Codependency: What It Looks Like and How to Stop It

According to the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 40 million people in the US (mainly women) are labeled as codependent.1 In other words, around 12% of the total population is classified as codependent. Codependency is a behavior that can be passed down from generation to generation. This behavioral and emotional condition can affect the relationship between two people.

Codependent people have an abusive, emotionally destructive, and one-sided relationship. This is not a mere bad relationship situation; codependency is classified as a disorder. Codependent people imitate or learn their behavior from certain family members or other people who they have a close relationship with.2

The Difference Between Codependence and Dependence

Before we delve deeper into codependence, it is important to differentiate two similar terms: dependence and codependence. It is important to understand each term in its own right.3

Dependency is Positive

Dependency is a positive thing. It is viewed as a desirable trait, such as people who depend on each other and rely on one another. This means that they support each other with love, acceptance, and trust. They find value in their romantic relationship, and they focus on that value. These partners love each other and make their relationship a top priority. They find joy in common hobbies, friends, or other interests they enjoy together. In these relationships, both sides express their needs. They respect their emotions and find a way to make the relationship good for one another.

Codependency is Harmful

Codependency is a harmful negative trait. Someone who is codependent feels the need to sacrifice themselves for other people. They enable others to do bad things. These bad things later influence the entire family. Codependent people feel satisfied when they do everything another person wants. Even if that thing destroys the entire family, they feel worthless unless they make these drastic sacrifices. They can only feel happy when they take extreme measures to fulfill another person’s needs. To find purpose in life, they have to be needed. In other words, a codependent person has no personal interests, identity, or values in a relationship. Even if that person has needs or any feelings, they consider them irrelevant. As a result, they will never express themselves no matter how dire the situation is.

Enabling a Codependent Relationship

When a codependent person encourages an alcoholic to drink more alcohol (both directly and indirectly), they enable this type of relationship. For example, a wife that hides her husband’s alcohol addiction from children or neighbors is codependent. She is lying to friends by, for example, denying that the addict in the family doesn’t spend all their money to buy more alcohol.

Codependent people believe they are protecting someone from facing the consequences of their behavior. However, this type of behavior doesn’t help the person with an addiction to understand the severity of the situation.

The husband in the particular example can continue to live in denial about his situation and the nature of his relationship with alcohol. Instead of facing the truth and eventually dealing with it, hopefully seeking help, the husband continues to drink. The codependent wife nurtures him and helps him maintain his alcohol addiction. However, this type of behavior and love can lead to serious consequences. People who are addicted to alcohol often engage in violence. So by enabling the husband to continue in his addictive patterns, the wife’s behavior causes the whole family to suffer. This is what enabling a codependent relationship looks like.4

Why Do Codependent Relationships Form?

Codependent relationships form in dysfunctional families. The members of these families suffer from shame, anger, fear, and pain.5

Since codependency often forms in early childhood, victims of child abuse often develop these psychological issues. According to statistics, the US has the highest number of child abuse reports in newborn babies, especially babies who are younger than a year old.

Younger children are the most vulnerable to this kind of treatment. In fact, 4.1 million reports have been filed for child abuse in 2017. 142,301 children have been taken from their families and checked into foster care. In dysfunctional families, 18.3% of the children are abused, 8.6% are sexually harassed or raped, while 7.1% are subjected to emotional abuse.

Children younger than one year are 25% more prone to child abuse. Children 1-2 year-olds are 11%, 3-5 year-olds are 11%, 6-8 year-olds are 10%, 9 year-olds are 8%, and 10-12 year-olds 7%. Teenagers are less exposed to child abuse, but around 6% still have to endure such treatment.6

What Does a Dysfunctional Family Look Like?

A dysfunctional family is one that falls under any of these categories:

Having a family member who is addicted to drugs, gambling, alcohol, work, etc.

Someone in the family experiences sexual, emotional, or physical abuse inflicted by another family member

Having to live with a family member that suffers from a physical or chronic mental illness

Such dysfunctional families do not acknowledge the existence of these problems. They do not control, confront, or talk about them. As a result, codependent family members in a dysfunctional family often repress their emotions. To detach themselves from the harsh reality, they don’t touch people, avoid confrontation, and they never talk about their feelings.

