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What is Codependency?

What is Codependency?

You water down your Mom’s drink when she’s not looking.

You get out of bed at 2 AM to pick your ex-boyfriend up from the bar and drive him home.

You pay your sister’s rent after she loses her rent money gambling.


Are you codependent?

Codependency is a term we throw around lightly these days. It’s great that it’s become mainstream, but we’re not all using the same definition. Before I delve into some other topics related to codependency, I think it’s worth a post here to introduce the basic elements of codependency, as I see them.


What is codependency?

Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship pattern. It’s not a diagnosis.

People who identify as codependent usually play the role of “rescuer” in a relationship with someone who is impaired or ill in some way. You’re constantly trying to help, change, fix, or rescue. You derive self-esteem and purpose through helping. You, therefore, become attached to people who have problems of various sorts and need to be taken care of. Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern of dating or befriending people who need to be taken care of. However, your focus on helping creates an unbalanced relationship leaving your needs unmet.


It’s more than a desire to help

Codependency goes beyond a tremendous desire to help others. It’s called co-dependency because both people in the relationship are dependent on each other.

Although codependency came out of the substance abuse field, we now recognize that all kinds of impairments, such as mental illness, addiction, narcissism, or physical health problems, can also keep a person from functioning fully in a codependent relationship. This person is dependent on his or her partner/friend/family member* due to these impairments. The partner provides needed emotional, financial, or physical support. Often the ill partner has few, if any, other close relationships. S/he’s burned bridges, has poor social skills, or a difficult personality which has left him/her estranged from or isolated from other support people. S/he’s truly dependent on the co-dependent partner.


You can’t change your partner, but you’re a pro at keeping him/her from experiencing negative consequences

Rescuers tend to mitigate the negative consequences of their partner’s behavior. Therefore, your partner never experiences the full impact of his/her poor choices, dangerous, illegal, or immature behavior, and never learns or changes. Your partner unconsciously thinks,”Why should I change when my addiction brings me all this caretaking?” These problematic behaviors can continue for long periods of time in part because you enable them. Your rescuing actually erodes your partner’s motivation to change.

You become stuck in a dysfunctional pattern. The recurring problems and crises cement your bond.


You’re a slave to your fear and guilt

You feel guilty if you consider setting boundaries, limiting help, or ending the relationship. Another true sign of codependency is that your self-worth is so entangled with your partner that you’re afraid to say no. You’re afraid to let him/her suffer any consequences. Codependents are also “pleasers” with a high need to be liked, wanted or needed. You likely have low self-esteem, difficult asserting yourself, and fear of abandonment or being alone.


Care-taking becomes your identity

You become so wrapped up in your partner (and his/her problems) that you lose yourself in the process. You don’t know who you are without your role as rescuer and care-taker. You’re desperate to feel in control of an out of control partner and relationship. Underneath the fixing and helping, there is anger, shame, anxiety and pain.

You’ve created the perfect storm: Your partner doesn’t develop the skills or experience the consequences needed for change. S/he is dependent on your help. And you need your partner’s addiction or illness to feel good as a rescuer and care-taker. Plus your fear of abandonment keeps you tolerant of poor treatment, unmet needs, and unhappiness in your relationship.



*For simplicity, I use the term partner. But co-dependency can exist in any close relationship (parent-child, intimate partners, siblings, etc.).


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©Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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What is Codependency?

Sharon Martin, LCSW

Sharon Martin is a licensed psychotherapist and codependency expert practicing in San Jose, CA. She is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.  

To learn more, visit Sharon's website. And please sign-up for free access to her resource library HERE (worksheets, tips, meditations, and resources for healing codependency, perfectionism, anxiety and more).

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APA Reference
Martin, S. (2019). What is Codependency?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Mar 2019
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.