Codependency – Causes, Signs and Symptoms

Codependency

Also called: Codependent Behavior

Summary

Codependency is a pattern of behavior in which people appear to place the needs of others before their own needs. As a result, codependent people may have difficulty forming healthy and balanced relationships. Instead, they tend to get close to other people who have  addictions or mental health problems that the codependent person tries to ignore or avoid.

Codependency was first described as a pattern among partners or family members of people with alcohol and drug problems. Since then, the term “codependent” has been adapted to many situations.

Codependent people often look for something outside themselves that makes them feel better. Dysfunctional families, in which misbehavior or abuse is accepted as normal, are a major source of codependent behavior.

Codependent people fall easily into a caretaker role. They often view themselves as “martyrs” and thrive on the sense of being needed. In addition, they may not acknowledge that a problem (e.g., a partner’s alcoholism) exists.  Over time, the sense of caring can become compulsive and emotionally draining, leaving the codependent person feeling angry and unappreciated.

People engaged in codependent behavior tend to avoid confronting difficult emotions. They feel disconnected from their own needs and desires, struggle with their feelings and have difficulty trusting others. The emotional toll of codependency often leads patients to try to escape through drug and alcohol abuse.  Others with codependency may develop compulsive behaviors such as gambling or risky sex. Several types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and family therapy, may be used to treat codependency. Treatment may take the form of individual or group therapy, or a combination of both. Ultimately, treatment for codependency is only successful when patients move away from excessive caretaking and learn to address their own needs.

About codependency

Codependency is a behavior pattern in which a person tends to form unhealthy relationships. People who engage in codependent behavior almost always appear to place the needs and desires of other people before their own. These other people often have an addiction or mental health problems that the codependent person tries to ignore or avoid.

Initially, experts used the term “codependency” to describe spouses, parents, siblings and others with close relationships to people addicted to drugs and alcohol. Today, the term “codependency” has been used to describe any relationship that is one-sided and/or emotionally abusive. In codependent relationships, at least one person tends to feel fear, anger, pain or shame. People in codependent relationships ignore or deny these feelings.

Codependent people easily fall into the caretaker role. They often try to help or shield from harm the person with the addiction or other problem. For example, a codependent husband may lie for his alcoholic wife if she is too hung over to go to work. Though they may think they are aiding others with their support, codependent people actually exacerbate the situation by allowing others to avoid admitting they have problems and need treatment.

Codependent people often view themselves as “martyrs” and thrive on the sense of being needed. They feel responsible for the actions of others and confuse love with pity. However, over time, this caretaking can become compulsive and emotionally draining. People who are codependent often feel hurt when their efforts go unappreciated and may develop a sense of chronic anger due to their situation. A hallmark of codependency is a refusal by everyone involved to admit that a problem exists. People repress their feelings and adopt behaviors that allow them to ignore the problem for as long as possible. In many cases, chronic mental or physical illness may also afflict at least one person in the relationship. The relationship may also involve physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Potential causes of codependency

Dysfunctional families are a major cause of codependent behavior. In these cases, some sort of abuse or misbehavior, such as alcoholism, may be perceived as normal. A great deal of attention in these families is focused on the person who has an addiction or other problem. As a result, codependent family members may not develop a strong sense of identity and may be less developed emotionally. Most experts believe that codependent behavior is learned by observing similar behavior in family members or other loved ones. In most cases, people who are codependent lack self-esteem and begin to look for something outside themselves that makes them feel better. In many cases, this turns out to be a relationship with another person who shares their weaknesses or has other problems.

Signs and symptoms of codependency

Codependent people usually put the needs and welfare of others ahead of their own and believe they are responsible for other people. They believe that others are usually incapable of taking care of themselves and attempt to convince them how to think and feel. Codependent people may have poor self-esteem and feel a deep need to seek approval and recognition from others. They fear losing relationships and will do anything to maintain them (e.g., performing demanding favors or buying lavish gifts for others).

Symptoms associated with codependency typically fall into three categories:

  • Denial patterns. People often fail to see the true nature of their behavior. For example, they may believe they are completely unselfish and are dedicated to the needs of others. They may also deny that the other person has any problems.
  • Low self-esteem patterns. People judge themselves much too harshly do not perceive themselves as worthwhile or lovable. They value the opinions of others over their own, which may also make them indecisive.
  • Compliance patterns. People may be willing to compromise their own values and integrity in order to avoid rejection or anger from others. For example, they may engage in sexual relations to seek approval or avoid rejection. They may also put aside their own hobbies or interests in order to pursue those of others.

People who engage in codependent behavior tend to alter, deny or minimize their true feelings and avoid confronting difficult emotions. They are often detached from others, and avoid talking and touching. They feel disconnected from their own needs and desires, struggle with their feelings and have difficulty trusting others. They often feel guilty if they assert themselves and put their own needs above others. The emotional toll of codependency often leads patients to try to escape through the use of alcohol and drugs. Others may develop compulsive behaviors such as gambling or risky sex. In addition, people who exhibit codependent behavior may repeat the pattern in multiple relationships.

Diagnosis and treatment of codependency

Diagnosis of codependency can be difficult because the severity of the condition differs from patient to patient. In trying to identify the condition, mental health professionals will likely ask several questions. These may include:

  • Does the patient go to extremes to avoid arguing?
  • Does the patient dislike expressing true feelings to others?
  • Does the patient worry excessively about the judgments of others?
  • Has the patient ever lived with someone who has a chemical dependency problem?
  • Has the patient ever been emotionally or physically abused?
  • Does the patient feel rejected when a significant other spends time with friends?
  • Does the patient feel generally inadequate?
  • Does the patient feel like a bad person after making a mistake?
  • Does the patient have difficulty accepting gifts or compliments?
  • Does the patient believe that others will fall apart without the patient’s help?
  • Does the patient have trouble saying “no” when asked for help?

Several forms of therapy may be used to treat codependency, including family therapy and cognitive behavior therapy(CBT). Patients will likely explore issues from their childhood that may have led them to form the destructive patterns that are in place today. Therapy may take the form of individual or group counseling, or a combination of both.

During treatment, patients may be encouraged to reconstruct family dynamics and to try to get in touch with hidden emotions. The goal is to have patients reconnect with their feelings. Ultimately, treatment for codependency will not be successful unless the patient learns to recognize and stop behavior that has negative consequences for the patient. Patients must move away from excessive caretaking and learn to address their own needs.

Questions for your doctor about codependency

Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with their physicians regarding their conditions. Patients may wish to ask their doctor the following questions related to codependency:

  1. How can I tell whether my behavior is codependent or simply caring?
  2. What are some of the signs and symptoms that lead you to suspect that I am codependent?
  3. Which of my other behaviors may be related to my codependency?
  4. What is the likely source of my codependent behavior?
  5. What steps can I take to curb my codependent behavior?
  6. What treatment options are best for me?
  7. What will I discuss during my treatment sessions?
  8. What is my prognosis?
  9. How will I know whether or not I’m getting better?
  10. I’m worried about how people in my life will react if I stop caring for them. How can I explain my change in behavior to them?
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