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What is Codependency?

Michael Pollick
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

The term codependency describes a situation in which a person literally becomes emotionally addicted to another person's addiction. Some experts even refer to codependency as a "relationship addiction", because codependents often form dysfunctional, one-sided relationships with self-destructive partners. Although the phenomenon of codependency has existed for many years, a constructive definition only emerged with the rise of 12 step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Overeaters Anonymous (OA), and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

Researchers studying the mechanisms of addiction discovered that certain family members, romantic partners, or close friends formed unhealthy bonds with the addict. These people seemed determined to rescue or protect the addict, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Recovering addicts recognized this behavior as 'enabling', providing addictive substances in order to keep an addict from becoming completely healthy. Codependency is often defined as a maladjustment disorder, in which the codependent feeds off the emotional need created by the addict. Codependency is usually an emotional self-defense mechanism triggered by childhood experiences in a dysfunctional home marred by substance abuse or overly restrictive parents.

Many people assume that codependency is a strictly passive condition, with the codependent only performing as a servant to the addict. In reality, codependency is a passive-aggressive condition, with the enabler controlling the addict through emotional and physical manipulation. In an unhealthy relationship forged by codependency, the enabler needs the addict to remain unhealthy and dependent. While many people feel a strong need to help a loved one in a time of personal crisis, a number of codependents see themselves as martyrs or self-sacrificing heroes. Caring for an addict helps define them as people worthy of respect, which they believe they wouldn't receive under healthier circumstances.

Codependency is a learned behavior, with children observing the effects of addiction on their parents. A person who experienced a traumatic childhood involving sexual or physical abuse will often seek out a partner with substance abuse problems or anti-social behavior. The belief generated by codependency is that he or she will somehow be able to 'fix' this person's numerous issues. In actuality, these codependent relationships often crash and burn, leaving the codependent with even lower self-esteem. Since many codependents avoid interaction with healthy, well-adjusted people, the codependency cycle usually continues with a series of damaging relationships.

Codependency can be treated through psychotherapy and intervention, although it can be very difficult to convince codependents to seek help. In their minds, codependents are only performing a role others should be playing in an addict's life. Many feel their intentions are honorable, even if the results aren't always successful. Ironically, codependency can trigger addictive behavior in the enabler, creating an even more complicated relationship with the addict and others.

There are self-help programs available to address codependency, modeled after the 12 step recovery programs of AA and NA. Codependents Anonymous meetings offer sufferers an opportunity to share their experiences with others who understand the condition. Recovering addicts may also recognize signs of codependency in a family member or romantic partner and take steps towards helping that person reclaim his or her independence.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon259374 — On Apr 05, 2012

I don't know if this is codependency or not, but my husband depends on me for everything. He expects me to do all the calling of jobs that need to be done. He gives me a honey to list almost every day and then gets mad at me if I don't do in his time frame, which is the same day.

I feel like I can't talk to him. I am the one always wrong because I don't do something when he told me to do.

By anon137126 — On Dec 26, 2010

I am codependent and just figured out today. I have been told In past I was but, did not listen. I am a divorced 34 year old woman who has been in abusive relationships since my first.

I finally got the courage to leave my husband and found myself in relationship "cyber" with man from another country. I focus too much on him and his needs. Then I got tired of it and then I make demands and when my demands are not met then I fall into a depression and low self esteem.

I am a good looking woman with a successful business, however this relationship takes away from everything, even a real life in reality not computer or phone. I continue to make him a priority even when I am not. I truly feel codependent and low self esteem. Now I know problem I must find a solution.

By anon129595 — On Nov 24, 2010

I am taking care of my mother and it has become overwhelming, I am a recovery addict with 19 years clean. But I deal with depression and ptsd, and this relationship with my mother is not healthy.

By anon119492 — On Oct 18, 2010

I was raised up in a chaotic marriage. My mother was financially stable but i feel not emotionally. She was controlling, never happy, and manipulated how i constantly wanted both my parents happy.

My father used to be a functioning drug addict but the addiction and hate he felt for himself overcame his life. We all suffered from verbal and physical abuse as my parents fought for a sense of control over their dysfunctional emotions and lives, one handling it physically and controlling; the other abusing drugs to fill themselves with self control and self love.

My mother fights the feeling of depression, among other control issues, with prescription pills.

My father is a raging substance abuser now with no job and sometimes no electricity. I have been seeking their love and approval but feel the need to be estranged from them due to my own harsh feelings toward myself. It seems to get worse if I'm physically around them. I can't stand to look at myself.

I have recreationally used drugs to feel self love. I don't abuse drugs now and it seems unattainable, still. I've had several unhealthy relationships all being with other substance abusers but controlling and manipulative.

I'm currently not in a relationship because I don't love myself and expect too much from others to fill a void I have. I'm terribly self destructive.

By anon54170 — On Nov 27, 2009

I am an enabler and sick of it! For over 20 years my son-in-law has lived in two rooms of my house with his wife and children and has rarely shared any household expenses. He, his wife and 22 year old daughter all refuse to find jobs.

I am an enabler and I am sick of it!

By ab1406 — On Nov 06, 2008

This is in addition to my previous question. I have had many physiological exams and have been found to be very stable. It seems in hindsight that person came into my life when I had a lot of money and now that money is tight they have run as they did every other time. Am I crazy or what. This was always a very one sided relationship as I asked for nothing and did everything possible.

By ab1406 — On Nov 06, 2008

I sustained a brain injury in 1989. I met someone at a head injury re-hab center. They moved in with me and has lived with me for the past 17 yeas. * months ago they moved out saying they are afraid of me. This is the 5th time and one suicide attempt. They are in a power wheelchair and I felt they need more love and understanding. I am lost right now as I guess I don't get it!

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
Learn more
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