Co-Dependency & Addiction

Sometimes described as an addiction to another person, codependency is a recognised mental health condition that can have deep and lasting impacts on those it affects. Codependency is most commonly found among those whose loved ones are suffering from addiction or other health issues. When codependency and addiction exist together, they can create complex issues for all parties in a relationship, leading to enabling behaviours and exacerbating underlying mental and emotional struggles. Anyone affected by codependency must seek professional help as it is a condition that can be effectively managed and treated with the appropriate interventions.

What is codependency?

Codependency is a term that has evolved over time to encapsulate a range of behaviours and emotional dynamics. Initially used to describe the enabling behaviours of loved ones of individuals with alcohol addiction, the definition of codependency has broadened to include a wide array of relationships and conditions where unhealthy levels of support and caretaking occur to the detriment of the co-dependent individual’s own needs and well-being.

As well as relationships involving substance abuse, it can also appear in relationships affected by chronic mental or physical health conditions. Co-dependents often put the needs of others before their own, to the point of sacrificing their own well-being and independence.

Different forms of co-dependency can include:

  • Emotional co-dependency – This is where the codependent’s self-esteem and emotional well-being are heavily dependent on the approval of others.
  • Behavioural co-dependency – This involves doing things for others that they can and should do for themselves, often enabling the other person’s addiction or irresponsible behaviour.

The consequences of co-dependency can be severe, affecting not only the individual’s mental and emotional health but also their physical health, social life and overall quality of life. It can lead to a perpetual cycle of unhealthy relationships, where the co-dependent continually seeks out relationships that reinforce their need to be needed, often at the cost of their own happiness and health.

The relationship between codependency and addiction

The intertwining relationship between codependency and addiction is profound, with each often exacerbating the other. Co-dependency can serve as both a precursor and a consequence of addiction, creating a cyclical pattern that can be challenging to break.

Individuals with addiction may find themselves in codependent relationships where their partner enables their substance use by covering up, supplying them with drugs or alcohol or excusing their behaviour. This dynamic ensures that the addicted individual remains dependent on their partner for support, while the co-dependent partner gains a sense of neededness and purpose through their caretaking role.

On the other side of the relationship, co-dependent individuals may be drawn to partners with addiction issues due to their inherent need to care for others, mistakenly believing that their love and support can “cure” the addiction. This belief often leads to a neglect of their own needs and a deepening of the addiction cycle, as their enabling behaviours prevent their loved ones from facing the full consequences of their substance use and reduce their motivation to seek treatment.

Ultimately, the relationship between codependency and addiction is characterised by a mutual dependency that hinders both individuals’ ability to function independently and healthily. This dependency not only fuels the addiction but also deepens the emotional and psychological issues associated with codependency, creating a barrier to recovery and healing for both parties involved.

Symptoms and signs of codependency

There are a number of symptoms and signs that can indicate co-dependent relationships and tendencies. These can be behavioural, emotional and seen in relationship patterns but all can point to the need for professional help. Key symptoms and signs include:

  • Excessive caretaking: Codependent individuals often feel compelled to take care of the needs of others at the expense of their own. This compulsion is not merely a generous disposition but a need that leaves them feeling unfulfilled if unmet.
  • Low self-esteem: Codependents typically struggle with feelings of worthlessness unless they are needed by or are making significant sacrifices for others. Their sense of value is deeply entwined with their role as caregivers, which causes them to stay in unhealthy relationships or seek out similar ones.
  • People-pleasing behaviour: A strong desire to avoid conflict and make others happy, often leading to suppressing their own needs, opinions and feelings.
  • Difficulty setting boundaries: Codependents find it hard to set healthy limits in relationships, which can lead to resentment, frustration and a loss of personal autonomy for both parties.
  • Fear of abandonment: An overwhelming fear of being left alone can drive co-dependents to cling tightly to relationships, even when they are unhealthy or abusive.
  • Dependency on relationships: An unhealthy reliance on relationships for personal satisfaction and identity, often leading to a cycle of jumping from one relationship to another to fill an emotional void.
  • Denial of personal needs and desires: Ignoring their own needs, desires and interests to focus on taking care of others, leading to burnout and dissatisfaction.
  • Communication difficulties: Struggling to express their personal needs, feelings and desires directly and honestly, often leading to passive-aggressive behaviour or silent suffering.

Recognising these symptoms in yourself or a loved one is crucial for seeking help and beginning the journey towards healthier and more fulfilling relationships. It is important to understand that codependency is predominantly a learned behaviour, which means it can also be unlearned with professional support.

What causes codependency?

The origins of codependency are multifaceted, stemming from a combination of personal, familial and environmental factors. Understanding these causes is essential for individuals seeking to overcome codependent behaviours and build healthier relationships. Key factors include:

Family dynamics

Growing up in a home where emotional expression was discouraged or punished can lead to difficulties in recognising and communicating a person’s own needs and feelings. Families affected by addiction, mental health issues, chronic illness or dysfunction often foster codependent behaviours as children learn to put the needs of the family or a particular member above their own.

Childhood trauma

Experiences of neglect, abuse or trauma in childhood can significantly impact an individual’s self-esteem and relationship patterns. Co-dependent behaviours may develop as coping mechanisms, where taking care of others becomes a way to seek love, approval and validation.

