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The Hallmarks of Codependency (and How to Heal)

April 13, 2021

By Melissa Chalos

Most codependent people struggle with low self-esteem and don’t articulate their own needs in the relationship or at all.

Healthy adult relationships are built on a mutual respect and a considerate balance of give and take. In other words, the two people in the relationship can rely on each other, emotionally, physically, and often financially.

When someone in a relationship becomes consumed with that relationship, that veers into being codependent. Codependents have an overgrown sense of responsibility for the relationship, viewing the other person’s needs and wants as more important than their own. They often neglect their own needs to keep the relationship going.

All kinds of relationships can be codependent: dating or marriage relationships; family relationships (such as mother-child relationships); sibling-to-sibling relationships; and even friendships.

Signs of Codependency

Generally speaking, a codependent person focuses a great deal of energy on making and keeping the other person in the relationship happy. Most of their choices are centered on avoiding anything that could possibly upset or anger the other person.

Most codependent people struggle with low self-esteem and don’t articulate their own needs in the relationship or at all. Often, codependent people have trouble identifying and expressing emotions to their partner, parent, sibling or friend. And they have difficulty making decisions for themselves or in their own best interest.

Other characteristics of codependency include the overarching desire to feel important to the other person, to be the primary caregiver, and to be indispensable in someone’s life. These feelings are natural, but when a person’s self-worth and emotional health depend entirely on another person’s valuation, this is a sure sign of a codependent relationship.

Other signs of codependency: 

  • Feelings that you can’t live without the other person or they can’t live without you
  • An ongoing fear that the person will abandon or leave the relationship
  • Few external relationships or support
  • Increasing self-doubt and resentment

What Causes Codependency?

Codependency isn’t just a terrible series of choices or a lopsided relationship. It is a learned behavior that emerges from a negative pattern of behaviors and a range of emotionally challenging situations during one’s formative years. These include:

Dysfunctional parent-child relationships

Children or teens who experience dysfunction within the parent-child relationship are prone to codependency. Sometimes emotionally immature parents teach their children that only their needs/emotions/choices matter. Some parents — especially those with addiction to alcohol or drugs — teach children that their needs/emotions are unimportant or worse, that they are selfish to think of their own needs/emotions at all. In these situations, the child experiences significant gaps in emotional development, which leads to codependency in their adult relationships.

What Causes Codependency? - Rio Retreat Center

A parent who is physically or mentally ill

When a child grows up in a home with a mentally or physically ill parent, the child becomes a caregiver at a young age, internalizing a range of emotions centered on the needs of the parent. The child’s self-worth may hinge on being needed by another person and result in neglecting his or her own needs.

Abuse during childhood

Mental, physical, or sexual abuse in childhood often results in long-term psychological issues. As an emotional defense mechanism, the child or teenager learns to repress his or her emotions. When the child becomes an adult, this learned behavior manifests in a singular focus on the needs of the other person. Sometimes childhood abuse victims gravitate, in adulthood, to abusive relationships because they feel most familiar. Abusive relationships are codependent by nature.

The Path to Healing

Codependency emerges from negative behavior patterns and a range of emotionally challenging situations during someone’s formative years.

Overcoming codependent behaviors is possible if you recognize the signs and have the desire to embark on the path to healing. What might that look like?

Immediate steps: The first thing a codependent person has to decide is whether the relationship is a safe one, meaning there is no physical or emotional abuse taking place. Secondly, the caregiver must take some small step toward autonomy, toward building some separation into the relationship, whether through a hobby or reestablishing external relationships with friends or family. Small steps toward a healthier, more balanced life are essential, as an individual and within the relationship.

Getting back to you in therapy: Codependent behavior can be treated, successfully, in both individual or group therapy. Experts in this area can help codependent people rediscover the emotional center that has long been repressed.

Therapeutic workshops like Rio Retreat Center’s Love Addiction/Love Avoidance Workshop walks individuals through the destructive cycles of codependency, teaching the practices of self-love and self-care as well as what intimacy with healthy boundaries looks like. It’s a big leap toward freedom from codependency, which frequently manifests in one-sided, unhealthy relationships.

In therapy, victims of child abuse and dysfunctional parent-child relationships can begin to identify and acknowledge the pain they’ve experienced and how it has impacted their self-esteem and their understanding of love relationships.

By exploring the road that led them to this point, codependent people can better understand how to build balanced, emotionally healthy relationships where they value themselves as much or more than the relationships they’re in.

Help for Codependency at Rio Retreat Center

You can break free from codependency. Rio Retreat Center offers a path to healing for anyone struggling with unresolved childhood trauma, emotional or relationship issues, addiction, grief, loss, and more. Whether you’re well on your way or just beginning your journey of healing and self-discovery, we can help you overcome the obstacles that have been holding you back, keeping you from becoming the person you know you were always meant to be.