Codependency disorders are a specific type of behavioral health disorder that affects an individual’s ability to function and maintain a high quality of life. People who struggle with a codependency disorder may have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships and often have a skewed perception of themselves and others. Codependent personality disorder can affect a person’s quality of life and relationships, and it may occur with other mental health disorders.

“Codependency” initially referred to someone in a relationship with a person struggling with a substance use disorder. However, modern definitions of the term encompass a wide range of dependent behaviors – emotional, social, or physical. The concept of codependency still applies to families with substance dependencies, but it also refers to other situations where drug or alcohol use is not present. Codependency has many signs and symptoms, but a common consequence is that persons affected neglect to care for themselves, to the point where the codependency can disturb perception, self-identity, and even self-worth. Codependent individuals are more than just dependent on others – their happiness is determined by meeting others’ needs and wants, even if those are unreasonable.

A person with the signs of the condition may have:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Dysfunctional family dynamics

It is important to recognize that codependency requires at least two people. The dependent and the enabler.

This differs significantly from a relationship in which a person is dependent on another. In the latter, the feelings of dependence may or may not have reciprocation; in a codependent relationship, the enabler is more than happy to accept the codependent’s behavior and sacrifice.

Whereas dependent relationships can be healthy, codependent relationships are not. Oftentimes, a codependent has no interests or feelings of worth outside the relationship. Extreme dedication to the enabler may cause the codependent to neglect other responsibilities, relationships, and even career. While most relationships involve some sort of dependency on another person, the codependent constructs identity and life around that person. The enabler’s willingness to accept the behavior creates a cycle of codependence that can be difficult to alter without appropriate intervention.

Codependent adults often have a high incidence of childhood trauma or abuse or they have had difficult relationships with their parents or caregivers. Codependent behaviors are often learned behaviors that were established when their caregivers that their own needs are not as important as those of others in their lives. The following have established connections to codependency:

Dysfunctional family roles often tie into codependence. Adults with codependency have been told as children that they were not important, and their feelings lacked validation from important adults. Codependent adults may have heard they were greedy or selfish to put their own needs first. Playing the role of a caregiver from a young age can also cause codependent behavior later in life.

Codependency and Addiction

Codependency and addiction often occur in the same relationships. When one person struggles with substance abuse disorder, loved ones play the role of caregiver in the midst of trying to assist their drug-dependent loved one. Codependent relationships, however, are not helping and have the opposite effect. A person with substance abuse disorder in a relationship with a codependent can make overcoming the addiction even more challenging because the codependent caregiver will most often enable versus provide authentic support.

Recognizing the difference between a codependent relationship and one where there is a healthy balance of dependency can be difficult. The patterns of codependency are often so ingrained in us that we don't recognize codependent behaviors and like addiction itself, it can be hard to stop. Luckily, through a wide array of therapeutic modalities, codependency can be recognized and relationships can begin to change.

Most often with addiction, it is a parent-child relationship where we see codependency. This is why family therapy plays an integral part of the treatment protocol in most rehabilitation centers. Breaking the cycle of codependency not only helps the individual suffering with substance abuse disorder but the family as well.

This break away from the codependent relationship can have a lasting impact that creates positive outcomes lasting a lifetime.