In the long run, these individuals develop a certain behavior to try and avoid, ignore or deny these difficult emotions. For people in a codependent relationship, trust is a myth. They do not allow themselves to trust anyone.

Instead, they focus their entire energy on the family member that is addicted or ill. Someone who is codependent will sacrifice their needs for someone else. In other words, a codependent person focuses more on other peoples’ needs rather than their own. They lose track of their desires, needs, and most importantly, sense of self.

Who Suffers Most?

Partners who are dependent on the relationship or addicted often abuse their partners mentally and physically. In a codependent relationship, the people who suffer most are:






Signs/Symptoms of Codependency

Codependency has many degrees and levels. How serious these symptoms are can be measured on a spectrum of severity.7 However, only a professional can classify these symptoms, meaning not everyone who has these particular symptoms suffers from this disorder. But overall, the signs below can give a general idea of how codependency feels like:

  • Painful emotions (hopelessness, despair, depression, and resentment)
  • No intimacy in the relationship
  • Extreme denial
  • Dependency
  • Obsession
  • Lack of communication
  • An extreme need for control
  • No boundaries
  • An excessive need to please others
  • Low/No self-esteem
  • Need to save people

What Does Codependency Look Like?

Roles of Victim and Caregiver

People in codependent relationships assume two roles. One is the “caregiver” and the other is the “victim.” The “victim” in this case is the addicted partner, and the “caregiver” is the ones who enables addiction-driven behaviors.

People who consider themselves the “victim” are a combination of troubled, needy, addicted, immature, and under-functioning individuals, while the codependent person is the “caregiver.” They view themselves as responsible for their partner’s behavior. They play the role of a forgiving, empathetic, altruistic, and competent person. They believe in showing care and compassion.8 But the bigger picture is a bit more complicated. There is a mix of emotions, feelings, and needs that are far more complex than these two seemingly simple roles.

Someone who is codependent believes they don’t deserve to be loved and that they don’t deserve happiness. They do not value themselves. Instead, they value others. They need to be loved and they need to feel needed. This type of behavior promotes internal gratification.

Never Saying “No”

Codependent people feel responsible for other people’s happiness. Therefore, they never say no even if they don’t want to do it. Their true feelings and beliefs don’t matter. Instead, a codependent person will do their best to hide their true intentions to avoid upsetting others. They believe that expressing their personal opinion may hurt them in one way or the other. As a result, they never give their family members the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

Self-Denial and Perfectionism

The most serious problem here is denial. A codependent person is in serious denial, especially about their own good. They feel anxious or guilty when they focus on their desires. So they simply bottle up their emotions, repress them, and lock them up deep inside, where no one will even notice they exist.

However, with self-denial comes perfectionism. These individuals’ need to exhibit a perfect image comes first. That is why they hide whatever is happening in their family from friends and neighbors.

Control Issues

Lastly, some codependent people can have serious control issues. It is important to note that not everyone experiences the same things. For example, if a child becomes a delinquent, the mother will feel as if she has failed in life. She will feel guilty for the things her child has done. Other codependent mothers might feel a strong need to control the situation. So, in an attempt to deal with the problem, they can become possessive or controlling.

The Connection Between Codependency and Addiction

A codependent person will look for anything that can make them feel better. They have low self-esteem which greatly affects their life, and they find it difficult to be themselves around others. Some will try to ease the pain with nicotine, narcotics, or alcohol. As a result, they can get addicted to these substances.

Based on statistics, 6.9% of victims have experienced abuse from a parent who is addicted to alcohol.9 Children with parents that are addicted to alcohol or various narcotics are three times more likely to experience abuse, either physical or mental.

Well-Intentioned Enabling

There are many different types of addiction. Some may develop compulsive behavior like non-selective sexual activities, gambling, or obsession with work. Their primary intentions are good and pure. Their main concern is usually the sick family member. However, since they consider themselves the caretaker in the family, they enable all sorts of bad behaviors. Becoming a caretaker is compulsive, and it is also time and energy-consuming.

In the end, a wife that has an alcoholic or drug-addicted husband will start making up excuses for him. In other cases, if she has a delinquent child, she will do whatever she can to get her child out of any predicament. She will pull some strings or talk to a friend to get her child out of a bad situation. But this doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, an individual that is on a destructive path will only keep walking that path until something changes.