Lack of boundaries

A lack of healthy boundaries in familial relationships can blur the lines between caring and over-involvement, leading individuals to struggle with boundary-setting in adulthood. This can result in an excessive need to help or control others, often at the expense of a person’s own needs.

Cultural and societal influences

Societal expectations and cultural norms can also play a role in fostering codependent behaviours, especially those that emphasise self-sacrifice, the subjugation of personal needs and the importance of taking care of others. For example, this may be seen in certain cultures and societies where gender or parental roles are more traditional.

Personal characteristics

Certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem, fear of rejection and an intense desire to please others, can predispose individuals to co-dependent relationships. These traits may be inherent or may be developed in response to early life experiences.

Previous relationships

Experiences in previous relationships, especially those involving addiction or abuse, can reinforce co-dependent patterns of behaviour. Individuals may become accustomed to dynamics that require them to take on a caretaker role, perpetuating the cycle of codependency.

Identifying the underlying causes of codependency is a critical step in the healing process. It allows individuals to address the root issues that contribute to their codependent behaviours rather than just treating the symptoms.

Codependency and co-occurring conditions

Codependency frequently exists alongside a range of co-occurring conditions, further complicating the dynamics of relationships and the process of recovery. Understanding the interplay between codependency and these conditions is vital for effective treatment and healing.

Addiction and substance abuse

As explained above, the most common association with co-dependency is its link to addiction. Co-dependent individuals often find themselves in relationships with those struggling with substance abuse, where their need to be needed aligns with the addicted person’s need for support and enablement. This relationship dynamic can perpetuate the cycle of addiction, making recovery more challenging for both parties.

Mental health disorders

Codependency is also commonly found in relationships where one or both partners suffer from mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. The codependent’s role often shifts to that of a caretaker, focusing on the partner’s needs and neglecting their own. This dynamic can also exacerbate the symptoms of both the co-dependent individual and their partner’s mental health condition.

Eating disorders

Similar dynamics can occur in relationships affected by eating disorders. The co-dependent may take on the role of a caregiver or enabler, focusing on their partner’s eating habits and body image issues, often at the expense of addressing their own needs and health.

Chronic illness

Relationships involving chronic physical illness can also foster co-dependency, with one partner becoming overly reliant on the other for care and support. While caregiving is a natural response to a loved one’s illness, without proper boundaries and self-care, it can evolve into a codependent relationship.

Addressing co-dependency within the context of these co-occurring conditions requires a multifaceted treatment approach that considers the needs and challenges of both individuals involved. Treatment should not only focus on the co-dependency itself but also on the underlying and associated conditions that contribute to the development and maintenance of codependent behaviours.

What do codependency and addiction treatment involve?

The treatment of co-dependency and addiction involves a comprehensive approach that addresses the intertwined nature of these conditions. Successful treatment plans typically incorporate a combination of therapy, support groups and education aimed at helping individuals understand the dynamics of co-dependency and addiction, develop healthier relationship skills and improve self-care practices. Key components of treatment include:


Detox is an important first step in treating addiction as it clears the body of drugs and alcohol, begins the healing process and breaks physical addiction. This provides solid foundations for the next stages.

Individual therapy

Counselling sessions with a mental health professional can help individuals explore the root causes of their codependency and addiction, understand their patterns of behaviour and develop healthier ways of relating to themselves and others. Techniques such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) are commonly used to challenge and change these unhelpful thoughts and behaviours.

Group therapy and support groups

Participating in group therapy sessions and support groups like Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) can provide valuable support and insights. Sharing experiences with others who are facing similar challenges can reduce feelings of isolation and promote a sense of community and understanding.

Education on healthy relationships

Learning about healthy relationship dynamics, including effective communication, boundary-setting and conflict resolution, is crucial for individuals recovering from codependency and addiction. Educational workshops and targeted therapy sessions can provide the tools needed to build and maintain healthy relationships and recognise relationships which are becoming dysfunctional.

Treatment for co-occurring conditions

When codependency is accompanied by addiction or other mental health conditions, treating these issues concurrently is essential for effective recovery. This may include medication management, specialised therapy for substance use disorders and interventions for mental health issues.

Self-care practices

Encouraging self-care is an integral part of treatment for codependency and addiction. This includes promoting physical health through proper nutrition and exercise, as well as emotional and mental well-being through activities like meditation, journaling and engaging in hobbies.

Family therapy

Since codependency often affects family dynamics, involving family members in the treatment process can be beneficial. Family therapy sessions can help address and improve the dysfunctional patterns of interaction and communication within the family, promoting healing and recovery for everyone involved.

Treatment for codependency and addiction is a journey that requires time, patience and commitment. Individuals can overcome these challenges with the right support and resources, leading to healthier, more fulfilling lives.

Get help for codependency today

Reaching out for professional help is a crucial step for anyone struggling with codependency. Whether through a GP or a private mental health or rehab centre, support is available to navigate the complexities of co-dependency and co-occurring conditions like addiction. Remember, acknowledging the need for help is the first step towards recovery and a more fulfilling life.

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