Wanting to help others is a commendable personal characteristic. Being a supportive girlfriend or friend is key to maintaining solid relationships. Having your family’s back is admirable. However, as with all things, moderation is key.
It’s possible to take this helpfulness to an extreme and to cultivate one-sided, unhealthy relationships where one person feels the need to “rescue” the other—from issues as big as addiction to mishaps as small as forgetting your lunch at home one day.
Relationships where one person is always taking care of the other are often called codependent relationships, with the “helper” being a codependent person.
But what exactly is codependency, and can codependent people heal and find healthier relationships? Here’s what the experts say.
What Codependency Is—and What It Isn’t
The word codependent is often misused to describe relationships where two people spend a lot of time together or structure their lives around one another. Although codependent relationships might include those traits, there’s a lot more to codependency than that.
The term codependent was initially used to refer to the partners of alcoholics and others struggling with substance abuse, but nowadays, the term is applied more broadly. This is because the unhealthy helping behaviors initially observed in the spouses of alcoholics is prevalent in others, too.
—Shawn M Burn, PhD
“Emotionally speaking, over time the giver feels stressed, resentful, frustrated, trapped, and manipulated.”
—Shawn M Burn, PhD
“Codependent relationships are high-cost caretaking and rescuing relationships where one partner sacrifices in an effort to fix the problems of the other under-functioning partner,” says Shawn M Burn, PhD, a psychology professor and the author of Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving. “It differs from other close relationships in that it is highly imbalanced with one person consistently taking the role of ‘giver’ and the other of ‘taker’.”
By “high-cost” caretaking, Burn says she means caretaking that pushes the limits of your emotional, physical, and/or financial resources. “Emotionally speaking, over time the giver feels stressed, resentful, frustrated, trapped, and manipulated,” she explains. “This strains your relationship with the taker.”
Human behavior expert and life coach Trevicia Williams, PhD, says that codependent people also have a need to be needed. “People who are codependent are consumed with meeting the needs of others. They have a difficult time drawing the line between personal time, space, possessions, finances, and feelings, and that of others,” she explains.
“They wear the feelings of others on their shoulders and assume responsibility for their problems,” Williams adds. “Codependents also feel like their feelings aren’t important. Many become people-pleasers and forgo their own happiness for someone else’s.”
In other words, a codependent person depends on other people depending on them to feel fulfilled. They value feeling needed to the point that it’s extreme and unhealthy.
We might assume that women are more likely to be codependent than men because women are often socialized into being nurturers. Interestingly, research shows that this is not necessarily the case: Men and women are equally likely to become codependent. That said, some codependent women may see martyrdom and self-sacrifice as a necessary part of fulfilling gender roles.
The Signs of a Codependent Relationship
Romantic relationships aren’t the only relationships that can be codependent: Codependency can occur in parent-child relationships, friendships, and other relationships, say the experts. Here are a few common hallmarks of codependent relationships:
One person is a giver, and the other is an under-functioning taker.
It’s normal for us to need support from our loved ones from time to time, especially if we’re dealing with a crisis. In healthy relationships, this support goes back and forth between the individuals when it’s needed. In a codependent relationship, though, these roles are consistent: One person is always giving, and the other is always taking.
“Healthy relationships are more balanced; over time there is equality in giving and receiving,” Burn reiterates. “Partners’ lives are intertwined, but they take care of each other, nurture each other, and have each other’s backs.”
The giver keeps solving the taker’s problems.
It’s natural to want to help your loved one “fix” an issue they’re facing. Sometimes it’s easy to think you’ve got the solution for issues between your partner and another person, a work problem, or a personal difficulty. However, it’s important that people learn how to take charge and solve their own issues (even if that requires getting a little encouragement from their loved ones).
Burn says that the problem-solving tendencies of the giver can enable dysfunctional tendencies in the taker. “In other words, the giver makes it easy for the taker to be irresponsible, addicted, incompetent, criminal, or dependent,” she says.
The Characteristics of a Codependent Person
In addition to the hallmarks of codependent relationships, the giver—or codependent person—alone often has certain tendencies and characteristics, regardless of who the “taker” might be.
Codependent people struggle with drawing boundaries.
They regularly sacrifice their own energy and happiness for others, and saying no is often a struggle for them.
Codependent people feel the need to control people or situations.
Codependent people don’t only struggle with drawing their own boundaries—they also tend to struggle with respecting others’ boundaries. They might do this by bossing people around, giving over-the-top advice, and solving others’ problems—even when the other person doesn’t want their help. Codependent people might enjoy having others depend on them because it means they have more control over their loved ones.
Codependent people easily absorb the feelings of others, often taking responsibility for the feelings and actions of other people.
Codependent people have low self-esteem and derive their worth from helping others.
Research on codependency shows that highly codependent people often struggle with low self-esteem. In order to boost their self-esteem, codependent people do things for other people. It often feels good to help others, but when self-sacrifice is your primary source of self-worth, it can easily be taken to an extreme.
Codependent people experience extreme “emotional reactivity.”
Codependent people easily absorb the feelings of others, often taking responsibility for the feelings and actions of other people. They may also have a tendency to take the opinions of others very personally, even when the opinion doesn’t directly implicate them. This is because of their struggles with self-esteem and boundary setting.
