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Do you care for others so much that you ignore your own needs? Do you have difficulty setting boundaries? 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 describes an imbalanced relationship with someone struggling with self-destructive behaviour, addiction, or mental illness. Co-dependency is a relationship dynamic where you become very preoccupied with another person’s problems. This, in turn, makes you overlook your own need for boundaries.

Codependency is not a medical diagnosis but is often linked to trauma, anxiety, depression, and personality disorders.

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How common is codependency?

Codependency is not a medical diagnosis, so it is not possible to say how common it is. However, Statistics Canada found a link between relationship satisfaction and overall satisfaction with life. In a recent survey, around 15% of adults rated their relationship satisfaction as low. Of this group, only around 30% felt a strong sense of purpose in life, with only around 20% reporting high satisfaction in life overall.

Codependency and mental health

People in codependent relationships might not realize it until they seek help for something else. These include problems with anxiety, depression, general relationship concerns, or personality disorders.

A recent study published in the Children and Youth Services Review showed that a history of childhood abuse and neglect is a strong indicator of codependency in adulthood. Individuals with a history of trauma may not have been taught to attend to their needs, healthily express emotions, or set healthy boundaries.

Behind the behaviour, there may be long-standing feelings of shame and guilt. Heavily involving yourself with others can cause you to avoid feeling and expressing your own emotions. You don’t focus on your own life and become preoccupied with thoughts of the other person. This can also make it more difficult for the codependent person to seek help.

Behaviour can also be learned by copying a caregiver’s codependent behaviour towards, for example, a partner with substance dependence. Thus, codependency is often an intergenerational problem that may have lasted for several generations.

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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Codependency and alcohol dependence

The term codependency is usually attributed to Alcoholics Anonymous. In the 1950s, the group identified that the support network of someone struggling with addiction also required support. The term was first used to describe how those close to a person may interfere with their recovery. This usually manifested as becoming over-involved with the individual, helping to the point of enabling.

In the 1950s in the United States, self-help groups and treatments were set up for relatives of those struggling with alcohol use disorder. Since then, the concept has been broadened to include a variety of addictions and concerns. This can range from drug and gambling addiction to mental illnesses and self-destructive behaviours.

Codependency and unhealthy relationships

Unhealthy relationships can lead to codependency. Adapting to another person’s destructive behaviours can lead to not being able to express your own 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 may 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 relationships involving intimate partner violence/domestic abuse, help is out there. 911 can help in an emergency, and https://sheltersafe.ca/ can link you to shelters and crisis lines in your area.

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Consequences of codependency

Codependent relationships can prevent you from developing healthy coping mechanisms. It can also lower your overall quality of life. It may be hard to tell if you’re in a codependent relationship. If you think your relationship might be codependent, help is out there!

Symptoms of codependency

Codependency is complex. As codependency is not a diagnosable condition, there are not specific “symptoms”. However, there are patterns of behaviours that can be characteristic of codependency. Common characteristics of codependency include:

  1. Excessive focus on the other person: This includes focusing 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 codependent person may have difficulty communicating their feelings and needs. They may 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. Changes 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. Their emotions depend on how the other person is feeling.
  4. Fear of being abandoned or lonely: Codependent people may fear being alone or abandoned. This can lead to staying in unhealthy relationships even if their safety is at risk.
  5. Taking excessive responsibility for the other person’s problems: A codependent person may feel that it is their responsibility to solve the other person’s problems or to ‘save’ them from difficulties.
  6. Devaluing their own needs: The codependent person may not take responsibility for their own needs and desires, instead focusing on the other person.

If you recognize these characteristics in yourself, help is available. 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 someone in a close relationship with someone struggling with 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 needs and boundaries.

Is codependency a diagnosis?

No, codependency is not a psychiatric diagnosis but it can co-exist with various conditions such as anxiety, depression, trauma, attachment problems, and personality disorders.

Can codependency be cured?

Codependency can be treated, but it can take time and requires working through thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

What are the signs that I may be codependent?

Signs include being very preoccupied with another person’s problems to the detriment of your own life and needs.

What are the risks of codependency?

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 persistent low mood.

How common is codependency?

As codependency is not a diagnosed illness, it is hard to tell how common it is.

What treatment options are available?

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

How long does it take to stop codependent behaviour?

This varies from person to person and depends on many factors like the kind of treatment you seek and whether or not you have a history of trauma.

Can codependency be linked to other problems such as mental illness?

Codependency is not specific to substance use disorders. You can be in a codependent relationship with someone experiencing mental illness.

What resources are available?

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

Can I be treated online?

Yes, our therapists and psychologists offer online support sessions.

What can I do if I want to be free from codependency?

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, psychotherapy with a licensed psychologist or psychotherapist is recommended. Support groups can also be helpful. It 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 relationships, depression, and low self-esteem. CBT also helps you understand why things have developed the way they have. It can also help manage your emotions better and practice setting boundaries. Family and couples therapy may also be beneficial. There are also various treatment centers that offer services for those who have a family member in treatment.

12-step programs

12-step programs aren’t just for people struggling with addiction. Al-Anon is a group for family members of those with substance use disorders. Additionally, Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) offers online meetings for those struggling with codependent relationships across Canada. It is important to note, however, that these groups are not replacements for psychotherapy.

Self-help for codependency

There are lots of resources online that can help you learn more about what codependency can look like and to increase your understanding of yourself. https://codacanada.ca/ is a good place to start.

Finding help: therapies and support

Psychotherapy is effective in treating codependency. 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 yourself, 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, seeking professional help is essential. Help 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 now isn’t the right time, remember that there is always an opportunity to come back when you are ready to make a change. Together we make the difficult easier.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.