Codependency refers to a psychological construct involving an unhealthy relationship that people might share with those closest to them.
It was originally thought to involve families of substance abuse but has since grown to include other types of dysfunctional relationships.
Read on to learn about what codependency is and how it can affect people, how to recognize signs of codependency, and resources for learning more about and overcoming codependency.
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What Is a Codependent Personality Disorder?
Originally, “the term ‘codependent’ described persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person” (Lampis et al., 2017).
Modern understandings of codependency now refer to “a specific relationship addiction characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence—emotional, social and sometimes physical—on another person.”
The concept of codependency does still apply to families with substance abuse issues but is used also to refer to other situations too. The main consequence of codependency is that “[c]odependents, busy taking care of others, forget to take care of themselves, resulting in a disturbance of identity development” (Knudson & Terrell, 2012).
Cermak (1986) argued that codependency should be defined in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), borrowing diagnostic criteria from alcohol dependence, dependent personality disorder (DPD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), histrionic personality disorder, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This argument was unsuccessful and the DSM-III-R (the next revision) did not include codependency as a personality disorder. The DSM-5, the newest edition of the manual, still only refers to DPD, not codependency.
Codependency does not only overlap with DPD but also with BPD, which is one reason some research has dismissed the idea of codependency making up its own personality disorder. One study found, though, that while codependent people do share some overlap with DPD and BPD symptoms, there are also people who exhibit codependency without exhibiting symptoms of DPD and BPD (Knapek et al., 2017).
Codependency can be distinguished from DPD because codependent people are dependent on a specific person(s), while people with DPD are dependent on others in general. Codependency can be distinguished from BPD; while BPD includes instability in interpersonal relationships, it does not involve dependence on other people.
To sum up, codependency is a psychological concept that refers to people who feel extreme amounts of dependence on certain loved ones in their lives, and who feel responsible for the feelings and actions of those loved ones. Codependency is not recognized as a distinct personality disorder by any version of the DSM, including the DSM-5, the most recent version.
That said, research shows that while codependency does overlap with other personality disorders, it does appear to constitute a distinct psychological construct. The best way to learn about codependency is to review some of the signs of codependency.
20 Signs Of Codependency
What does codependency actually look like? Some of the things that have been found to correlate with codependency include (Marks et al., 2012):
- Low self-esteem;
- Low levels of narcissism;
- Familial dysfunction;
- Low emotional expressivity.
Other signs of codependency include (Lancer, 2016; Mental Health America, n.d.):
- Having a hard time saying no;
- Having poor boundaries;
- Showing emotional reactivity;
- Feeling compelled to take care of people;
- Having a need for control, especially over others;
- Having trouble communicating honestly;
- Fixating on mistakes;
- Feeling a need to be liked by everyone;
- Feeling a need to always be in a relationship;
- Denying one’s own needs, thoughts, and feelings;
- Having intimacy issues;
- Confusing love and pity;
- Displaying fear of abandonment.
Codependency Quiz & Tests
The simple presence of the above signs does not mean someone is codependent, but a high number of these signs may indicate codependent tendencies.
One way to do this is with codependency tests, like these:
Friel Co-Dependency Assessment Inventory from Mental Health America of Northern Kentucky and Southwest Ohio (1985)
This test consists of 60 true-or-false questions. A score below 20 is little need for concern, a score between 21-30 should be a moderate need for concern, a score between 31-45 is moderate towards a severe need for concern, and a score over 46 indicating a severe need for concern.
Codependency Test from Hamrah
This test consists of 26 simple yes-or-no questions that can get one to start thinking about codependency in their own relationships. Answering yes to five or more questions indicates that the test-taker may be codependent.
This is not a professional diagnosis, but it is a good way to start evaluating codependent behaviors in one’s own life.
Are You in a Codependent Relationship?
This article from WebMD serves as a sort of open-ended quiz about whether or not one is in a codependent relationship and suggestions for what to do next. With input from psychologists, it offers up a few signs of codependent relationships to get the reader thinking about whether or not their relationship is codependent.
Characteristics of Codependent People
A checklist by Melody Beattie consisting of over 200 items has been adapted into a shorter version, called the Beattie Codependency Checklist, which has been used in peer-reviewed research on codependency (Wells et al., 1999).
There is no scale at the end which determines the taker’s level of codependency, as it is rather meant to contextualize a vast set of behaviors and thoughts into a codependency framework.
5 Books About Codependency
For people who want to learn more about codependency, here are some great books about codependency. These books are particularly helpful for people who fear they are codependent and want to overcome their codependency.
1. Codependency For Dummies – Darlene Lancer (2015). 2nd Edition.
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This book, from a licensed marriage and family therapist, can be an excellent introduction to codependency for people who do not know a single thing about codependency.
The book is aimed at people who think they might be codependent and includes a number of actionable tips one can take to break their codependence.
Available on Amazon.
2. The Language of Letting Go: Daily Meditations for Codependents – Melody Beattie
This book, by codependency expert Melody Beattie, is a handbook for people who are codependent.
