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What Is Codependency?

"Codependency" is a term used to describe a relationship in which, by being caring, highly functional, and helpful, one person is said to support, perpetuate, or “enable” a loved one’s irresponsible or destructive behavior. For example, helping an inebriated spouse navigate an embarrassing situation or providing living quarters for a substance-using young-adult child is said to be counterproductive, a way of forestalling recovery and actually perpetuating the problem.

According to this way of thinking, creating emotional distance from the troubled loved one is necessary and beneficial to that person: It is a way to expose them to the negative consequences of their behavior.

In being reliable, caring, and nurturing, the co-dependent partner is perceived to be exhibiting any number of weaknesses of his or her own—from low self-esteem and an excessive need to please others to poor interpersonal boundaries that make him or her feel responsible for the other’s problems.

This controversial concept emerged in the substance-abuse community in the 1980s and was originally applied to caretaking patterns seen among partners of alcoholics. It has since been applied not only to addictions in general but well beyond, to other kinds of mental health and behavioral problems, including domestic violence and emotional abuse.

The term is also often used colloquially, to describe close relationships without carrying any strict psychological meaning.

The Controversy Over "Codependency"


There is no scientific research supporting the concept of codependency. Despite the efforts of some to have “codependency” designated a personality disorder, it has never been accepted for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Many mental health and relationship experts believe the term is inherently flawed and reject its use for many reasons.

Primarily, "codependency" pathologizes and stigmatizes healthy human behavior, particularly loving and caring. There is abundant scientific evidence that human beings are wired to form enduring emotional bonds, and those bonds are not automatically abrogated by the onset of problematic behavior. In fact, the need for connection and the desire to maintain connection is so basic—as deeply rooted as the need for food and water—that isolation has been repeatedly shown to be destructive to both physical and mental health.

Further, it is natural that the missteps or suffering of a loved one stir empathy, compassion, and the desire to help, even to the point of putting the other’s needs ahead of one’s own. What’s more, codependency does not recognize the responsibility individuals have for their own behavior and for seeking change.

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