Insights into Psychology

What Is… Codependency

Dependency vs codependency

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?

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.

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, neglectfully, 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.

Addictions

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.

Getting personal

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’re struggled with or questioned yourself on?

Sources

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

7 thoughts on “What Is… Codependency”

  1. You often say you don’t have the same level of trauma history as many other bloggers, but then tell stories like this. I feel like it may not be codependent, per se, if you didn’t compromise your own boundaries in ways that hurt your life or value, but losing someone to an OD, work bullying, seeing the roughest side of how we treat the I’ll everyday in your work. All of those are valid things to say impact your life. You can always own a story whether or not you own a label. People put a lot of stock in technical definitions, but those continuously evolve with new editions and are oft just manifesting cultural and political realities of their time. Codependency was a very 1980s/1990s term, with a lot of its 90s baggage. But, there’s value in learning about it for people who have experienced any kind of mental health challenge or trauma if only to pick and choose what pieces of the term to guide them as part of their general recovery. I don’t think of myself as codependent, though I’ve been in unhealthy relationships as an adult (not specifically drugs, but there are other ways you can cross boundaries for someone that can affect you.) So, I found reading about it in childhood and adulthood helpful, but I don’t really think of myself as one. It was just another source of data, but not ultimately an identity I connected with.

    1. It’s interesting, despite a lot of difficult stuff that happened with my ex-partner who ended up ODing, I always had the resources available to process it, and able to not take on responsibility for what I had no control over. It’s really been in the last few years that I haven’t had enough internal resources. And for whatever reason I was always able to maintain a clear separation in my work with clients, and have never taken their struggles on personally. But I think those kinds of boundaries are always worth giving some thought to, whether they’re crossed or not.

  2. Yes, so much, with my older daughter. I check ALL the boxes. It’s super weird when it’s your kid because figuring out the line between being a good mom and being codependent- especially when your child has mental health issues rather than addiction related mental health issues- is SO HARD. I’m really trying though. My own struggles recently have been a big wake up call.

  3. First of all,I’m so sorry about your x. And I really learned a lot about both my own thinking and others here. To try to save or help everyone and neglect myself is something I’ve done to much. It’s actually this last two years I’ve said no and stop. I burned the light in both ends and I’m exhausted. Ty for a really good post

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