Understanding Codependency: Definition, Signs, and Therapies
Updated on:November 22, 2023
Navigating the realm of codependency reveals a psychological landscape where one person's behavior entwines with another's, often resulting in a dangerous dance of enablement and reliance. Read more to discover what codependency is, how it negatively impacts individuals, and how to treat it.
What Is Codependency?Codependency is a psychological concept that deals with relationships in which one individual enables another individual’s self-destructive behavior. Although many mental health experts treat codependency as a unique condition, there is no formal set of characteristics that define it. Codependency describes a dysfunctional relationship pattern where one person’s needs and desires become entwined with another person’s, to an excessive and unhealthy degree. Codependency can occur in any relationship between two individuals, but it is most associated with romantic, familial, and friendship-based relationships. Codependency can be especially problematic because it often appears to be a strong and close relationship based on love and care. However, the underlying relationship dynamics are much more complex and can be extremely damaging to both members of the codependent relationship. “Codependent relationships can be really toxic. They're all about relying too much on the other person for your emotional well-being, self-worth, and validation. This can make you lose sight of who you are and neglect your own needs,” says psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) Valerie Puffenberger.
Signs of a Codependent RelationshipBecause codependent relationships often appear to be healthy and happy, they can be hard to detect, especially for the people involved in them. However, codependent relationships typically include two major roles: the “caretaker” and the “taker.” If there is a clearly identifiable “caretaker” and a “taker” in the relationship, it is likely a codependent relationship. In a codependent relationship, the “caretaker” is the individual who sacrifices for the other individual. Caretakers may give up their needs, pursuing their goals, and even their own happiness and mental health in favor of those of the “taker.” The “taker” is the individual who takes from and feels a need to control the other person. Caretakers will often do anything for and tolerate anything from the taker. In turn, takers often feel they can do anything to the caretaker without risking them leaving.
Signs You Are the “Caretaker”These are potential signs that you could be the caretaker in a codependent relationship:
- Excessive sacrifice: You consistently prioritize the needs, goals, happiness, and health of your loved one over your own to the extent that it impacts you negatively and reduces the quality of your life.
- Control issues: You find yourself continuously attempting to manage and control every aspect of your loved one’s life because you believe your actions are necessary for their happiness, success, or well-being.
- Lack of boundaries: You do not set or maintain healthy boundaries with your loved one, allowing them to “walk all over you,” and you have difficulty saying no or asserting your own needs.
- Emotional roller coaster: You experience extreme emotional highs and lows based on how your loved one is feeling because your identity is so interconnected with theirs.
- Low self-esteem: One of the most common traits that caretakers share is a lack of self-esteem. For example, the commonly held belief that the caretaker could not “do better” than the taker or that they do not deserve a more mutually beneficial relationship.
Signs You Are the “Taker”These are the potential signs that you could be the “taker” in a codependent relationship:
- Dependency: You are heavily reliant on your loved one to fulfill your needs, especially your emotional needs. As a result, you are constantly seeking their approval because you need it for your own validation and self-esteem.
- Manipulative behavior: You want to ensure that your loved one continues to focus on you and your needs, so you employ a variety of manipulation tactics, such as making them feel guilty for not paying attention to you.
- Avoidance of responsibility: You routinely blame your loved one for your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to avoid taking responsibility for your own actions.
- Lack of autonomy: You find it difficult to make decisions for yourself or to take any independent action because your sense of self has become so intertwined with your loved one that you have lost a sense of your own unique and distinct identity.
- Low self-esteem: Takers frequently suffer from low self-esteem, and their self-esteem is often lowered as a result of their relationship because they are not achieving anything on their own and may feel as if they need their partner to function.
What Are the Dangers of Toxic Codependency?Codependency can quickly evolve into a toxic downward spiral that harms both members of the relationship. “These kinds of relationships can actually support destructive behaviors and keep that cycle of dysfunction going. When boundaries are blurry and power is uneven, it can lead to a lot of emotional and psychological stress,” says Puffenberger. As the caretaker gives more, they become more invested in the well-being of the taker, and they become increasingly willing to give more. Conversely, as the taker takes more, they become increasingly dependent on the caretaker to meet all their needs, and they become increasingly unable to function without them. The many negative consequences and dangers of toxic codependency include:
- Stagnation of personal growth: Each party in a codependent relationship damages the other’s ability to achieve personal growth. The caretaker enables the negative behavior of the taker to continue with no improvement, and the taker steals energy, time, effort, and resources from the caretaker.
