What is Codependency?: Signs and Symptoms
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What is Codependency?: Signs and Symptoms




Codependency is a problematic way to develop relationships.

Learn about this common issue people face, and discover ways to overcome codependency.



What are the signs of codependency?


The concept of codependency emerged out of addictions research. It was a concept designed to describe the behavior of spouses and children of alcoholics. Since then, the concept has been applied more broadly.


While there are a variety of definitions, a review in journal Contemporary Family Therapy used previous research to highlight key aspects of codependency, which are listed below. These can be considered “signs” that you might be prone to codependency.

-Holding an extreme belief that you are powerless, and others are powerful

-Not openly sharing your feelings

-Excessive emphasize on getting your sense of purpose by engaging in/caring for relationships that cause you distress

-Can involve denial, attempting to control the relationship, or being very rigid.

If these signs strike a chord with you then you may want to seek out help from a therapist.




What is a codependent relationship?


A codependent relationship is one in which two or more people feel responsible over things in their partner’s life that they should not be responsible for.


This can include controlling what another does or says, helping and supporting to a selfless and exhausting degree, and/or not being able to make healthy boundaries with others.


A codependent relationship is one that has the same signs outlined in the previous question. If you feel like you are in a codependent relationship, and you want to overcome dependency, then you may want to seek treatment from couples counseling or individual therapy.




Is a codependent relationship bad?


There is some level of dependency in every relationship, especially in parent-child relationships. However, as outline above, codependency tends to operate more in the extremes.


While is it s normal to at times feel powerless, if you almost always feel powerless in your relationships that is more concerning.


If you identify with the symptoms of codependency outlined above it may not be impacting your relationship right now, but it likely will down the road. Mental Health of America talks about how people who have codependent tendencies tend to end up feeling hurt when their efforts/work are not recognized by their partners.


A sign of codependency is also having your sense of purpose tied up in your relationship, which can lead to feelings of sadness or worry when things hit a bump in the road.


Considering all this, if you believe you are in a codependent relationship it would likely serve both you and your relationship to seek out individual or couples therapy.


Substance abuse is also a very common component of a codependent relationship as it puts at least one person in a caretaking position, and another in a dependency persons’ position. Addiction to drugs or alcohol inevitably makes the codependent relationship much more difficult.




What are codependent behaviors?


Mental Health America talks about how it is common for people who have codependent tendencies to have certain patterns of behavior including low self-esteem, which can lead them to look for outside approval/validation.


As stated above that may mean looking for worth or purpose in a relationship, where you can take a caretaking role. Some of the other behaviors Mental Health American outlines are:

-An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others

-A tendency to do more than their share

-A tendency to become hurt when people do not recognize their efforts

-Difficulty expressing their feelings or a sense of guilt when asserting themselves

-Difficulty with healthy boundaries

If these behaviors sound familiar, it may be helpful to seek out some additional help or resources, taking time to care for yourself versus others.


Am I the codependent one

Is codependency a mental illness?


No, a codependent personality is not considered a mental illness. While codependency is not a mental illness, it is often associated with mental health issues. A research article in Contemporary Family Therapy stated that codependency is associated with depression and anxiety.


This means that people who have depression or anxiety may be more likely to be codependent. However, the article also has the caveat that the relationship between depression/anxiety and codependency is still not very well understood.




What is the root cause of codependency?


The root cause of codependency like many things is unknown. Researchers from Ireland have found that people who fell into their high codependency group perceived greater family dysfunction.


Another article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology  points to family upbringing. The idea that growing up in a dysfunctional family (i.e. a childhood where addiction, mental health issues, or abuse were present) could be a contributing factor in developing codependent behaviors. There is still much we need to learn about codependency.




How do I stop being codependent?


If you are asking yourself this question, you have already made significant progress by noticing the presence of codependency in your life. Gaining that awareness is the first step towards making any changes.


