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At first glance, codependency sounds like a situation with equal gains for both parties. In reality, despite that friendly little “co,” these types of relationships are anything but fair.

With all the confusing emotions that come with codependency, it can be hard to determine what these relationships look like and what to do if you’re in one.

Below, we’ve listed everything you need to know and how to get your independence back.

Healthy relationships are a vital component of life. Signs of a healthy relationship include respecting personal boundaries and a mutual respect and understanding for one another.

Dysfunctional relationships can often cause emotional difficulties for one or both partners and their family. Codependency is a behavioral condition that may occur in relationships.

In a codependent relationship, there are no clear boundaries between partners. One partner takes care of the other partner’s needs at the expense of their own needs.

This creates a one-sided relationship and can lead to low self-esteem and emotional or physical abuse, or both.

Codependent relationships can also happen when one partner has a substance addiction. That includes drinking in excess or taking recreational drugs.

Symptoms are different for everyone. They may include:

  • lack of self-esteem to the point of depending on other people’s opinion to feel better about yourself
  • tolerance of abusive behavior
  • finding excuses for abusive behavior
  • avoiding conflict
  • fear of being alone or having a relationship end
  • clingy behavior
  • obsessive thoughts about people and relationships
  • feeling insecure about the relationship you’re in
  • a desire to fix everything, even when that means neglecting yourself
  • blaming yourself for other people’s problems

A person in a codependent relationship may also experience shame to the point of reducing or cutting contact with family and friends, rather than facing the problem and seeking solutions.

Recognizing that you’re in a codependent relationship can be difficult. Being able to identify codependent behaviors is an important step toward recovery.

Growing up in an emotionally restrictive, neglecting, or abusive family can teach a child that love is conditional.

For some, it can instill a fear of being abandoned, which can lower your self-esteem and lead you to doubt your worthiness. This can lead to codependent behaviors later in life.

Growing up with substance addiction in the family is also a risk factor for codependency. A 2015 study concluded that women whose fathers or husbands had an alcohol addiction had a higher risk of engaging in codependent patterns.

A history of depression may also be a risk factor for codependency. More research is needed to study the relationship between codependency and depression.

A study published in 1998 found that many women who are depressed also moderately or severely display codependent behaviors.

Identifying that you’re in a codependent relationship is the first step to overcoming codependency issues. Working with a mental health counselor can help you learn to build boundaries and engage in relationships in an emotionally healthy way.

Tell your counselor how you’re feeling. They will work with you to create a treatment plan. Recovery can be a slow process, so be patient with yourself as you work to move beyond your codependency, and toward a happier, healthier future.

Here are a few more things you can do to overcome codependency:

  • Make time for yourself and the things you like. If there’s a hobby you always wanted to try, take the time to try it out.
  • Start a journal. Journaling can help you better understand your feelings. You can also use a journal to explore positive things about yourself, like your good qualities and things that give you a sense of worth, or even to learn what really brings you joy.
  • If you struggle with substance abuse, talk to your doctor or a counselor about ways to become free of your addiction.
  • If your relationship with your partner doesn’t involve abuse and you both want to stay in the relationship, go to couples therapy together. Learning to communicate openly with one another can help your relationship become healthy and fulfilling.
  • Learn to say no. Being able to say no is an important step in creating boundaries.

Codependent behaviors develop over time. It often happens without people being fully aware of it. All relationships involve a certain amount of give and take. But if one person is giving a lot more than the other person, they may be in a codependent relationship.

If you find yourself engaging in codependent behaviors, know that change is possible. It may take a while, but stay committed to learning so that you can engage in healthy, mutually respectful relationships.

Q&A

Q: I think my friend is in a codependent relationship. How can I help them?

A: The first step is for your friend to realize that they’re engaging in codependent behaviors. You can point out the evidence, but your friend must come to the realization on their own. They must also want to do something about it. If they accept your help, encourage them to contact their doctor for a referral to a mental health professional. — Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP

Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.