- Relationship damage: Putting your entire sense of happiness on another person puts a great deal of pressure on them, which can lead to resentment and conflict.
- Damage to mental health: Codependency can damage mental health in many ways. Caretakers enable the negative behavior and beliefs of takers, often allowing their mental health conditions to worsen. Both parties are likely to experience anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem due to the nature of the relationship, as well as the fact that they are basing their self-worth on the validation of others.
- Escalation of addiction: Caretakers often enable the addictive behaviors of the taker. Takers often motivate the substance use of the caretaker because of the mental stress they cause them and, sometimes, in a deliberate attempt to control them.
How to Overcome CodependencyTo overcome codependency, an individual needs to make deliberate, determined efforts to change. Codependency is not something that disappears overnight. It takes time, especially for extremely codependent relationships. Luckily, there are many strategies for overcoming codependency that fall into two general categories:
- Self-care and setting boundaries
- Seeking professional help
Self-Care and Setting BoundariesUnraveling the ties of a codependent relationship can be a complex and painful process. Practicing self-care and setting clear boundaries can help the process along while setting you up for long-term success. Here are some strategies to consider:
- Prioritize self-awareness: Know your own needs, desires, and emotions. Develop a deeper understanding of what motivates you and how your actions impact others.
- Establish and maintain boundaries: Set healthy boundaries in your relationships that will not cause you to tolerate behavior that is harmful to you. You must firmly communicate your boundaries to your partner and make sure they suffer the consequences if they do not respect them.
- Practice self-compassion: Show the same compassion and love that you do to others to yourself. Enhance your emotional well-being through self-care practices like writing down what you’re grateful for, celebrating your accomplishments (big and small), and embracing failure as a learning opportunity.
- Take care of yourself: Make it a top priority that your medical, mental health, personal hygiene, fitness, social, recreational, and financial needs are met.
Seeking Professional HelpGetting out of a codependent relationship can be extremely difficult, especially if you’re attempting to do it on your own. A licensed mental health professional will have the tools to help you overcome codependence. There are different types of professional treatment options for codependency to consider:
- Therapy and counseling: Group, couples, and individual therapy sessions are a great way to learn more about yourself and ways to change your behavior. Therapy and counseling are the most important steps you can take to change codependent behavior patterns and develop healthier relationships.
- Addiction treatment: Addiction is one of the most severe consequences of codependency and one of the hardest to treat. Luckily, there are thousands of drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs that specialize in helping patients regain their sobriety and improve the quality of their relationships.
- Support networks: Join and actively participate in support groups such as Co-Dependents Anonymous or Al-Anon.
Find Your IndependenceIf you or a loved one is trapped in a codependent relationship, it can seem like there is no escaping the downward spiral. Luckily, nothing could be further from the truth. There are thousands of mental health professionals and treatment programs that can help you rediscover yourself. At Legacy Healing Center, we’re ready to help you gain your independence. Our mental health program uses the right mix of therapy, group support, and medication (if needed) to help you on your path to mental wellness. Call 888-534-2295 today to speak with a treatment staff member to learn more about your options for treating codependency.
How does codependency affect relationships?Codependency causes significant damage to both parties in a relationship. It makes relationships imbalanced, emotionally draining, and toxic. There is often a loss of effective communication and a lack of true intimacy.
What are the signs of a codependent relationship?Some of the most common and easy-to-identify signs of codependency in a relationship include:
- The presence of a “caretaker” and a “taker” with clearly defined roles
- Excessive caretaking
- Lack of boundaries
- Emotional volatility
- Mutual dependency
- Manipulation by both parties
- Attempts by both parties to control the other party
- Avoidance of personal responsibility
What are the ways that emotional codependency can impact one's mental health?Codependency can impact an individual’s mental health in many ways. Some of the most common and severe include:
- Increased stress levels
- Heightened anxiety
- Fragile sense of identity
- Diminished sense of self-esteem
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Negative self-talk
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Stagnation of personal growth
- Avoidance of treatment
- Bitterness and resentment
- Low relationship quality