There are a variety of ways you can address codependency in your life. One way you can start this process is through therapy, seeking out counseling individually, as a couple, or even as a family. Articles in the Clinical Psychology Review and the Journal of Family Therapy show that therapy is an effective way to treat depression and anxiety, which as outlined above can commonly occur with codependency.


Outside of therapy there are other “self-help” options that you can do on your own. As outlined at the start of the article the concept of codependency originated out of the addiction’s literature. From these origins there is also a peer-support group for codependency, called Codependents Anonymous.


This group has meetings both in-person and online that use a 12-step model like those that focus on alcohol and drugs; Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous. You can check out their website to see the 12-steps and learn more about their program.




How are codependent and narcissism related?


On the other end of the spectrum from codependence is narcissism. The Journal of Clinical Psychology talks about how narcissistic traits are present in everyone to varying degrees.


According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) these traits are considered narcissistic personality when they significantly impair a person’s life.


Traits such as an inflated sense of own importance, a deep need for excessive attention/admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others may cause such impairment.


A researcher in the Journal of Clinical Psychology discusses how codependent traits are thought to complement narcissistic traits. The researcher goes on to discuss how it has been hypothesized that both codependent traits and narcissistic traits are the result of flawed “mirroring.”


People with narcissistic traits relating to others by seeing themselves in others and people with codependent traits relating to others by mirroring them.


More recent research from the Australian Journal of Psychology supports this idea, finding that people who scored higher for codependency had lower narcissism scores.


If you feel that you have a greater amount of codependent traits it may be helpful to be aware of this connection. As the old saying goes “opposites attract.” Which could mean someone with higher levels of codependency could end up with someone who has more narcissistic traits.


While this does not always happen, it may be something to pay attention to in your romantic relationships.


If you feel that you and your partner have a relationship where you have more codependent traits and they have more narcissistic traits you may want to seek out medical advice to help you both find a middle ground.




Can people who struggle with codependence have healthy relationships?


Like any mental health issue codependency can cause issues in relationships. However, you can work on how codependency shows up for you as an individual and in your relationship. Addressing how codependency shows up will help you feel better and help you have the healthy relationship that you want.


If you are not sure if you want to continue in a relationship you are in, you may like to work with a Discernment Counselor to help you answer that question.



What does healthy love look like?


Based on findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there are several factors linked to healthy relationships, some of them are listed below.


What makes a good relationship;

  • Respect for self and others
  • Trust
  • Honestly
  • Compromise
  • Individuality
  • Good communication
  • Fighting fair (no physical, emotional, or psychological abuse)
  • Problem solving
  • Understanding
  • Self-confidence


If you read this list and notice that you and your partner are not quite hitting one (or many) of them it may be helpful to seek out a couples counselor and begin a treatment program. If you partner is not interested in attending couples therapy, you can also seek out individual therapy.





Baucom, D. H., Whisman, M. A., & Paprocki, C. (2012). Couple‐based interventions for psychopathology. Journal of Family Therapy34(3), 250-270.

Butler, A. C., Chapman, J. E., Forman, E. M., & Beck, A. T. (2006). The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses. Clinical psychology review26(1), 17-31.

Characteristics of healthy & unhealthy relationships. (n.d.). Youth.gov. Retried December 20, 2020 from https://youth.gov/youth-topics/teen-dating-violence/characteristics

Co-Dependency. (n.d.). Mental Health America. Retrieved December 19, 2020 from https://www.mhanational.org/issues/co-dependency

Cullen, J., & Carr, A. (1999). Codependency: An empirical study from a systemic perspective. Contemporary Family Therapy21(4), 505-526.

Irwin, H. J. (1995). Codependence, narcissism, and childhood trauma. Journal of clinical psychology51(5), 658-665.

Morgan Jr, J. P. (1991). What is codependency?. Journal of clinical psychology47(5), 720-729.



Disclaimer: ALL IN Therapy Clinic aims to improve people’s lives through providing effective mental health counseling by passionate professionals. We publish quality material for your own education. Our publications are researched, cited, reviewed, and edited by licensed mental health professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.