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Codependency: Meaning, Examples & Symptoms

Codependency: Meaning, Examples & Symptoms. Do find yourself making lots of sacrifices for your partner’s happiness, but not getting much in return? If that kind of one-sided pattern sounds like yours, you don’t have to feel trapped. For many of us, codependency isn’t easy to understand; we may keep asking “Why doesn’t she just leave him?” and find it hard to accept the answers we get. Codependents usually don’t share their partners’ addiction, but their lives tend to be taken over with the burden of caring for and protecting the spouse or partner. In recent years, people have started claiming that all kinds of conditions—anorexia, overeating, gambling, fear of intimacy, etc.—can result in codependency. Many experts think all of this has gone too far; still, almost everyone agrees that significant others of alcoholics and drug addicts face unique difficulties and should look for support and advice at facilities, like Overland IOP. If you need FREE help please contact the National Helpline about mental and/or substance use disorders, prevention, treatment, and recovery in English and Spanish.

Codependency: Meaning

Codependency is a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person manifesting low self-esteem and a strong desire for approval has an unhealthy attachment to another often controlling or manipulative person (such as a person with an addiction to drugs or alcohol). Codependency affects one’s ability to maintain healthy relationships. While it’s not always recognized as a diagnosable illness, codependency is extremely common and is often referred to as “relationship addiction.” Someone with a codependent personality typically has a bad relationship with themselves. Therefore, they feel compelled to receive self-worth from external sources like other people. Dependency has been known for centuries, but the concept of codependency got its name only as recently as 1979. “Codependent” originally was a term that applied to the spouse of an alcoholic. While it still is commonly used to describe a person’s relationship with someone who is dependent on alcohol or drugs, it also applies more broadly to any relationship in which someone—a spouse, partner, friend, sibling, parent, or coworker, for example—focuses on taking care of another person’s needs at the expense of their own.

Codependency: Examples

Codependency can happen in any type of relationship, romantic or not. Below are some examples of codependent situations and relationships.

Codependency Example 1: 

A woman is married to a man who is an alcoholic. She always puts his needs before her own and thinks she can help him become sober by showing him affection. She is unknowingly enabling him by giving him everything he requests and covering up for his destructive behavior. She blames a lot of the relationship’s issues on herself and will do anything it takes, including sacrificing her own mental well-being, to make it work.

Codependency Example 2: 

A new community college graduate has the opportunity to pursue her dream job in a different part of the country. Because of her mother’s mental health issues, she chose to stay home for college and take care of her. She would like to put her career and her needs first but chooses to take a smaller local job instead so that she won’t have to risk disappointing her mother or telling her that she is leaving. She thinks her mother needs her, so she puts her own needs aside.

Codependency Example 3: 

In another scenario, a private college graduate moves back home. He is not trying to get a job in his field or pursue any career. Instead, he stays in his parents’ house most of the day and plays video games. He says he will try to find a new place to live soon, but says that he doesn’t have any money. Therefore, the parents will continue to financially support the new graduate as he still doesn’t make any effort to move forward with his life.

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Symptoms Of Codependency

Following is a list of symptoms of codependentcy. Researchers also found that codependent symptoms got worse if left untreated. The good news is that they’re reversible. You needn’t have all of them to qualify as codependent.