Codependent people might struggle to communicate.
Whether it’s communicating boundaries, communicating their feelings, or discussing their emotional needs, codependent people might struggle to express themselves more than the average person.
Dysfunctional Families: Codependent Parent–Child Relationships
In some parent-child relationships, the parents try to live vicariously through their children instead of seeing their children as individuals with their own, unique identities. “Codependency in parent-child relationships is characterized by the assumption that children are to live primarily through parental expectations instead of being provided with choices to help them naturally develop their own identity,” Williams says. The problem with this is that children then aren’t given the space to grow on their own.
An example of codependency in parent–child relationships Williams often encounters is when parents over-schedule their children’s activities, leading their tween and teen kids to feel stressed out. “Children would prefer to be given options and invited to the decision-making process when it comes to extracurricular activities, especially during the school year,” she suggests. This allows them to learn how to make decisions and prioritize their own time.
Codependent relationships are unhealthy because they’re so unequal. The giver receives very little support, and the taker isn’t given the opportunity to solve their own problems, and thus to learn and grow as a person.
Causes of Codependency
What causes codependency? Usually, codependent behavior is rooted in issues stemming from childhood, Williams says.
“When parents have an unhealthy balance of self, family, work, and life roles, overbearing responsibilities can lead to self-neglect,” she says. The parents prioritize other issues above their own self-care. When it comes to meeting the physical and emotional needs of the parent, roles then reverse and the child takes a lot of emotional responsibility for the parent, while the parent might neglect the emotional needs of the child. “In turn, the children become less aware of their own feelings.” Williams adds that, if this cycle isn’t broken, it can be perpetuated for generations.
More overt forms of abuse can also lead to codependency. “If you had a parent that verbally assaulted, threatened, or terrorized you; isolated and confined you; exploited or corrupted you; or overlooked, rejected, or ignored your emotional needs, you may be at risk [of being codependent],” Burn says.
“One way to look at it is that your relationship with your parent is your first love relationship and sets the stage for your later love relationships: It can be what love looks like to you,” she explains. In other words, if you think—even subconsciously—that you have to subordinate your own needs to care for your parent, you might become codependent in future relationships.
There are other causes for codependency, Burn adds. “For example, you can learn codependence from parental role models. You can over-internalize religious or cultural values that prescribe self-sacrifice for others,” she explains.
There are some other risk factors for developing or continuing codependent relationships. Research suggests people with codependency are more likely to have parents with mental health issues as well as partners with chemical dependency and personal psychological issues that involve or are related to compulsive behavior.
No matter the cause of codependency, the situation can be improved. Codependent people can recover and learn healthier behaviors.
How to Treat Codependency (and Find Healthy Relationships)
If you’ve come to the conclusion that you or a loved one are codependent, you might wonder whether it’s possible to recover. The good news is that it is totally possible to unlearn these behaviors and form healthy relationships.
“With professional help, codependency can be conquered,” Williams says. “The primary factors in overcoming include learning to value [your]self and becoming more assertive when dealing with others.”
In order to treat codependency, Burns says, “I think that you first have to identify the behaviors you need to change and why you need to change them. Self-awareness can help you avoid relationships with takers who are attracted to you due to your giving nature and comfort with unequal relationships,” she explains. “Understanding the roots of your behavior is sometimes useful because different change strategies may be relevant depending on the cause.”
Learning to set boundaries is also a skill that helps codependent people form healthier relationships. “It’s not always immediately apparent that a relationship will be codependent, and there are lots of things that make setting boundaries difficult, such as the other person’s resistance and your guilt,” Burn says.
What to Do If You Are Codependent
If you think you’re codependent, there are many things you can do to help yourself. Therapy can be a great start in unlearning unhealthy behaviors—try to seek out a therapist with experience in dealing with codependent and unhealthy relationships.
Support groups, like Codependents Anonymous, can also be a huge help, as can reading books on the subject, Burn suggests. There are also plenty of online resources for people who hope to recover from codependency.
Remember that your value does not depend on helping others, and hurting yourself to help others isn’t a commendable trait—in fact, you hurt yourself and the other person by encouraging their dependency.
What to Do If a Loved One Is Codependent
Codependent people might prefer being the helpful one, but they need a little help and support themselves when it comes to healing. If you notice that your loved one has a lot of unhealthy “helping” tendencies—even if they don’t fit all the criteria for codependency—there are a few ways you can help them.
Get them talking and thinking.
Codependent people are often in denial about their tendencies. They might not even recognize how unhealthy their “helping” is since helping is often seen as inherently good. Give them space to vent and think about their behavior as this could help them process the issue and realize they need help.
As mentioned earlier, codependent people might go to extreme, unhealthy lengths to help you even when you don’t want their help. They might disrespect your boundaries in order to “help” you. Tell them that you’re happy to solve your own problems without their help. Draw a boundary by letting them know you don’t want them to go to extreme lengths to help you. This way, not only are you modeling how to set boundaries, you are also showing them that they can’t assert control over your life.
Encourage them to go to therapy, go to support groups, or read literature on codependency.
Again, this will give them space to process their behavior and heal from it.