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Codependency in Relationships

What is codependency?ย 

A codependent relationship forms when one individual is only able to satisfy their emotional and self-esteem needs by interacting with their partner (Dear et al., 2005; Good Therapy, 2019). Often, a codependent individual will sacrifice their own desires and needs to satisfy their partner (Dear et al., 2005; Good Therapy, 2019). Co-dependent relationships often consist of one co-dependent individual, who is abnormally clingy and is not self-sufficient, and one enabling individual, who allows their partner to sacrifice their own needs (Wetzler & Cole, 1999).


Common Signs of a Codependent Relationship

When understanding signs of codependency in relationships, it is important to be aware of the differences between relationships wherein both parties are healthily dependent on each other, and relationships where one individual is abnormally dependent on the other (Morgan, 1991).

Dependent Relationships Co-Dependent Relationships
Both individuals rely on each other and support each other in a balanced way. Both individuals feel their relationship is meaningful. One individual relies on their partner to feel fulfilled and will feel worthless unless their partner is giving them attention or needing them.
Both individuals prioritise the relationship but pursue interests and hobbies outside of the relationship. The co-dependent individual will have no personal interests, hobbies, or self-identity outside of the relationship.
Both individuals can comfortably express their desires and needs to each other. One individual regards their needs and desires as unimportant and will only satisfy those of their partnerโ€.

Figure 1 Codependency vs dependency (Morgan, 1991)


Codependent partners tend to ignore harmful behaviours they recognise in their partners and will continue to invest in the relationship emotionally and physically, often believing they can save their partner from such faults (Good Therapy, 2019; Mellody et al., 1989). These individuals will do anything to please the enabler, including compromising their own morals, conscience, and physical health (Bacon et al., 2020).


How a codependent relationship may develop

Research suggests individuals who experience neglect, abuse, or intense responsibility for the wellbeing of others during developmental years are more likely to seek out codependent relationships later (Morgan, 1991). For example:โ€

Parental Neglect and Emotional Abuse

Children may be taught their own needs and desires are not important and will often be punished when they do express them (Knudson & Terrell, 2012).


โ€Caring for mentally or physically disabled relativesโ€

Individuals who are forced into carer roles at young ages often learn to neglect their own needs and desires for the benefit of the other (Berry, 2017).


Living in abusive households

Children and adolescents who are abused learn to suppress their own feelings as a defence mechanism, resulting in a failure to acknowledge their own needs (Knudson & Terrell, 2012).


Due to past trauma, individuals who lack a sense of self will adapt to the needs and wants of their partner, including changing and modifying themselves to feel loved and accepted (Bacon et al., 2020).


How to help your codependent partnerโ€

When trying to transform a co-dependent relationship into one that is healthy, it is important to take small steps towards separation, such as finding enjoyable activities and hobbies that do not include the partner (Berry, 2017). It is also important the co-dependent partner spend time with family and friends without the enabler present (Berry, 2017). Furthermore, the enabler must recognise the importance of not allowing their partner to continue making extreme sacrifices for them (Berry, 2017). Additionally, individual or group therapy, provided by psychologists and counsellors, is paramount in assisting co-dependents discover and express repressed emotions as well as teaching both individuals how to recognise specific patterns of behaviour (Irvine, 1995). In cases where counselling for dependent personalities is unavailable, addressing other factors contributing to codependency can assist in changing the behaviour, for example low self-esteem and separation anxiety.

Bacon, I., 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), 754โ€“771.

Berry, J. (2017, October 31). Codependent relationships: Symptoms, warning signs, and behavior.

Dear, G., Roberts, C., & Lange, L. (2005). Defining codependency: A thematic analysis of published definitions. ECU Publications Pre. 2011.โ€

Good Therapy. (2019). Therapy for Codependency, Therapist for Codependency.

Irvine, L. J. (1995). Codependency and Recovery: Gender, Self, and Emotions in Popular Self-Help. Symbolic Interaction, 18(2), 145โ€“163.

Knudson, T. M., & Terrell, H. K. (2012). Codependency, Perceived Interparental Conflict, and Substance Abuse in the Family of Origin. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 40(3), 245โ€“257.

Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, K. (1989). Facing codependence: What it is, where it comes from, how it sabotages our lives (1st ed.--). Harper & Row.

Morgan, J. P. (1991). What is codependency? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 47(5), 720โ€“729.<720::AID-JCLP2270470515>3.0.CO;2-5

Wetzler, S., & Cole, D. (1999). Is It You or Is It Me?: Why Couples Play the Blame Game. HarperCollins.