This book is full of daily meditations and focuses on self-esteem, acceptance, health, and recovery. This is a good option for anyone who knows they are codependent and wants to do something about it.
Available on Amazon.
3. Breaking Free of the Co-Dependency Trap – Janae B. Weinhold Ph.D., Barry K. Weinhold, & John Bradshaw (2008)
This book by a married psychologist couple is all about codependency and how to break out of it.
The authors first discuss how codependency develops in people, and how one’s childhood can ultimately lead to codependency. The authors then focus on helping the reader out of codependency.
This is a good option for anyone who wants to understand their codependency, not just how to fix it.
Available on Amazon.
4. The Everything Guide to Codependency: Learn to recognize and change codependent behavior – Jeniffer Sowle (2014)
This book from a clinical psychologist aims to help people who think they are codependent.
In it, the author helps the reader recognize signs of codependency in their own behavior (and the behavior of the people around them), then helps the reader work through their own codependent or enabling behaviors, as well as the codependent or enabling behaviors of their partner.
This is a good option for learning how to recognize codependency in oneself, as well as learning how to identify and avoid codependent behaviors in the future.
Available on Amazon.
5. You’re Not Crazy – You’re Codependent: What Everyone Affected by Addiction, Abuse, Trauma or Toxic Shaming Must know to have peace in their lives – Jeanette Elisabeth Menter (2012)
Finally, this book is written by someone who has struggled with codependency in their own life.
It aims to help people who have had traumatic experiences in their past figure out if some of their problems stem from codependency.
Then, for people who are struggling with codependency, the book offers a variety of ways to overcome it.
Available on Amazon.
Codependency Treatment: 3 Codependency Worksheets
Books can be invaluable resources, but it can take some time to get through them.
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For people who want to start right away, here are some useful worksheets for learning about codependency, as well as treating and overcoming it.
1. Codependency Questionnaire
This Codependency Questionnaire is a good option for a short overview of common behaviors and feelings linked to codependency. It contains 20 items designed to get people thinking about codependency in their own lives.
While not a substitute for clinical diagnosis, it can be a good starting point.
2. Shifting Codependency Patterns
This worksheet is a helpful way to identify some emotional and behavioral patterns and tendencies that are related to codependency. It contrasts unhealthy ways that people with codependency think about themselves with healthier ways that people think about themselves.
This worksheet is an actionable way to shift thought and action patterns to begin recovering from codependency.
3. Codependent Relationships: Beliefs, Attributes, and Outcomes
Finally, Codependent Relationships – Beliefs, Attributes, and Outcomes is a brief, informal checklist that is broken down into the beliefs, attributes, and outcomes of codependent behaviors in relationships. While not a formal test, it is a good way to evaluate codependent behaviors and thoughts in one’s interpersonal interactions, as well more generally in life.
This delves into healthy versus codependent thought patterns and behaviors.
Codependent Parents: Consequences for Children
Codependency was originally thought of as a disorder that affected the children and spouses of alcoholics and substance abusers.
Research has shown that codependency is not unique to the children (or spouses) of alcoholics, though, as many types of family difficulties can lead to codependency (Cullen & Carr, 1999).
In fact, having a codependent parent can lead a child to codependency as well.
This is due to the tendency that people who have been “parentified” as children are more likely to be codependent (Wells et al., 1999). The concept of parentification refers to “the reversal of the parent-child role,” or when a child is forced to serve in a parental or care-taking role towards their own parent.
This is usually due to the parent not having had their own developmental needs met while they were growing up.
Since these codependent children grow up not having their developmental needs met either, this can create a cycle of codependency passed down from generation to generation.
Being codependent can be particularly harmful for parents of addicted children (Clearview Treatment Programs, n.d.). Codependent parents of addicted children can enable their children’s addictions, even when they think they are helping.
This is one of the ways that codependency can be especially tricky – often people with these tendencies believe they are being helpful, or that their actions are necessary for the other person in the relationship.
The most effective treatment for codependency is therapy, whether group or individual, to understand the ways in which someone feels they must care-take for another’s emotional state.
This work can be hard to identify in ourselves, so having a supportive professional help us untangle these relationships can be crucial.
A Take-Home Message
For years, the concept of codependency has been criticized for being ill-defined, but over the last few decades, the construct of codependency has become more well-defined and well-researched, as it has been fitted with an empirical base.
Most importantly, codependency has been recognized as a relationship dynamic that affects people with all sorts of childhood trauma, not just the children or spouses of alcoholics or substance abusers.
For people who are codependent, there are plenty of ways to overcome codependency. Aside from seeking professional help, there are all sorts of worksheets and books (such as the ones highlighted above) by people who have overcome codependency. The most important thing to remember is that while everyone has loved ones and feels responsible for those loved ones, it can be unhealthy when one hinges their identity on someone else.
Ultimately, everyone is responsible for their own actions and feelings.
What is your experience with codependency? Are there relationships in your life in which you or the other person tend to exhibit codependent tendencies? Are their relationships from cultural movies or TV shows that provide examples of these kinds of relationships?
We’d love to hear your input in the comments section below.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
If you want more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
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