way of building up and can prevent a couple from communicating in a way that sustains a long and healthy marriage.

Lopsided power and responsibility

When one partner has all the power and shoulders all the responsibility for decision-making, it inhibits shared power and mutual growth. This can lead to resentment and frustration on both sides. 

Inability to find happiness outside your partner

When you rely on a partner to fulfill your happiness, it puts a great burden on the relationship. Being completely dependent on your partner for your well-being can cause the relationship to break under pressure. 

The continuous need for your partner’s approval

When one partner constantly seeks the approval of the other or only does things the other wants to do, it can quickly erode feelings of partnership and caring in a marriage. 

Fear of abandonment

When one partner is always afraid of being abandoned, it may cause them to accept undesirable behaviors from the other. 

While codependent relationships may seem obvious to outsiders, people involved in a codependent marriage often fail to see it and how it might be affecting their marriage until it’s too late. When spouses realize that they’ve fallen into destructive codependent patterns, turning things around may require professional help. 

While you can’t change your own past or your partner’s past, there are steps you can take to change the present and make your relationship better. If these steps don’t help, you may want to consider reevaluating the situation to make sure you don’t waste more precious time. 

At Hello Divorce, we understand the complicated nature of relationships. For this reason, we offer a myriad of resources and other services for those whose marriage – or life in general – could benefit from some improvement.

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.