Health Encyclopedia

Answers to Your Questions About Codependency

People who have close relationships with substance abusers or others with mental illnesses can become codependent. Codependency can also occur in those who have been emotionally or physically abused.

Codependency is an emotional and behavioral condition. It often involves the denial of a harmful behavior in a relationship, as well as the enabling and maintenance of the behavior in order to keep the status quo, or to feel indispensable. Overall, it affects a person’s ability to have healthy, mutually satisfying relationships. While the term codependent is often associated with alcohol or addicted relationships, it refers to the actions and behaviors of any person who is in the loop of dysfunctional behaviors.

Here are answers to common questions about codependency.

Dysfunctional family

Q. What’s the relationship between dysfunctional families and codependency?

A. A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that’s ignored or denied. Underlying problems may include any of the following:

  • An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, food, sex, or gambling

  • A history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse

  • A family member who suffers from a chronic mental or physical illness

Family members bury their emotions. They ignore their own needs. They develop ways to cope that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions.

As a result, attention and caring is wholly focused on the family member who’s ill or addicted. Other family members’ needs are ignored.

Too much caretaking

Q. What’s wrong with caring for someone who’s abusing alcohol or drugs or has some other problem?

A. Nothing. When someone we care about is in pain, it’s normal to try to help make the person’s life better.

A person who is codependent feels overly responsible for the troubled person’s feelings and behaviors. A codependent person feels rejected and gets angry when help isn’t accepted.

A person who is codependent continues to come to the rescue of the alcoholic or addict. However, making excuses for that person or bailing him or her out when in trouble enables the person’s addiction or behavior. It also fosters the interdependence between the two.

For example, a wife may cover for her alcoholic husband when he can’t go to work. A mother may make excuses for a truant child. A father may pull some strings to keep his child from suffering the consequences of delinquent behavior.

You could be in a codependent relationship if you find yourself trying to control others or avoiding rejection at any cost.

What are the signs?

Q. How can you tell if you're codependent?

A. Codependents often have these traits:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others

  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time

  • An extreme need for approval and recognition

  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts

  • A drive to do anything to hold on to a relationship

  • A sense of guilt when being assertive

  • A need to control others

  • A lack of trust in self and/or others

  • Difficulty identifying feelings

  • Problems with boundaries

If you see several of these traits in yourself, talk with a mental health provider. Codependency tends to be a learned behavior from families of origin. Treatment is available and can be effective in learning new ways to cope with situations that can feel overwhelming.



Medical Reviewers:

  • newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician