What Is Codependency?

Codependency is an emotional and behavioral condition that makes it hard for a person to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.

Being codependent is sometimes called "relationship addiction." People who are codependent have one-sided, emotionally destructive, and dysfunctional relationships.

This article will go over what codependency means. You will also learn the signs of codependency, how it can be treated, and how you can help a loved one who is codependent.

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What Is Codependency?

The term codependency was originally used to describe partners of people with substance use disorder, but it now includes other relationship dynamics as well.

There is not a lot of research on how many people are in codependent relationships, but older studies have suggested that codependency is common.

Is Codependency a Mental Health Diagnosis?

Codependency is not recognized as a unique mental health disorder in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). However, some mental health professionals argue that codependency should be considered an official condition.

Even though it's not in the DSM-5 as its own disorder, that does not mean that codependency is not "real." In fact, codependency can have a major, negative effect on a person's life.

A codependent person puts their own needs aside and is hyper-vigilant about meeting the needs of another person—often to the point that their life revolves around that person. This creates a one-sided relationship that is destructive and dysfunctional for both people.

Codependent Enablers

A codependent person is also known as an "enabler" because they allow their partner to keep engaging in unhealthy behaviors.

When someone is enabling, they are not always doing it on purpose. They may not be aware that they're doing it or realize that the dynamic in the relationship is not healthy.

An enabler often thinks they're doing the right thing when they try to avoid upsetting their partner. However, the opposite is true—their actions allow the cycle of codependency to keep going and possibly even get worse.

The word "enabler" is also used to talk about a person who is in a relationship with a person who misuses substances. The enabler's action (or inaction) makes it possible for a person to continue with their addiction instead of addressing it and getting help.

Over time, the enabling partner in a codependent relationship may become frustrated, angry, and even resentful.

Codependent vs. Interdependent Relationships

Being codependent means having an unhealthy attachment to a specific person. It's often a romantic partner, but not always. Codependency can also occur in friendships, between family members, between a boss and an employee, and among coworkers.

Any relationship where one partner is dysfunctionally dependent on the other person can be considered a codependent relationship.

A healthy dependent relationship is also known as interdependent. All relationships require some dependence. However, a codependent relationship is not the same as an interdependent relationship because:

  • An interdependent relationship between two people is usually healthy. The roles are more equal and the support for and dependence on the other partner is give-and-take.
  • An interdependent relationship is not skewed as it would be between a codependent person and the other person (enabler).
Interdependent Relationships   Codependent relationships
Both partners consider their relationship a priority, but also pursue their own interests and hobbies. The codependent partner has no interests or values outside of the relationship.
Both partners express their needs and wants in relation to each other. The codependent partner considers their own needs unimportant. It can be difficult for the enabler to identify the codependent person's needs or wants in the relationship.
Both partners are bound by mutual respect and love, and both find value in the relationship. The codependent partner only feels worthy when making sacrifices for the enabler, and they can be extreme. The codependent partner fears abandonment and cannot imagine a reality without the enabler in it.
Adapted from Family First Intervention.

Signs of Codependency

Codependence symptoms are on a spectrum of intensity, not an "all-or-nothing" scale. That said, the characteristics and behaviors of people who are codependent fall into patterns.

Denial Patterns

A codependent person may:

  • Have a hard time identifying what they are feeling
  • Minimize, alter, or deny how they really feel
  • Perceive themselves as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others

Low Self-Esteem Patterns

A person who is codependent may:

  • Find it hard to make decisions
  • Harshly judge themselves, and feel that what they think, say, or do is never good enough
  • Get embarrassed when receiving recognition, praise, or gifts
  • Be unable to identify or ask for what they want and need
  • Place a higher value on others’ approval of their thinking, feelings, and behavior than on their own
  • Not perceive themselves as lovable or worthwhile

Compliance Patterns

A person with codependency may:

  • Compromise their values and integrity to avoid rejection and other people’s anger
  • Have high sensitivity to other’s feelings and take on the same feelings
  • Be extremely loyal, even staying in harmful situations too long
  • Place a higher value on other’s opinions and feelings
  • Fear expressing differing viewpoints or feelings
  • Sett aside their own interests to do what others want
  • Accept sex as a substitute for love

Control Patterns

A person who is codependent may:

  • Believe that people are incapable of taking care of themselves
  • Attempt to persuade others what to think, do, or feel
  • Resent when others decline their help or reject their advice
  • Freely offer unsolicited advice and direction
  • Give gifts and favors to those they want to influence
  • Use sex to gain approval and acceptance
  • Need feel needed to have a relationship with others

Avoidance Patterns

People with codependency may:

  • Avoid behaviors and actions that solicit rejection, shame, or anger from others toward them
  • Harshly judge what others think, say, or do
  • Avoid emotional, physical, or sexual intimacy (so they do not feel vulnerable)
  • Develop addictions to people, places, and things to distract them from intimacy in relationships
  • Use indirect or evasive communication to avoid conflict or confrontation
  • Believe that displays of emotion are a sign of weakness

Codependence vs. Dependent Personality Disorder

The symptoms of codependency can overlap with other mental health conditions, especially dependent personality disorder. They sound similar, but they have key differences.

Codependency is a dependence on a specific person, but dependent personality disorder describes dependent traits toward other people in general.

Dependent personality disorder is included in the DSM-5 and is considered an official mental health condition. Codependency is not in the DSM-5 as its own disorder.

Key Differences

Codependency and dependent personality disorder have two key differences:

  • Dependent personality disorder is an official mental health condition and is included in the DSM-5. Codependency is not in the DSM-5.
  • Dependent personality disorder involves an excessive need to be taken care of by others, while a person who is codependent is focused on one specific person.

