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Do you care for others in a way that goes beyond your own needs? Do you have difficulty setting boundaries and have low self-esteem? These can be signs of codependency. Here we describe how it develops, what it is and how you can get help.

What is codependency?

Codependency is a term used mainly in addiction treatment. It describes a caregiver’s relationship with someone who has a dependency or addiction, not usually related to alcohol or drugs. Co-dependency is a relationship dynamic where you become very preoccupied with another person’s problems in a way that allows you to overlook your own need for boundaries. People can also be co-dependent in other relationships, such as if a loved one has mental health problems.

Co-dependency can make you worry a lot and take over responsibility for another person’s life. It can go so far that the other person is belittled and does not need to take responsibility for themselves. This is a pattern that can be very draining for everyone involved in different ways. Codependency is not a medical diagnosis but is often described in terms of factors such as trauma, anxiety, depression or personality disorders.

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How common is codependency?

Codependency is not a diagnosis in the healthcare system, so it is not possible to say exactly how common it is. Those who report being negatively affected by someone else’s alcohol consumption are 1 in 10 people in general. There are also other dependencies such as gambling and drug abuse, but it is unclear how common this is and thus difficult to calculate statistics for co-dependency.

Co-dependent mental health problems

As co-dependency is not a medical diagnosis, people with this problem often seek help for other difficulties. These include problems with anxiety, depression, relationship problems and, in some cases, personality disorders.

People who are co-dependent may themselves have had a difficult childhood with problems such as trauma and neglect. This may be behind the problem behaviour. They may not have been taught to attend to their needs, express emotions in a healthy way and set healthy boundaries.

They may have adapted to a parent who, for various reasons, did not take responsibility for themselves. Behaviour can also be learned by copying the other parent’s codependent behavior towards a parent with, for example, substance abuse. Thus, codependency is often an intergenerational problem that may have lasted for several generations.

Behind the behaviour, there may be long-standing feelings of shame and guilt. Involvement with others can cause people to avoid feeling and expressing their own emotions. You don’t focus on your own life but become preoccupied with thoughts of the other person. This is a concern that is not always realistic. It can also make it more difficult for the co-dependent person to seek help for their problem.

Caring for others is healthy. However, in codependency this is often unrealistic and exaggerated in ways that have negative consequences for oneself and others. But there is help available.

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Co-dependent alcoholic

The term codependency was coined by doctors treating people with alcohol abuse where the doctors saw that the spouses also needed help. These spouses had a behaviour where they could clean up and do various facilitating actions. This made it more difficult for the alcoholics to overcome their addiction. They did not have to take responsibility for their lives. When the alcoholics became sober, wives could be bitter and angry with their husbands. As a result, methods to deal with codependency had to be developed.

According to Alcoholics Anonymous, the first Central Service Office opened in Sydney, Australia in 1952. Since then, the concept has been broadened to include other addiction centre’s for a variety of addictions and problem areas. This can range from drug addiction, gambling addiction, mental health problems in children or in love relationships with personality problems or criminality.

Co-dependent destructive relationship

If you are in a bad relationship, you may also have developed a codependency. It doesn’t have to be substance abuse, but sometimes you may have adapted to another person’s destructive behaviour and don’t express your feelings or needs.

There may be underlying attachment issues and relationship patterns that need to change. You may notice that your partner easily becomes angry or critical in the relationship. You repeat the same conflicts and discussions without making progress. For milder relationship problems, we have licensed psychologists and couple therapists at Lavendla who can help.

For more severe problems such as domestic violence, you may have developed an approach where you explain away the person’s behaviour or problems. In these situations, the bond with the other person can be very difficult and it is important to seek help quickly. If you know someone close to you or you are in a violent relationship yourself, and you need urgent help, call emergency services on 000 or Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 (24 hour service). It is important to ask for help and get out of such relationships as soon as possible.

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Consequences of codependency

If you live in a co-dependent relationship with someone close to you, you need to stop and reflect on what you want and what the consequences might be. Co-dependency often means worsening in the long run, being co-dependent is also a stress and the behaviour can lead to deteriorating health both mentally and physically. It is therefore important to seek help if you notice this behaviour so that you do not fall into a pattern that reduces your quality of life.

Symptoms of codependency

Co-dependency is a complex problem as it often develops early in life in close relationships, but it can also develop in more difficult relationships in adulthood. The symptoms of co-dependency are not a diagnosis, but experiences that people may have when they are close to someone with severe problems. Common characteristics of co-dependency are:

  1. Excessive focus on the other person: You may focus on the other person’s feelings, needs and problems, sometimes to the point of neglecting your own interests and needs.
  2. Lack of boundaries: Codependent relationships are often characterized by a lack of healthy boundaries. The co-dependent person may have difficulty communicating their feelings and needs and be afraid of what a boundary would mean for the relationship. They may also find it difficult to say no, which can lead to negative consequences.
  3. Change in self-esteem based on the well-being of the other person: A codependent may be so preoccupied with the other person that they do not have a sense of self-worth, regulating their emotions depending on how the other person is feeling.
  4. Fear of being abandoned or lonely: Co-dependent people may fear being alone or abandoned and may therefore stay in unhealthy relationships even if they are harmful to them.
  5. Taking excessive responsibility for the other person’s problems: A co-dependent person may feel that it is their responsibility to solve the other person’s problems or to ‘save’ them from difficulties.
  6. Devaluation of their own needs: The co-dependent person does not take responsibility for their own needs and desires but instead focuses on the other person.

