In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is codependency.
We hear about codependency often, particularly in relation to addiction, and it’s sometimes confused with dependency. What does it actually mean, though?
Dependency vs. codependency
While dependency involves relying on another person to help meet one’s own needs, codependency is more intertwined. It’s a dysfunctional relationship pattern that involves needing the other person, who often struggles with addiction or some other major issue, to need oneself for support. This can cause the codependent individual to unintentionally enable the other person’s problematic behaviours and take on the role of rescuer.
Someone who is codependent may become so focused on helping the other person and feeling responsible for the other person’s actions and feelings that they neglect their own needs and start to lose their sense of self. Codependency is also associated with poor boundaries and low self-esteem.
Who becomes codependent?
People who are prone to being codependent often enter into unstable, exploitative relationships. Such tendency often arises from attempts in childhood to get attention or approval in the context of dysfunctional family situations where parents are abusive, neglectful, or inconsistently available.
Adults who had enmeshed relationships with parents in childhood, having to take on the role of parenting their parent, are more likely to become codependent.
Al-Anon, the support organization for family members of alcoholics, was one of the first sources to describe codependency. The concept became much more widely known in the 1980s with the publication of several widely read books on the subject, by authors like Melody Beattie. It’s not recognized as a diagnosable mental disorder, although it had been proposed for inclusion in the DSM-III-R.
Mental Health America says that codependency is often referred to as “relationship addiction.” Their website offers a codependency questionnaire on its website to identify if you have signs of codependency.
For me where all of this gets a bit messy is separating out codependent vs. healthy helping behaviour. My last boyfriend struggled with addiction, and I tried very hard to support him in overcoming that addiction. It caused a lot of distress for me, and eventually, I ended the romantic relationship because I couldn’t continue to cope with the consequences of the substance use. However, we remained friends until he died of a fentanyl overdose.
Looking back, probably some of my behaviour could be considered codependent. I guess where I make the biggest differentiation was that my self-esteem never depended on anything to do with attempts at rescuing him, and I considered him as being responsible for what was going on with him. I was probably looser with boundaries than I should have been, but I didn’t see my primary role in the relationship as rescuer.
Is codependency something you’ve struggled with or questioned yourself on?
- APA Diction of Psychology: Codependency
- Britannica: Codependency
- Mental Health America (2018): Co-dependency
- PositivePsychology.com: Codependency: What Are The Signs & How To Overcome It
- Wikipedia: Codependency
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.