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What Is Codependency? Learn The Warning Signs

You’d do anything for the person you love, right? Most of us will agree with this statement. But there’s a big difference between wanting them to be happy and putting your own identity and needs on the back burner indefinitely to see theirs met. 

Is this codependency?

What Is Codependency?

Codependency is when one person puts significantly more effort and time into a relationship to meet the other party’s needs while putting their own needs aside. The ‘caretaker’ derives worth from looking after the ‘taker,’ but the relationship is imbalanced, benefitting only one party. 

Codependency can also be defined as someone being dependent on another for their sense of worth, which may seem simple and not something to worry about, but in actuality, it can be a serious problem. A codependent person can become unable to function without the other person and may even seek out such relationships.

This is why some experts suggest that codependency is an addiction to relationships characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence on the other person. Their dependence can be physical, but it’s also social and emotional – very often, the person they’re dependent on is their only focus, their only friend, the only person they want to (and do) spend time with.

This person then also becomes responsible for their emotional well-being. 

An artistic image of a codependent couple where half of their profile looks towards each other, and the other half away
What is codependency?

What Experts Say About Codependency

More critical in understanding codependency is that professionals stipulate codependency as an unhealthy relationship.

In a codependent relationship, one person’s needs and desires are more important; this person is the one whose needs are catered to, their whims and desires dictate the course of daily life, and the other person’s needs fade into the background.

In codependent relationships, experts state that there is an imbalance of power, with one person giving more time and energy than the other who takes advantage of the situation to capitalize on meeting their needs. This doesn’t mean they are bad, though; sometimes, this occurs unconsciously. 

Codependent relationships may start as something that feels positive, which is why some people find it hard to tell the difference between codependency and love.

For many, taking care of someone else makes us feel good – but over time, it becomes all-consuming to be the permanent ‘caretaker’ while the other person is simply the ‘taker.’ It leaves one partner exhausted – and unfulfilled.

It’s important to remember that codependent relationships are not limited to romantic relationships and can occur between friends, family members, or even workmates. But each relationship follows a pattern where one person takes on all the responsibility for meeting the other person’s needs to the detriment of their own.

What Causes Codependency? 

Psychologists believe that codependency is rooted in the relationships we form as children with our parents and other caregivers. What our childhood relationships are like plays a vital role in how we perceive ‘normal’ relationships to be. 

The following are possible causes for codependent behavior: 

#1 Childhood Trauma

Studies have shown that those who have experienced abuse as children struggle to develop healthy adult relationships. Those exposed to emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and extreme neglect don’t have a frame of reference for how healthy relationships look.

This may lead them to overcompensate and try to take care of the other person to their detriment or to be excessively concerned about how the other person feels. Alternatively, it can leave them needing to be taken care of or rescued all the time.  

#2 Mental Health Issues

Growing up in a household where mental health issues are left unchecked can also have a negative effect. Barring the fact that there may be hereditary components to codependency, parents or caregivers struggling with their mental health may not be attentive or responsive in their own parenting.

Neglect or emotionally blunted responses to children leave them confused about how the nurturing relationship should look.

Instead of learning a healthy, reciprocal give-and-take, they only learn one side: to give or to take. And, of course, children who witness domestic violence, emotional abuse, and toxic relationships are more likely to repeat them in their own lives. 

#3 Abandonment

One of the critical components of codependency is that one person’s worth is defined by the other, and their fear of abandonment prompts them to do everything in their power to keep the other person happy.

This can stem from abandonment issues in their younger years; perhaps they were physically or emotionally abandoned by a caretaker and had to learn to fend for themselves.

#4 Bullying and Criticism

Being faced with constant criticism from friends and family can leave a child feeling like they need to work harder to win the approval of those around them.

This automatically puts them in a position where they ‘chase’ the other people in relationships, do their bidding, and put in excessive effort to win them over. This is similar to the pattern that codependent relationships follow.

#5 Low Self-Esteem

Self-esteem and self-worth go hand-in-hand, and when we do not have a strong belief that we have inherent value, our actions and how others see us becomes the measure of what we’re worth.

Those in codependent relationships rely on the other person to make them feel worthy, and children with low self-esteem are more likely to become involved in codependent relationships in searching for self-worth.

#6 Dysfunctional Family Life

We’ve touched on domestic violence and other relationship issues that children may witness growing up, but it’s also important to note that other family dysfunctions can have a similarly negative effect. This includes witnessing substance abuse, infidelity, depression, and self-harming behaviors as a child.