  • Low self-esteem. Feeling that you’re not good enough or comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people think highly of themselves, but it’s only a disguise — they actually feel unlovable or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame. Guilt and perfectionism often go along with low self-esteem. If everything is perfect, you don’t feel bad about yourself.
  • People-pleasing. It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes them anxiety. Some codependents have a hard time saying “No” to anyone. They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people.
  • Poor boundaries. Boundaries are sort of an imaginary line between you and others. It divides up what’s yours and somebody else’s, and that applies not only to your body, money, and belongings but also to your feelings, thoughts, and needs. That’s especially where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry or weak boundaries. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else. Some codependents have rigid boundaries. They are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them. Sometimes, people flip back and forth between having weak boundaries and having rigid ones.
  • Reactivity. A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words because there’s no boundary. With a boundary, you’d realize it was just their opinion and not a reflection of you and not feel threatened by disagreements.
  • Caretaking. Another effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself. It’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. In fact, they need to help and might feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help. Moreover, they keep trying to help and fix the other person, even when that person clearly isn’t taking their advice.
  • Control. Control helps codependents feel safe and secure. Everyone needs some control over events in their life. You wouldn’t want to live in constant uncertainty and chaos, but for codependents, control limits their ability to take risks and share their feelings. Sometimes they have an addiction that either helps them loosen up, like alcoholism, or helps them hold their feelings down, like workaholism so that they don’t feel out of control. Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. In fact, people-pleasing and caretaking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents are bossy and tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. This is a violation of someone else’s boundary.
  • Dysfunctional communication. Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings, and needs. Of course, if you don’t know what you think, feel or need, this becomes a problem. Other times, you know, but you won’t own up to your truth. You’re afraid to be truthful because you don’t want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that,” you might pretend that it’s okay or tell someone what to do. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when you try to manipulate the other person out of fear.
  • Obsessions. Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. This is caused by their dependency and anxieties and fears. They can also become obsessed when they think they’ve made or might make a “mistake.”Sometimes you can lapse into fantasy about how you’d like things to be or about someone you love as a way to avoid the pain of the present. This is one way to stay in denial, discussed below, but it keeps you from living your life.
  • Dependency. Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves. They’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own. Others need always to be in a relationship because they feel depressed or lonely when they’re by themselves for too long. This trait makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive. They end up feeling trapped.
  • Denial. One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it, meaning that they don’t face their problem. Usually, they think the problem is someone else or the situation. They either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship or job to another and never own up to the fact that they have a problem. Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often, they don’t know what they’re feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people’s needs and not their own. They might be in denial of their need for space and autonomy. Although some codependents seem needy, others act like they’re self-sufficient when it comes to needing help. They won’t reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.
  • Problems with intimacy. By this, I’m not referring to sex, although sexual dysfunction often is a reflection of an intimacy problem. I’m talking about being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of the shame and weak boundaries, you might fear that you’ll be judged, rejected, or left. On the other hand, you may fear being smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you’re unavailable, but he or she is denying his or her need for separateness.
  • Painful emotions. Codependency creates stress and leads to painful emotions. Shame and low self-esteem create anxiety and fear about being judged, rejected, or abandoned; making mistakes; being a failure; feeling trapped by being close or being alone. The other symptoms lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. When the feelings are too much, you can feel numb.

How to Know You’re in a Codependent Relationship?

Watch out for these signs that you might be in a codependent relationship:

  • Are you unable to find satisfaction in your life outside of a specific person?
  • Do you recognize unhealthy behaviors in your partner but stay with them in spite of them?
  • Are you giving support to your partner at the cost of your own mental, emotional, and physical health?

Individuals can also assume they are in a codependent relationship if people around them have given them feedback that they are too dependent on their partner or if they have a desire, at times, for more independence but feel an even stronger conflict when they attempt to separate in any way. They’ll feel anxiety more consistently than any other emotion in the relationship. And they’ll spend a great deal of time and energy either trying to change their partner or … trying to conform to their partner’s wishes.

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While codependency can be treated on one’s own or under some sort of therapeutic or medical supervision, it’s recommended that someone who is codependent has a support system as they start to get to the root of the problem. To rid oneself of codependent thoughts and behaviors, you must first be educated about the topic. There are plenty of magazines, articles, and other reading materials about the topic that can help you understand your own tendencies. Other habit changes that can help influence positive change include staying sober (and encouraging your partner to), engaging in talk therapy (group, family, or individual), and putting oneself in a new environment that doesn’t require caretaking for someone else. To learn more about codependent personalities, or to get more options regarding treatment for this condition, contact our team of mental health professionals & read more about codependency.

If you need FREE help please contact the National Helpline about mental and/or substance use disorders, prevention, treatment, and recovery in English and Spanish.

Published: January 02, 2022

Last Updated: January 20, 2023


Natalia Golenkova

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