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Do you care for others in a way that causes you to overlook your own needs? Do you have difficulty setting boundaries and suffer from low self-esteem? These can be signs of co-dependency. Here we describe how it develops, and how you can get help.

What is co-dependency?

Co-dependency 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. Co-dependency 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 co-dependency?

Co-dependency is not a diagnosis in the healthcare system, so it is not possible to say exactly how common it is but as an indicator, 24% of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines. 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 co-dependent behavior towards a parent with, for example, substance abuse. Co-dependency 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. One might not focus on their 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 co-dependency 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 alcoholics

The term co-dependency 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 co-dependency had to be developed.

In the 1950s in the US, self-help groups and treatments were set up for relatives of alcoholics. Since then, the concept has been broadened to include a variety of addictions and problem areas. This can range from drug addiction, gambling addiction, mental health problems in children or relationships with personality problems or criminality.

Co-dependent destructive relationships

If you are in a bad relationship, you may also have developed a co-dependency. It doesn’t have to be substance abuse, but sometimes you may have adapted to another person’s destructive behaviour and do not 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 are in a violent relationship yourself, you can contact the national domestic abuse hotline at 0808 2000 247 or 999. It is important to ask for help and get out of such relationships as soon as possible.

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Consequences of co-dependency

If you live in a co-dependent relationship with someone close to you, you must stop and reflect on what you want and what the consequences might be. Co-dependency often worsens in the long run. It 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 co-dependency

Co-dependency is a complex problem as it often develops early in life in close relationships, but also develops in adult relationships. 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: Co-dependent relationships are often characterised by a lack of healthy boundaries. The co-dependent person may have difficulty communicating their feelings and needs, afraid of what it would mean for the relationship. They may also find it difficult to say no, leading to negative consequences.
  3. Change in self-esteem based on the well-being of the other person: A co-dependent may be so preoccupied with the other person that they do not have a sense of self-worth, and their emotions regulate 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 so might 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 recognise 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 co-dependency

What is co-dependency?

Co-dependency 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 need for boundaries.

Is co-dependency a diagnosis?

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

Can co-dependency be cured?

Co-dependency can be treated, but it takes time and requires 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.

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 co-dependency?

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 as the 12-step programme.

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?

Co-dependency does not only include substance abuse, but you can be co-dependent in destructive relationships with someone who has mental health issues.

What resources are available?

In addition to Lavendla’s professional therapists and psychologists, many websites, books, and support groups offer additional information and support.

Can I be treated online?

Yes, our therapists and psychologists specifically offer online sessions using video conferencing.

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. Lavendla has licensed psychologists and qualified therapists who can help. We make the difficult easier.

Treatment for co-dependency

Treatment for co-dependency 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 centres that offer family weeks for those who have a family member in treatment or who want to work on their problems themselves.

12-step co-dependency programme

The 12-step programme is a movement originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous for people with addictions. These programmes are voluntary and donation-based. It is good to be aware that 12-step does not replace psychotherapy but can be a complement. For family members, there is Al-Anon 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 programme 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 an initial session with a qualified coach, therapist or psychologist today through our website. If the time is not right at the moment, remember 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 dominic

Dominic is a Cape Town-based copywriter and editor with a background in psychology.