The caretaker or the codependent person believes that they are needed. They feel helpless and responsible for that certain family member. However, they get stuck in a vicious cycle and nothing can break the behavior. Codependent people feel weak and they feel as if they are the victim. These feelings are the ones that attract them to this kind of relationship.

The Connection Between Depression and Codependency

One research focused on the correlation between codependency and depression in women. The goal was to determine which codependency symptoms will affect their depression scores. From all the participants, 36% of depressed women were severely or moderately codependent. Statistics show that the symptoms of low self-esteem are strongly connected to depression.10

Codependency can significantly affect a person’s well-being. People with low self-esteem are prone to developing serious mental health problems. Depression is just one of them, but it is a serious illness that affects 19 million people in the US. Based on statistics, 12 million women in the US are depressed, and one-eighth of these women can develop clinical depression.11

Codependents Struggle to Move on from Abusive Relationships

Codependency affects the way an adult thinks. It taints their emotions, feelings, and needs, altering them. As a result, they find it difficult to separate themselves from toxic influence, especially if they have been in a dysfunctional family for a long time.

When it comes to romantic relationships, codependent people often stay too long in dysfunctional relationships. They stay even if they are physically or emotionally hurt.

According to statistics, 1 in 3 adolescents has been in an abusive relationship, whether it is emotional, sexual, verbal, or physical abuse. For them, breaking up is far more complicated than anyone can imagine. So, they decide to remain in an abusive relationship and deal with it in their own way.12

Healing from Codependency

There are many things a person can do to deal with codependency. But to do this, people have to implement some drastic changes. First, it is important to evaluate the problem. Once you have decided what you are dealing with, you can choose the path to take. There are various methods to start healing, like going to:

  • Group therapy
  • Experimental groups
  • Individual therapy

Attend Meetings

If you have a loved one that deals with a serious addiction issue like drugs and alcohol, it is best to go to meetings. The family that has been abused for an extended amount of time should find a way to deal with these emotions. The first step is to attend meetings.

Many of these meetings and support groups are free, which means many people who are dealing with this type of problem will come to share their side of the story.13 The goal of the meetings for those who are going through the same thing is to learn from each other and offer one another support and compassion. They can share some tips on how to stop enabling bad behavior and how to stop being codependent.

Get Therapy

Another important step for those dealing with this kind of situation is to seek professional help and get therapy. Since codependency usually develops in early childhood, during treatment it is important to evaluate and explore a person’s childhood problems and relationships. This will help better understand the reason for their destructive behaviors.

However, if codependency has developed much later because of the partner, it is important that both partners go to therapy together.

During therapy, people will get in touch with their feelings. This allows them to experience all of those feelings they bottled up inside for a long time.


To start healing codependency, you have to understand your situation first. The entire family has to be more aware, and they should educate themselves about the cycle of addiction. To obtain these educational materials, it is always a good idea to visit mental health and treatment centers. They have materials that are available to everyone.

Tough Love

Another way to deal with codependency is to stop giving money or a place to stay for someone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol. Instead of giving them a roof over their head, it is better to insist that they get counseling. Without proper treatment, an addict is throwing their life away, and enabling that kind of behavior is not only harmful to their loved ones, but it is also detrimental to the addict’s own future.

Treatment and detoxes are offered at drug rehabilitation programs. Depending on the severity of the situation, the process of drug withdrawal, detox, and treatment can vary and they may need to check into rehab. This is a long procedure that can take months for the recovering addict to get back on track. After this, it is important to keep from falling into old patterns and to attend meetings to prevent relapse.


Codependency is a serious problem. A codependent relationship doesn’t just affect the two parties involved; it impacts the whole family and can lead to a ripple effect. A codependent person will plan their entire life around the person they are trying to please. This can affect the entire family, especially children. Since children are the ones who are most vulnerable to such behaviors and problems, it is important to make changes sooner rather than later.

Many changes are necessary when someone decides to deal with codependency. After all, enabling the abuse or bad behavior will never make it stop. Codependent people have to acknowledge their needs and feelings. Professional help is recommended to deal with these kinds of situations, especially if they have been going on for a while.