A Deep Dive Into Codependent Relationships

How to Handle Codependent Relationships

What Is Codependency?

The word “codependency” comes from the 1950s, when Alcoholics Anonymous coined it to describe those who are in a relationship with an addict. They realized that when it comes to addiction, those who love the addict can often enable, perhaps unintentionally, the addiction behavior because they need to feel needed.

Now, the term is used outside the context of addiction, too. It often describes a toxic dynamic between two people (sometimes a group or family) in which there's an imbalance of give and take. The “giver” is so concerned about keeping the “taker” happy that they lose track of their own self-worth, emotions, or even opinions. The “taker” becomes dependent on the “giver’s” lack of boundaries, therefore fulfilling the “giver’s” need to be needed. And the cycle continues…

Codependency can happen in friendships, in dysfunctional families, in romantic partnerships, or even in work relationships.

What Are the Signs of Codependency?

You might be the “giver” if:

  • You want to feel needed, so you make yourself indispensable to the other person’s life. This could look like being around whenever they need you, keeping your schedule free for them despite your own needs, rescuing them from the consequences of their mistakes, etc. 
  • Every time that person acknowledges how grateful they are, you are filled with satisfaction.
  • You might feel resentful of others when they don’t seem to notice everything you do for them, or perhaps when they don’t reciprocate your decision to anticipate their every possible need.
  • You continue to be available and do whatever they ask of you, even if you’re uncomfortable or don’t have time.
  • You might eventually feel trapped because the relationship status quo depends on you continuing to have no boundaries.
  • You feel that if you voiced this imbalance, the other person won’t want you around anymore.
  • You avoid any conflict with the other person, also called “walking on eggshells.”
  • You say “sorry” a lot, even if you’ve done nothing wrong.
  • You have no time for yourself.
  • A relationship that seemed good at first becomes filled with stress because neither person is satisfied.

This is not an exhaustive list, as codependency can be sneaky or look different in certain situations. If this list resonated with you, check out more examples in “How to Stop Being Codependent” from VeryWellMind.

What Causes Codependency?

The root of codependency is a poor concept of self. In other words, without valuing yourself enough to be able to recognize your own needs, you can easily fall into that “giver” role of meeting other people’s needs to feel satisfied. But how does that happen? There are a few theories:

  • The prefrontal cortex in your brain could be underdeveloped in a way that makes it hard for you to shut off empathy—a recipe for a “giver” with no boundaries.
  • Psychologically, you may just have a very helpful nature, or you may have suffered from childhood trauma, neglect or emotional abuse.
  • Your surroundings and culture can have an impact as well. Socially, women may feel expected to be mothers or homemakers by default, making them predisposed to the “giver” role. The addiction rates where you live could also increase your chances of falling into codependency. You may have grown up with a codependent family member who modeled bad habits for you rather than healthy ones.

No matter the cause, it is possible to become aware of and heal from codependent behavior.

How Can I Break Free of Codependency?

One of the crucial elements in healing from codependency is learning to set boundaries with yourself and others. What does it look like to set boundaries? First, you have to be aware of your needs. Look at the signs and symptoms of codependency you’ve identified, and try something that might help you protect your time, energy, and mental health.

That may look like getting up 10 minutes early so you can enjoy a cup of coffee by yourself with no demands from others. It could look like staying home at least 3-4 nights a week to protect you from getting burned out socially. It might also look like distancing yourself from certain people or locations, if you determine being near them isn’t healthy for you.

It’s important that your boundaries center around your behavior, not others. For example, telling someone “you can’t drink anymore” isn’t a personal boundary. Telling them that “if you drink around me, I will need to leave,” makes it clear that the other person can do what they choose, but you will protect your own sanity no matter what.

Start small–a boundary doesn’t have to be a huge life change, and it will take practice. Learning to trust yourself to keep one small boundary can give you the confidence to do more. When you’ve decided on boundaries, the next step is communicating those boundaries to people in your life. Their support can be a great help as you get better at sticking to new boundaries, and if someone doesn’t support you in your new boundaries, that’s good information to have.

Boundaries are not easy—if you feel overwhelmed by boundary-setting, ask a licensed professional for help. Check out our website, chat with a Hope Coach, or visit the Codependents Anonymous site to find support near you!

Can I Ever Have a Healthy Relationship After Codependency?

A relationship doesn’t have to stay broken. If healing is possible for you, then healing is possible for the other person. However, you can only control your commitment to change. If both people in a relationship are codependents, it is possible to reach a better place if both of them do the tough individual work with a licensed therapist, there’s no guarantee.

If you’re growing and learning to value yourself, but there’s no effort toward growth on the other side, it’s often better to let go and move on. Take what you’ve learned about yourself and healthy boundaries and find what’s next for you. A recovering codependent can have a future full of healthy relationships with friends, family, and romantic interests!

How Can Your Faith Help You With Codependency?

It’s important to remember that not all reliance on others is codependent. It’s more than okay to need help and support. In fact, it’s how we’re built! Christ wasn’t codependent when he fed the 5,000. He wasn’t codependent when he said “do unto others.” He wasn’t codependent when He let someone wash His feet. If we look at His life, needing each other and taking care of each other is a big part of the message He preached. So don’t shy away from helping people, or from needing the help of others. Just be conscious of your boundaries, the give and the take, and keep your self-worth in mind. 

Jesus taught that you’re worthy of unconditional love, worthy of abundant joy, and made in God’s image, fearfully and wonderfully. Remember how important you are in His eyes, and try setting some boundaries to reflect that version of you. If you want to talk more about who you are to Christ, boundary setting, or codependent relationships, don’t hesitate to chat with a Hope Coach! We’re here for you.

If you suspect there is codependency in your family, read our blog on how to deal with a dysfunctional family.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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