If you recognize these symptoms, you may want to seek treatment. It is possible to change your patterns but it may take some time.

12 common questions and answers about codependency

What is codependency?

Codependency is a term used mainly in addiction treatment to describe the relationship of a close person to a person with an addiction. It refers to the development of a relationship dynamic in which a person becomes very preoccupied with another person’s problems in a way that allows them to overlook their own need for boundaries.

Is codependency a diagnosis?

No, codependency is not a psychiatric diagnosis but it can be explained by various conditions such as anxiety, depression, trauma, attachment problems and/or personality problems.

Can codependency be cured?

Codependency can be treated, but it can take time and requires a thorough work on thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

What are the signs that I may be co-dependent?

Signs include being very preoccupied with another person’s problems to the detriment of your own life and needs. They can also make it difficult for others to develop in the worst case scenario.

What are the risks of co-dependency?

The potential risks include getting stuck in a destructive pattern that does not make you or your loved one feel good. You may also experience high levels of stress and depression.

How common is codependency?

In general, 1 in 10 people report being negatively affected by someone else’s alcohol consumption.

What treatment options are available?

There are several different types of treatment such as medication, therapy and support groups, such and other helpful programs.

How long does it take to get rid of a co-dependency?

It varies from person to person and what kind of therapy you receive. If you have underlying trauma from your childhood, treatment may take longer.

Can co-dependency be linked to other problems such as mental illness?

Codependency does not only include substance abuse, but you can be codependent in destructive relationships or with someone with mental health problems.

What resources are available?

In addition to our professional therapists and psychologists, there are many websites, books, and support groups that can offer additional information and support.

Can I be treated online?

Yes, several of our therapists and psychologists offer support sessions via video conferencing, for example.

What can I do if I want to be free from my co-dependency?

It is possible to treat the pattern developed in co-dependency. At Lavendla, we have licensed psychologists and qualified therapists who can help. We make the difficult easier.

Treatment for codependency

Treatment for codependency includes different interventions, often you need psychotherapy with a licensed psychologist or psychotherapist but you may also need more support from support groups and self-help. Treatment can take a long time to understand your patterns and break your behaviours, but it is possible to get better and improve your quality of life. Therapy can include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to work on anxiety related to relating, depression and low self-esteem. It will also help you understand why things have developed the way they have, manage your emotions better and practice setting boundaries. You can also go to family therapy or couples therapy, if the addict has also become sober, and explore your patterns and relationships together. There are also various treatment centers that offer family weeks for those who have a family member in treatment or who want to work on their problems themselves.

12-step codependency program

The 12-step program is a self-help organization for people with different types of addiction and codependency. It is a voluntary association that is donation-based. It is a worldwide program with a branch in Australasia. It is good to be aware that 12-step does not replace psychotherapy but can be a complement. For family members, there is Alcoholics Anonymous and Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) where you can go to talk about your experiences and meet others who are also experiencing similar problems. The 12-step program also includes steps where you try to move forward in life through a spiritual solution.

Co-dependency self-help

To learn more about what co-dependency can be and increase your understanding of yourself, there is a lot of self-help literature that you can read. There are many people who have written extensively on the subject.

Finding help: therapies and support

Many therapies, such as CBT for addiction, have been shown to be effective in treating both abuse and addiction. Other forms of support, such as family support for addiction, can be essential for those living close to someone suffering from these problems. Even if we are not struggling with an addiction ourselves, we may still need help dealing with the thoughts and feelings of someone who is.

From conversation to understanding and change

Talk therapy is often the first step in seeking help. By working with a psychologist or therapist, you can begin to understand your symptoms and triggers, which is crucial for long-term change.

When professional help is unavoidable

If you are living close to someone with an addiction or other problem that is affecting your life, it is essential that you seek professional help. Help is available and support is just a click away. So if you or someone you love is struggling with these issues, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

The first step to change

Book a 20- or 45-minute session with a qualified coach, therapist or psychologist today via our website booking form. If the time is not right now, remember that there is always an opportunity to come back when you are ready to make a change. Together we make the hard things easier.

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Written by melissa

Melissa is a Certified Kinesiologist who focusses on a client-centred, holistic and integrative approach to health and wellness. She has extensive experience in managing stress, anxiety, fears, phobias and trauma in her clients. Melissa uses visual and auditory feedback to directly access and solve the cause of psychological stressors in the body so that optimal well-being and balance is achieved.