Understanding the origin of codependency, its long-term effects, and available treatment options

By Alisha Barnes, M.S.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is a relationship dynamic where one person’s needs, struggles, and behaviors dominate the other person’s energy, time, and even identity. One partner may rely heavily on the other for constant reassurance, validation, and security, and the codependent partner may seek validation through serving, helping, and taking care of their loved one.

Codependent people often find it difficult to make independent decisions, may struggle with their self-esteem outside the context of their relationships, and build their value system around the needs and opinions of others.

While a healthy relationship incorporates the needs and opinions of both parties, a codependent relationship caters to the needs of one party while sidelining and neglecting those of the other person. Codependency can present itself in various contexts, but universally consists of one individual thriving on needing to be needed and assuming a “giver/rescuer role” while the other individual assumes a “taker/victim” role and relies heavily on their partner’s constant and unquestioning support.

Can Codependency Happen in Non-Romantic Relationships?

Although codependency is most often represented in romantic relationships, it is also common in platonic relationships and in relationships between family members.

Codependency isn’t present in a person at birth. Rather, it develops over time as a person interacts with the primary figures in their life. Early childhood is a critical time for developing healthy relationships and appropriate boundaries.

Attachment theory addresses the importance of a bond between an infant and caregiver and how this attachment influences the child’s behavior and emotions into adulthood.

Attachment Theory

There are four different theories of attachment: secure-autonomous, avoidant-dismissing, anxious-preoccupied, and disorganized-unresolved. Each attachment style differs in how the individual communicates their needs and responds to the needs of the other person in a close relationship.

Secure-Autonomous Attachment

The child who forms a secure-autonomous attachment is likely to have been raised in a household where their caregivers were in tune with their needs and sensitive in how they responded to those needs. They were also likely encouraged to express their feelings in a healthy way.

This child enters adulthood with the ability to communicate their needs, the willingness to address conflict as it arises, and the ability to respect space within relationships. This individual is unafraid of rejection, as their boundaries and need for space have generally been respected, and they do not view autonomy as a threat to their relationships.

Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment

The child who forms an avoidant-dismissive attachment is likely to have been raised by disengaged caregivers. This child often develops into an adult who is staunchly logical and responds well in a crisis but avoids their emotional needs or acknowledging the emotional needs of others. This individual tends to perceive relationships as interfering with autonomy and infringing upon independence.

Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment

The adult who displays an anxious-preoccupied attachment style most closely resembles the characteristics of a codependent personality. This child was likely raised by caregivers who were inconsistent in their parenting style, who may have been unpredictable, and who often either misunderstood or were unable to meet the emotional needs of the child.

This child often develops into an adult who fears abandonment and rejection, and they remain anxious about these possibilities within the context of relationships. The issues of the past tend to intrude upon current relationships, leading the anxious-preoccupied adult to seek reassurance, exhibit needy or clingy behavior, and present with poor personal boundaries.

Disorganized-Unresolved Attachment

The child who forms a disorganized-unresolved attachment is likely to have experienced significant losses or traumatic experiences in childhood that were poorly tended to by presenting caregivers. As adults, these individuals tend to present with difficulty regulating emotions, a tendency to engage in dysfunctional relationships, and an unconscious pattern of recreating past traumatic experiences.

Attachment styles tend to be passed down from one generation to the next, as individuals tend to parent in the manner in which they were parented. While the above-mentioned attachment styles offer insight into how our emotional connections in adulthood are impacted by childhood, they are not an exact correlation. Ultimately, the way a person responds to their emotions is more important than the circumstances that surrounded their emotional development in childhood.

The Role Of Boundaries In Relationships

While the knowledge of attachment theory is crucial in understanding the origin of codependent behavior, the role of boundary setting in relationships is equally important.

Healthy boundaries serve to determine acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in a relationship. They help identify a person’s emotional needs, desires, and value system while establishing limits on what they will tolerate or expect from their loved ones.

Implementing healthy boundaries requires an individual to have a firm sense of self and the ability to communicate openly and honestly about who they are and what they want. While boundaries can be influenced by one’s upbringing, they are further developed through friendships, romantic relationships, and other interpersonal experiences.

An individual’s sense of boundaries may expand throughout these experiences, as the person learns who they are and what they want from their relationships. In contrast, unhealthy boundaries show a disregard for one’s own emotional needs and limits. Unhealthy boundaries may result from poor self-esteem, uncertainty regarding one’s needs, and a desire to please others.

Is Codependency an “Addiction” to Another Person?

Can someone be addicted to another person? In short, yes. Codependency often serves to distract from inner pain or emptiness that may or may not have taken root in childhood.

Codependent behaviors from childhood are nearly always exacerbated in unhealthy adult relationships. When a codependent person enters an adult relationship with someone who has a taker/victim mentality, their tendency to self-sacrifice and prioritize the other person’s needs is constantly reinforced; they only receive the validation and approval they seek by complying, helping, and serving the other person, often at their own expense.

Likewise, a person who is dependent, immature, or experiencing addiction has their behaviors reinforced by a codependent partner; because their partner constantly enables, supports, forgives, and prioritizes them, they aren’t motivated to change or grow as a person.

As a result of these dynamics, codependent relationships are often a vicious cycle. The unhealthy patterns and habits continue to grow and intensify, as neither person’s true underlying needs are being met.

Addressing Codependency In Treatment

Similar to issues experienced through substance abuse, treatment exists for the codependent individual. As addiction commonly presents as a family disease, family therapy is currently one of the leading treatment recommendations to address codependent behavior. This allows for unhealthy patterns of behavior to be explored as a whole, with the family working to break dysfunctional patterns and learn new methods of coping and interacting. Treatment further involves processing and resolving past interactions that may have exacerbated unhealthy behaviors, while developing a better sense of the importance of boundaries.