A codependent relationship is when one partner needs the other partner, who, in turn, needs to be needed. This circular relationship is the basis of what experts refer to when they describe the “cycle” of codependency.

There is much more to this term than everyday clinginess. Codependent relationships are far more extreme. A codependent person will plan their entire life around pleasing the other person, or the enabler.

The codependent person’s self-esteem and self-worth will come only from sacrificing themselves for their partner, who may be only too glad to receive their sacrifices.

This article explains the difference between codependency and dependence, the signs of a codependent relationship, and the treatment options available.

Fast facts on codependency:

  • Codependent relationships can be between friends, romantic partners, or family members.
  • Often, the relationship includes emotional or physical abuse.
  • Friends and family members of a codependent person may recognize that something is wrong.
  • Like any mental or emotional health issue, treatment requires time and effort, as well as the help of a clinician.
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It is important to know the difference between depending on another person — which can be a positive and desirable trait — and codependency, which is harmful.

The following are some examples that illustrate the difference:

Two people rely on each other for support and love. Both find value in the relationship.The codependent person feels worthless unless they are needed by — and making drastic sacrifices for — the enabler. The enabler may get satisfaction from having every need met by the other person.
Both parties prioritize their relationship, but can find joy in outside interests, other friends, and hobbies.The codependent has no personal identity, interests, or values outside of their codependent relationship.
Both people can express their emotions and needs and find ways to make the relationship beneficial for both of them.One person feels their desires and needs are unimportant and will not express them. They may have difficulty recognizing their feelings or needs at all.

A codependent person is only happy when making extreme sacrifices for their partner. They may feel that being needed by the other person is necessary to feel a sense of purpose.

One or both parties can be codependent. A codependent person will neglect other important areas of their life to please their partner. Their extreme dedication to this one person may cause damage to:

  • other relationships
  • their career
  • their everyday responsibilities

The enabler’s role is also dysfunctional. A person who relies upon a codependent does not learn how to have an equal, two-sided relationship and often comes to rely upon another person’s sacrifices and neediness.

It can be hard to distinguish a codependent person from one who is just clingy or very enamored with another person. But, a codependent person may:

  • find no satisfaction or happiness in life outside of doing things for the other person
  • stay in a relationship even if they are aware that their partner does hurtful things
  • do anything to please and satisfy their enabler despite the expense to themselves
  • feel constant anxiety about their relationship due to their desire to always be making the other person happy
  • use all their time and energy to give their partner everything they ask for
  • feel guilty about thinking of themselves in the relationship and will not express any personal needs or desires
  • ignore their morals or conscience to do what the other person wants

Other people may try to talk with the codependent about their concerns. However, even if others suggest that the person is too dependent, a person in a codependent relationship may find it difficult to leave the relationship.

The codependent person may feel extreme conflict about separating themselves from the enabler because their identity centers upon sacrificing themselves for the other person.

Codependency is a learned behavior that usually stems from past behavioral patterns and emotional difficulties. Early research associated codependency with living with someone with alcohol use disorder.

However, experts now suggest codependency can result from the following situations.

Damaging parental relationships

People who are codependent as adults may have had problems with their parental relationship as a child or teenager.

Their parental figure may be emotionally or physically absent. In other situations, a parent may teach a child to think their needs are unimportant or less important than their parents’.

In these types of families, parents may teach children not to think of themselves. Needy parents may also suggest that children are selfish or greedy if they want anything for themselves.

As a result, children may learn to ignore their own needs and think only about what they can do for others.

In these situations, parental figures may have:

  • an addiction problem with alcohol or drugs
  • a lack of maturity and emotional development, resulting in their own self-centered needs
  • chronic mental or physical conditions

These situations may cause gaps in emotional development in the child, leading them to seek out codependent relationships later.

Living with a mentally or physically ill family member

Codependency may also result from caring for a person who is chronically ill. Being in the role of caregiver, especially at a young age, may cause a young person to neglect their own needs and develop a habit of only helping others.

However, this does not solely affect younger people. Even adults in a caregiver role may develop codependency.

A person’s self-worth may form around being needed by another person and receiving nothing in return.

Many people who live with an ill family member do not develop codependency. But, it can happen in these types of family environments, particularly if the parent or primary caretaker displays dysfunctional behaviors.

Abusive families

Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse can cause long lasting psychological problems. One issue that can arise from past abuse is codependency.

Someone who experiences abuse may learn to repress their feelings as a defense mechanism. This learned behavior may result in a person caring only about another’s feelings and not acknowledging their own needs.

Sometimes, a person who experiences abuse may seek out abusive relationships later because they are only familiar with this type of relationship. This can manifest in codependent relationships.

People in codependent relationships may need to take small steps toward some separation in the relationship. This could involve:

  • finding an activity they enjoy outside of the relationship
  • try new hobbies outside of the relationship
  • spend time with supportive family members or friends

Individual or group therapy may benefit people in codependent relationships. An expert can help them find ways to acknowledge and express their feelings.

People who have experienced abuse may need to recognize past abuse and start to feel their own needs and emotions again.

Finally, both parties in a codependent relationship must learn to acknowledge specific behavior patterns, such as “needing to be needed” and expecting the other person to center their life around them.

These steps are not easy but are worth the effort to help both parties discover how to be in a balanced, two-sided relationship.

Codependency can occur in romantic, platonic, or familial relationships. It involves a harmful level of dependency in which a person centers their entire life around the other person’s needs and desires at their own expense.

People in codependent relationships may find no satisfaction if they are not doing something for the other person and may feel guilty or reluctant to share their own needs or desires.

Healthcare professionals can help people identify and manage codependency. This process may involve individual or group therapy combined with lifestyle changes, such as trying new hobbies and spending time with people outside the relationship.