Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person assumes the role of “the giver,” sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other, “the taker.” The bond in question doesn’t have to be romantic; it can occur just as easily between parent and child, friends, and family members.
The term “codependency” first appeared in substance abuse circles to describe a lopsided relationship that has been consumed and controlled by one person’s addiction. It grew in popularity and became shorthand for any enabling relationship. Codependency is not a clinical diagnosis or a personality disorder and has sparked much debate and controversy among psychology experts.
Healthy relationships are mutually beneficial, providing love and support to both parties. Codependent relationships, on the other hand, are one-sided, casting one person in the role of constant caregiver. By being caring, highly functional, and helpful, that 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 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 for the codependent partner: It is a way to expose them to the negative consequences of their behavior.
In being reliable, caring, and nurturing, the codependent 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.
Often, people who struggle with codependency are said to have been raised amidst dysfunctional family dynamics. They may have had a family member or close friend with an addiction or mental illness. They may also have experienced childhood trauma which led them to feel anxious or insecure about relationships. However, it’s important to remember that anyone can fall into an unhealthy relationship pattern.
In unhealthy codependent relationships, the “giver” tends to be overly responsible, making excuses for the “taker” and taking over their obligations. Givers are self-critical and often perfectionistic; fixing or rescuing others makes them feel needed. They focus so much on pleasing others that they neglect their own wants and needs. Givers generally have low self-esteem, find it hard to set boundaries and be assertive, and struggle with asking for help when they need it. Takers are often struggling with serious issues, such as emotional immaturity, mental health problems, and addiction.
The concept of codependency was first conceived as a way to make sense of people’s unhealthy behaviors surrounding a loved one’s addiction. Everything from making excuses and over-functioning for them to supporting them financially was considered to be enabling their substance abuse. Often, an integral part of recovering from addiction involves changing old codependent patterns; in some cases, it may be necessary to let go of the relationship altogether.
Feeling secure in yourself and in your relationship is key to healing from codependency. Accept yourself—the good, the bad, and the in-between—and work on growing your self-esteem. Learn to identify and express your desires and needs. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself and develop and maintain healthy boundaries. Resolve conflict and compromise from a “we” perspective instead of always putting the other person’s wishes ahead of your own.
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 behavior that is 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.
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.
In a healthy relationship, both parties give and receive equally and are able to retain their own identity separate from the other person. In contrast, codependent relationships are an unhealthy alliance where one individual gets stuck in the caregiver role, enabling the other to take without providing support and care in return. The giver longs to be helpful and “rescue” their loved one, but may end up enabling harmful behaviors instead. Eventually, the giver winds up exhausted, frustrated, and burned out, leading to increased conflicts and dissatisfaction with the relationship.
The desire to help has been pathologized and stigmatized in relationships. People who have a loved one with an addiction are usually urged to step away from the relationship and stop enabling them. Unfortunately, this advice goes against human beings’ innate desire for community and belonging and is oftentimes unhelpful. Some experts are advising that we move beyond codependency and adopt alternative ways of managing a relationship with someone who has an addiction or mental illness, including prodependence. This strategy allows caregivers to love unconditionally and pursue an emotional connection while simultaneously developing and maintaining healthy boundaries. Someone in a prodependent relationship will offer help when a loved one needs it but not do tasks that the person should manage for themselves.