What is Codependency?


Codependency Symptoms, Cause and Treatment

Codependency is sneaky and powerful. You may not be aware that it’s the root cause of your problems. If your thinking and behavior revolve around someone you may be codependent. Codependents tune out internal cues and instead of expressing their own needs and feelings, they react to someone or something external. Addicts are codependent, too. Their lives revolve around their addiction–be it food, work, drugs, or sex.

Codependency derived from the term “co-alcoholic,” originating in studies of family members of substance abusers who interfered with recovery by enabling.

Family therapists found that their codependent behavior started in childhood from growing up in a dysfunctional family. In the 40s, German psychoanalyst and humanist Karen Horney wrote about neurotic behavior caused by self-alienation that was due to faulty parenting and the “tyranny of the should’s.” She described personality types that fit codependency.

The 12-step program Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) was founded in 1986 by Ken and Mary, two therapists who had grown up in abusive families.


Codependency isn’t considered a disorder in the American Psychiatric Association, due to lack of consensus on a definition and empirical research. However, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does list a dependent personality disorder, described as someone more passive, submissive, and dependent than most codependents. In 1989, experts at a National Conference arrived at a suggested definition: “A pattern of painful dependency on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity.” Other definitions by experts in the field include:

Melody Beattie: Allowing another person’s behavior to affect him or her and obsessing about controlling that person’s behavior.

Earnie Larsen: A diminished capacity to initiate, or participate in, loving relationships.

Robert Subby: Resulting from prolonged exposure to oppressive rules.

John Bradshaw & Pia Melody: A symptom of abandonment – a loss of one’s inner reality and addiction to outer reality.

Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse: A brain disorder that leads codependents to seek the relief of soothing brain chemicals, which are released through compulsive behaviors, including addiction to work, substances, gambling, food, sex, and/or relationships.

Charles Whitfield: A disease of lost selfhood.

Darlene Lancer: A person who can’t function from his or her innate self and instead organizes thinking and behavior around a substance, process, or other person(s).

Beattie’s and Larsen’s definitions center on relationships. In contrast, I agree with Bradshaw, Melody, Wegscheider-Cruse, and Whitfield who believe that codependency resides in us whether or not we’re in a relationship. Unlike Cruse, I believe codependency is a learned behavior that’s trans-generational. Cultural and religious biases also play a part. Although research shows that some teens had brain abnormalities even before they became drug addicts, their twins did not become addicted. So the full impact of genetic and organic causes is still unclear, particularly in view of the brain’s plasticity in adolescence.

Codependency Symptoms, Core Feelings and Behavior

Codependency symptoms, feelings, and behavior vary in degree along a continuum. Like disease and addiction, if untreated codependency symptoms become compulsive and worsen in stages over time.

Core feelings include:

Core Behaviors include:

Codependency symptoms, core feelings and behaviors create other problems, such as people-pleasing, self-doubt, mistrust, perfectionism, high reactivity, enabling, and obsessions. Codependents are usually more attuned to fulfilling other people’s needs and feelings than their own.

To quell anxiety about rejection, they try to accommodate others, while ignoring their own needs, wants, and feelings. As a result, they tend to lose their autonomy, particularly in intimate relationships. Over time, their self-worth declines due to self-alienation and/or allowing others to devalue them.

Codependents have varied personalities, and codependency symptoms differ in type and severity among them. They also have diverse attachment styles. Not all are caretakers or are even in a relationship. Some seek closeness, while others avoid it. Some are addicts, bullies, selfish, and needy, or may appear independent and confident, but they attempt to control or are controlled by a personal relationship or their addiction. Sometimes that relationship is with an addict or alcoholic or narcissist. A sign of codependency is a relationship that is one-sided or marked by addiction or abuse. But not all codependent relationships are one-sided or abusive relationships.


Untreated codependency can lead to severe anxiety, depression, and health problems. There is help for recovery and change. Recovery goes through stages that normalize codependent symptoms. The goal of recovery is to be a fully functioning adult who is:

  • Authentic
  • Autonomous
  • Capable of intimacy
  • Assertive and congruent in the expression of values, feelings, and needs
  • Flexible without rigid thinking or behavior

Become informed. Get guidance and support. Codependent patterns are deeply ingrained habits and difficult to identify and change on your own. It often takes an experienced third party to identify them and to suggest alternative beliefs and responses. Therapy and 12-Step meetings provide this. In recovery, you will:

  1. Come out of denial
  2. Let go of others
  3. Build an autonomous Self
  4. Raise your self-esteem
  5. Find pleasure – develop friends, hobbies
  6. Heal past wounds
  7. Learn to be assertive and set boundaries
  8. Pursue larger goals and passions

Self-Help and Therapy

Codependency is highly recoverable, but requires effort, courage, and the right treatment. A therapist should be knowledgeable in treating codependency, shame, and self-esteem, as well as be able to teach healthier behavioral and communication skills. Cognitive-behavior therapy is effective in raising self-esteem and changing codependent thinking, feelings, and behavior. In some cases, trauma therapy is also indicated.

Recovery can generate more anxiety, so it’s important to maintain a self-help support system such as Al-Anon or CoDA 12-Step programs. Do the exercises in my books, Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and my ebooks 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits (see also companion webinars) to build self-esteem and become more assertive.

© Darlene Lancer 2019

What Is Codependency? Codependency Symptoms, Causes and Treatments by Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT

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1 year ago

Most of definitions of codependency describe a codependent very specifically as someone who is focused on others and compulsively tries to fix/caretake/control them to feel better. It seems unecessarily confusing to conflate codependency with addiction generally as other addictions are characterised by self obsession and using substances/processes to feel better. Please could you comment.

1 year ago

Thank you for your reply Darlene. I don’t disagree with you, I just find the subject so confusing. So much of what I have read specifically defines codependents as fixers/controllers of other people. And I’m pretty sure that, at present, that is what most people think of when they hear someone labelled as codependent. I shall continue to try to get my head round a wider definition by reading more of your articles and I have ordered your book.

1 year ago

Thank you for replying and for the link.

4 years ago

My wife of 10 years recently discovered through her therapist that she was codependent in our relationship. She had become distant and visibly unhappy. She is about a month into regular sessions with her therapist, and it feels like things are getting worse. There is an enormous amount of resentment towards me, and although I now understand how I was preying on her codependency when I (nearly) always got my way and have now begun to change everything I do with that in mind, the general feeling I get is that she feels unable to get over her resentment towards me. I know I need to accept blame and show true empathy – but what more can I do?

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
3 years ago
Reply to  Markus

Offer to attend marriage counseling, and perhaps get some yourself to show her you’re committed to change. See my blog on “Rebuilding Trust.”

5 years ago

Is there a relationship between codependency and covert narcissism? I keep getting mixed messages about this on the web.


Darlene Lancer, LMFT
5 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Great question. Ignore those online pundits. Either you’re a narcissist and meet the DSM criteria or you don’t. Most codependents are NOT narcissists. However, IMO, most narcissists are codependent, even extroverted ones. See my blog, “Narcissists are Codependent, too.”

Dr. Ramirez
Dr. Ramirez
1 year ago
Reply to  Eric

Yes. Codependency is the root of all personality disorders and all addictions.

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