Not having a stable home base and safe place can also disrupt a child’s ability to feel grounded and secure. This can prompt them to seek stability within relationships, no matter what it takes to keep that relationship going.  

#7 The Empath

Being an empath has become a bit of a trend, but there’s a lot of truth to empaths being burdened because of their overabundance of empathy and caring. An empath is defined as someone who is tuned in to the feelings of others, so it stands to reason that being overly empathic can lead you into a cycle of ‘helping,’ ‘rescuing,’ or ‘uplifting’ others all the time. 

Additionally, if you’re constantly focused on the feelings and needs of others without concern for yourself, you’re likely to fall into the trap of codependency. 

#8 Social Constructs and Expectations

Society has created ideals that include gender roles and expectations for the parties within relationships. It’s been spoofed in film and TV for ages – women are dramatic, helpless, the damsel in distress that needs rescuing. It’s easy for women to play into this role and expect a man to do everything for her.

By the same token, men are often portrayed as useless and needing a woman to run their lives for them. Relationships as a whole are punted as a measure of success, which pressures people into getting involved with others for the simple reason of not being alone. Maintaining relationships for public appearances can result in codependency, too.

For more on codependency, I highly recommend this video:

Signs of Codependency

When we deeply love or care about someone, we may go out of our way to ensure their happiness. This doesn’t mean a relationship is codependent, but how do you know? 

If you suspect you may be in a codependent relationship or know someone who is, here are some signs to look out for:

  • Putting their needs ahead of yours, even if they are significantly less vital. For example, not going to work because your partner is upset about something. 
  • Doing anything for the other person, even if it makes you uncomfortable or inconveniences you – or gets you in trouble. For example, helping them during work time because they’re struggling, even though you have your own deadlines.
  • Feeling like you’re always solving problems, fixing issues, rescuing the other person, or managing crises. This may look like there always being some kind of drama in your relationship, and you somehow are always ‘on guard’ to prevent, fix, or repair potential issues.
  • Feeling sorry for the person or being willing to forgive them even if their actions have hurt you. An example would be that after an argument or disagreement, you feel sorry for them and let them off the hook, even if they were in the wrong. They may rarely apologize. 
  • Walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting them or causing conflict. Your fear of triggering a meltdown or sending them into a crisis may mean you are constantly tiptoeing around them and actively avoiding specific topics, behaviors, or actions because it will cause drama.
  • Feeling like you need permission or have to make excuses when you have to do something they would disapprove of/benefit from. This can be especially difficult when it’s something you want to or need to do alone, and then feeling guilty for leaving them out of it.
  • The other person takes up all your free time, and you may find that you no longer have any hobbies or interests. Their hobbies and interests have somehow become yours, and even if you have time to yourself, they may get upset if you don’t focus on them. This can also feel like you’ve lost your own identity. 
  • Your needs, desires, and career goals have fallen by the wayside. You have learned to ignore – or justify – why your needs aren’t being met.
  • Feeling like you are the nurturing figure, the caretaker, or the parent in a relationship while the other person doesn’t reciprocate.  

If some of these sound familiar, you may want to take a closer look at your relationships. But don’t be dissuaded from seeking help because codependency isn’t a life sentence you can’t escape.  

How Do Codependent Relationships Develop?

Initially, codependency can be fulfilling for the caretaker because looking after the other person and helping them can be fulfilling. However, since the ‘taker’ doesn’t reciprocate, it becomes the norm and sets the tone for the rest of the relationship. 

The caretaker feels their self-worth is linked to how happy the other person is, so they continually put in more and more effort to ensure their happiness.

Naturally, a relationship like this is much easier for an enabler or taker than for the one taking on all the responsibility. Their whims, moods, and desires dictate everything from the vibe in the room to the daily schedule. The caretaker will do everything they can to avoid upsetting the taker, and thus a cycle is born where their own needs are put on ice in favor of the taker’s needs.

And, since the caretaker’s sense of self-worth is linked to the other person, they feel they cannot let go. They also feel responsible for the well-being of the other person, so even if they feel the relationship is hurting them, they’d rather ‘stick it out’ for the sake of their partner than give up. 

Conclusion

Codependency may stem from a genuine desire to look after someone else, but the inevitable power imbalance in the relationship only leaves one person with their needs met. Codependent relationships can be highly damaging, but with the right help, there is hope that the relationship can be saved.

For More on Codependency:

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