How Can You Tell If You're Codependent?

Online questionnaires often claim to show if you have any "red flags" for codependence. These questionnaires are usually based on the symptoms listed above.

That said, the signs and symptoms of codependence can also be part of other mental health disorders. Taking online questionnaires is not a substitute for evaluation and diagnosis by a professional.

If you think you are codependent, make an appointment with your healthcare provider or with a mental health professional like a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist.

What Causes Codepenency?

Codependence is thought to develop when a child grows up in a dysfunctional family environment where fear, anger, and shame go unacknowledged. The dynamic leads family members to withhold from expressing (repressing) their emotions and ignore their own needs.

Factors that may contribute to codependency include:

  • A family member who has substance use disorder (e.g., drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling)
  • A family member living with a chronic mental or physical illness
  • Experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse

Substance Use Disorder and Codependence

Substance use disorder and codependence are often linked in a relationship and it can make recovery from either much more difficult.

A person who is codependent may have a hard time recovering themselves because they have the need to help the person with substance use disorder. They also cannot set healthy boundaries or give support to the person who has a substance use disorder.

Can Codependency Be Treated?

Medications are not generally used to treat codependency unless a person is being treated for another mental health condition as well.

The treatment for codependence involves the person taking steps to work through their behaviors and feelings in a way that is safe and productive. For example:

  • Speaking to a licensed mental health practitioner
  • Going to counseling with a therapist
  • Reading self-help books about codependency
  • Talking with trusted friends and family members about codependent relationships

Therapy for Codependency

Therapy for codependency focuses on a person's current relationship, their past relationships, and any childhood trauma that might have led them to develop certain behaviors or ways of thinking.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be useful for people with codependency because it teaches them to recognize and change unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors.

Co-Dependents Anonymous

Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) is a recovery group where people who are codependent can be there for each other, work through their treatment together, and get access to programs and resources to support their recovery.

Like Alcoholics Anonymous, CoDA has 12 steps, 12 traditions, 12 promises, and 12 service concepts.

Coping with Codependency

If you're feeling ready, you can take steps right now to start working through codependency. Things you can do on your own include:

  • Taking an honest inventory of your relationship: After learning about codependency, take a close (and honest) look at yourself, your partner, and your relationship. Keep an eye out for those "red flags" signs of an unhealthy relationship.
  • Understanding how a codependent relationship affects you and others: Compare a healthy, dependent relationship to a codependent one. Note the positive effects of a healthy relationship compared to the harmful effects of a codependent one. This can help you realize what you value and want to change about your relationships.
  • Taking responsibility: A person who is codependent and their enabling partners can both have a hard time taking responsibility for their own feelings and shortcomings. To break the cycle of codependence, each person needs to take charge of themselves and remind each other that they are in control of their own emotions and behaviors.
  • Educating yourself: Learning about codependency through books and other resources can help you better understand the condition and encourage you to be more introspective.

Changing Codepedent Relationships

Working through treatment for codependency means changing the unhealthy relationship. In some cases, it might mean leaving the relationship. This extends to all codependent relationships, not just romantic partnerships.

Here are a few things to consider as you're working through your codependency:

  • Take a break: If possible, take a break from the relationship to focus on yourself. Resist the urge to get into a new romantic relationship right away if you have just ended one.
  • Set boundaries: When you pull away from the relationship or break it off, resistance from your partner is likely and might even turn toxic. They may feel angry or be manipulative and persistent and bombard you with calls and texts. Setting clear boundaries and consistently upholding them sends a powerful message. They will need to change or find a relationship with someone else.
  • Practice self-awareness: Just leaving the relationship will not "cure" codependency. You will still have work to do on yourself, either on your own or with the help of a professional. You will also need to be on your guard when starting new relationships. Watch for behaviors from your partner that might trigger your past codependent behaviors. Be on the lookout for warning signs that you are falling back into old patterns and behaviors, or that your relationship is unbalanced, unhealthy, or not enjoyable.

If You Need Help

If you or a loved one are experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see Verywell's National Helpline Database.


Codependency is not recognized as a mental health condition in the DSM-5, but being codependent in relationships can negatively affect a person's life. While it might not be an "official" diagnosis, that doesn't mean that a person with codependency can't get treatment.

Working with a therapist, going to support groups, and reaching out for help if you're in an unsafe situation are all key parts of coping with codependency.

It can be hard to change your behaviors and learn how to set boundaries, but these are important steps to having healthier relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can a marriage recover from codependency?

    A relationship that is defined by codependency is not a healthy one, but that does not mean that it's "doomed" or cannot be saved. If both partners work at it, a codependent marriage can become a healthier one.

  • Are codependent people narcissists?

    Codependency and narcissism are two different conditions. However, people who have narcissistic traits or narcissistic personality disorder can also have codependency. Likewise, people with codependence may also have narcissistic traits or might be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.

Correction - September 13, 2022: The article was updated to correct the description of the relationship between enabling and codependency, and to clarify the distinction between codependent and interdependent relationships.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. The Recovery Village. Codependency.

  3. Family First Intervention. Codependency & mental illness: Is there such a thing as a codependent personality disorder?

  4. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Enabler.

  5. Family First Intervention. How to stop being codependent: Recognizing and healing codependent relationships.

  6. Co-Dependents Anonymous. Am I codependent?

  7. Co-Dependents Anonymous. Twelve steps.

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  9. Farmer SA. Entitlement in codependency: developmental and therapeutic considerationsJ Addict Dis. 1999;18(3):55-68. doi:10.1300/J069v18n03_06

By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.