Codependency in Relationships: Recognizing the Signs

Codependency is when each person involved in a relationship is emotionally, physically, spiritually, or mentally reliant on the other. A codependent relationship can exist in any pairing, including between romantic partners, family members, and friends. For those in the relationship, it may feel secure, supportive, and healthy, but codependency often leads to dysfunctional relationship patterns.

What is Codependency?

Codependency occurs in relationships when one person consistently prioritizes others over themselves by basing their emotions on the behavior of those they depend on. The boundaries between self and partner blur, making it more and more difficult to disentangle the wants and needs of each individual. The focus on meeting others’ needs intensifies and leads a person to neglect their own desires, sacrifice their self-worth, and feel like they are losing themselves through catering to others. This can significantly impact a person’s overall well-being, disrupt their identity, and get in the way of their personal fulfillment.

While codependency is not clinically diagnosed as a standalone disorder, it encompasses elements of attachment style patterns formed during early childhood. Additionally, it can intersect with various personality disorders, including dependent personality disorder.

Although codependency is not a formal diagnosis, recognizing and understanding how it influences relationships and mental health is vital for fostering healthy connections and acknowledging the potential for abusive or manipulative behaviors in relationships.

Origins of the Term 

Early notions of codependency emerged in the 1940s in the USA and were mainly associated with the behaviors displayed by the partners or family members of people struggling with substance use disorders (SUDs). These concepts were influenced by the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) communities during the 1960s-1970s and were based on the idea that people close to substance users also suffered from an illness. This support network was regarded as “enablers,” a term that is often still used when discussing those who support individuals struggling with mental health and addiction. Codependency gained more attention in the 1980s through three main models: the disease model, which focuses on clinical intervention for diagnosis and treatment; the personality model, which highlights individual predisposition to codependency; and the interactionist model, which suggests that a combination of interpersonal and intrapersonal factors is responsible for its development.

What Causes Codependency? 

A codependent relationship can develop gradually. At first, it can feel mutually beneficial because the giver in the relationship gains a sense of purpose and positivity through contributing to someone else’s well-being, success, and happiness. However, this can steadily lead to a reduced sense of purpose within the relationship when one person loses sight of their own values, responsibilities, needs, and, ultimately, the sense of who they are as an individual. 

Research indicates that codependency may have biological, psychological, and social factors:


There is research to suggest that codependent individuals may have an overactive prefrontal cortex, leading to excessive empathy and susceptibility to becoming codependent. Certain neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, also play a role in regulating emotions and behaviors. Altered levels of these neurotransmitters may influence a person’s tendency to seek validation and approval from others, which can be a characteristic of codependency.


Codependency is linked to feeling anxious and hypervigilant in intimate relationships. When a person is scared, the left brain, which is responsible for language, shuts down while the emotional scanning system in the right brain remains active, which allows us to read others’ emotions even in the midst of fear. Children exposed to high stress, like emotional or physical abuse, in their homes may develop codependent tendencies. They become skilled at reading others’ emotions but neglect their own, which leads them to become habitually outwardly-focused, lose touch with their own emotions, and ultimately become codependent.


Societal views on gender roles and increased exposure to substance abuse in families can also contribute to the development of codependency. Co-dependent behavior is associated with watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior. Being raised by caregivers who are in a codependent relationship can increase the chance of developing codependency.

There are specific social risk factors, such as growing up in a family where one member, particularly a parent, has a chronic physical or mental illness. Family dynamics can lead to codependency when a dysfunctional family ignores or denies problems such as addiction, abuse, or chronic illness. Emotions are repressed in such families, and family members learn to disregard their needs and become “survivors” who avoid difficult emotions. Codependents prioritize others’ well-being, sacrifice their own needs, and lose touch with their sense of self. This pattern of self-neglect and extreme focus on others’ needs can perpetuate codependent behaviors in their other relationships.

Signs of Codependency 

According to a 2018 research review1, codependent behavior typically revolves around four key themes: self-sacrifice, a tendency to focus on others, a desire for control which may lead to conflicts, and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions. These patterns can manifest in diverse relationships, extending to how individuals relate to themselves.

Common signs include:

  • Seeking constant approval from others
  • Basing self-worth on others’ opinions
  • Taking on excessive work to please or help loved ones
  • Apologizing excessively to keep the peace
  • Avoiding conflicts
  • Neglecting personal desires
  • Worrying excessively about loved ones’ habits
  • Making decisions for others
  • Mirroring others’ emotions
  • Feeling guilty or anxious when prioritizing oneself
  • Doing things solely to please others
  • Idealizing partners despite unfulfilling relationships
  • Feeling an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others’ actions
  • Confusing love with pity and seeking relationships where they can rescue others
  • Taking on excessive responsibilities consistently
  • Feeling hurt when efforts go unnoticed
  • Exhibiting an unhealthy dependence on relationships to avoid abandonment
  • Lacking self trust and/or trust in others

It is not necessary to display all of these signs for codependency to be present in a relationship. All relationships are unique, because all codependent relationships manifest in different ways. However, if you notice several of these signs in your own relationship or the relationship of a loved one, it might be time to consider taking action.

Dealing with Codependency 

Co-dependency often originates from childhood experiences, and treatment involves exploring early issues linked to current destructive behavior patterns. Therapeutic approaches include education, experiential groups, and individual, group, and/or couples therapy to help co-dependents rediscover themselves and recognize self-destructive behaviors. Treatment focuses on addressing buried emotions from childhood and reconstructing family dynamics in order to enable patients to reconnect with their full range of feelings.


[1] Bacon, McKay, E., Reynolds, F., & McIntyre, A. (2020). The Lived Experience of Codependency: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 18(3), 754–771.

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