Breaking Free from Codependence

By The Fix staff 11/02/20

Identifying the line between a healthy relationship and a codependent one can be tricky, particularly if you haven’t grown up with examples of what healthy relationships should look like.

couple sitting at table, woman arguing with silent man who is turned away.
Oftentimes, codependence is linked with addiction. Photo 175074372 © Chernetskaya |

Do you find that you’re always the one giving — to friends, strangers or loved ones? If you’re always giving but getting little back in return, you might be in a codependent relationship. Many people who are in treatment for addiction or who come from families with a history of substance use disorder develop codependency, which can last even after their substance use has been addressed.

Getting treatment for codependency can help you develop healthier, more balanced relationships. Here’s what you should know about this condition, which often goes hand-in-hand with addiction.

What is codependence?

The American Psychological Association defines codependence as “a state of being mutually reliant.” While that might not sound too bad, that mutual reliance often morphs into the second definition of codependence: “a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on (or controlled by) a person who has a pathological addiction.”

Of course, we all rely on our loved ones to some extent. Identifying the line between a healthy relationship and a codependent one can be tricky, particularly if you haven’t grown up with examples of what healthy relationships should look like.

Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) maintains a list of behaviors that are common for people who are codependent. People who are codependent will often:

  • Minimize or deny how they feel: “Oh no, it’s fine that you borrowed my car and returned it without gas.”
  • Struggle to make decisions, and seek others’ approval: “I don’t know what to wear. What do you think of this outfit? Will it be acceptable?”
  • Put other people’s needs ahead of their own: “I don’t want to go to that party, but I know that my friend will be upset if I RSVP no, so I’ll go anyway.”

Codependence isn’t just in romantic relationships

People often think about codependence when it comes to romantic relationships. However, codependence can manifest in any relationship, or in multiple relationships. You might be codependent with your romantic partner, but repeat those patterns with friends, siblings or children.

Oftentimes, codependence is linked with addiction. The codependent person — often a partner or parent — might think that they alone can keep the person with substance abuse disorder from succumbing to their disease. They often provide support, without setting up healthy boundaries and consequences. While this is done under the guise of being supportive and loving, it can be harmful to both people in the long term.

The link between codependence and domestic violence

Codependence often comes into play in relationships that experience domestic violence. But it’s not just the victim of the violence who can be codependent — abusers can also display this unhealthy relationship trait.

Some people mistake codependency for passiveness, but that isn’t always the case. People who are codependent can exhibit a range of behaviors found in abusive relationships, according to CoDA, including:

  • Using blame and shame to control or influence what their partner is feeling
  • Staying in dangerous situations too long out of loyalty
  • Believing that they’re above or better than other people
  • Expressing pain as anger
  • Demanding that others meet their emotional needs

Overcoming codependency

Working with a qualified professional can help you understand the role of codependency in your life. Oftentimes, treating codependence means learning new ways of expressing love, and unlearning harmful relationship patterns that may be as old as you.

Peer support is also available to people who are navigating codependency. CoDA is a 12-step program that’s specifically for people experiencing codependence. However, there are also other options that might be more readily available in your area. Programs like AlAnon, for people who love someone with substance use disorder, aren’t specifically for codependents, but touch on the importance of healthy boundaries.

It can be scary to seek treatment for codependence. It’s important to know that learning a healthier way of having a relationship doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your loved ones. In fact, with boundaries and coping mechanisms in place, you can have healthier, more emotionally fulfilling relationships with the people you love.

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