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Co-dependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive. The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. Co-dependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.

Who Does Co-dependency Affect?

Co-dependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence. Originally, co-dependent was a term used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals. Today, however, the term has broadened to describe any co-dependent person from any dysfunctional family.

What is a Dysfunctional Family and How Does it Lead to Co-dependency?

A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied. Underlying problems may include any of the following:

  • An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.
  • The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
  • The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.

Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. They don’t talk about them or confront them. As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. They become “survivors.” They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves. They don’t talk. They don’t touch. They don’t confront. They don’t feel. They don’t trust. The identity and emotional development of the members of a dysfunctional family are often inhibited

Attention and energy focus on the family member who is ill or addicted. The co-dependent person typically sacrifices his or her needs to take care of a person who is sick. When co-dependents place other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self.

How Do Co-dependent People Behave?

Co-dependents have low self-esteem and look for anything outside of themselves to make them feel better. They find it hard to “be themselves.” Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine - and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like workaholism, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity.

They have good intentions. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the caretaking becomes compulsive and defeating. Co-dependents often take on a martyr’s role and become “benefactors” to an individual in need. A wife may cover for her alcoholic husband; a mother may make excuses for a truant child; or a father may “pull some strings” to keep his child from suffering the consequences of delinquent behavior.

The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy caretaking of the “benefactor.” As this reliance increases, the co-dependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” When the caretaking becomes compulsive, the co-dependent feels choiceless and helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it. Co-dependents view themselves as victims and are attracted to that same weakness in the love and friendship relationships.

Characteristics of Co-dependent People Are:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
  • An extreme need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • Lack of trust in self and/or others
  • Fear of being abandoned or alone
  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries
  • Chronic anger
  • Lying/dishonesty
  • Poor communications
  • Difficulty making decisions

Questionnaire To Identify Signs Of Co-dependency

This condition appears to run in different degrees, whereby the intensity of symptoms are on a spectrum of severity, as opposed to an all or nothing scale. Please note that only a qualified professional can make a diagnosis of co-dependency; not everyone experiencing these symptoms suffers from co-dependency.

1. Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?

2. Are you always worried about others’ opinions of you?

3. Have you ever lived with someone with an alcohol or drug problem?

4. Have you ever lived with someone who hits or belittles you?

5. Are the opinions of others more important than your own?

6. Do you have difficulty adjusting to changes at work or home?

7. Do you feel rejected when significant others spend time with friends?

8. Do you doubt your ability to be who you want to be?

9. Are you uncomfortable expressing your true feelings to others?

10. Have you ever felt inadequate?

11. Do you feel like a “bad person” when you make a mistake?

12. Do you have difficulty taking compliments or gifts?

13. Do you feel humiliation when your child or spouse makes a mistake?

14. Do you think people in your life would go downhill without your constant efforts?

15. Do you frequently wish someone could help you get things done?

16. Do you have difficulty talking to people in authority, such as the police or your boss?

17. Are you confused about who you are or where you are going with your life?

18. Do you have trouble saying “no” when asked for help?

19. Do you have trouble asking for help?

20. Do you have so many things going at once that you can’t do justice to any of them?

If you identify with several of these symptoms; are dissatisfied with yourself or your relationships; you should consider seeking professional help. Arrange for a diagnostic evaluation with a licensed physician or psychologist experienced in treating co-dependency.

How is Co-dependency Treated?

Because co-dependency is usually rooted in a person’s childhood, treatment often involves exploration into early childhood issues and their relationship to current destructive behavior patterns. Treatment includes education, experiential groups, and individual and group therapy through which co-dependents rediscover themselves and identify self-defeating behavior patterns. Treatment also focuses on helping patients getting in touch with feelings that have been buried during childhood and on reconstructing family dynamics. The goal is to allow them to experience their full range of feelings again.

When Co-dependency Hits Home

The first step in changing unhealthy behavior is to understand it. It is important for co-dependents and their family members to educate themselves about the course and cycle of addiction and how it extends into their relationships. Libraries, drug and alcohol abuse treatment centers and mental health centers often offer educational materials and programs to the public.

A lot of change and growth is necessary for the co-dependent and his or her family. Any caretaking behavior that allows or enables abuse to continue in the family needs to be recognized and stopped. The co-dependent must identify and embrace his or her feelings and needs. This may include learning to say “no,” to be loving yet tough, and learning to be self-reliant. People find freedom, love, and serenity in their recovery.

Hope lies in learning more. The more you understand co-dependency the better you can cope with its effects. Reaching out for information and assistance can help someone live a healthier, more fulfilling life.

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codependency definition - Factors Leading to Codependency


1. Lack of love and nurture during childhood developmental years.

2. Rejection and abandonment of parents or primary care giver.

3. An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.

4. The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

5. The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.


  • Examples of dysfunctional families are ones in which a member has a serious problem with alcohol or drugs. In order to keep the family afloat, while meanwhile avoiding confronting the addicted family member, other members develop unhealthy or unnatural roles. For example, the child adopts the parenting role, taking care of the needs of his alcoholic mother who is incapable of taking care of herself or her child. Or the wife assumes total responsibility for the home’s finances and taking care of the children to make up for the addicted husband’s refusal or inability to lend support in these areas. Another example where codependency may also develop is when one family member is chronically ill or depressed or has an explosive temper, or when there is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect in the home. Anything that forces a family member to give up their own emotional health in order to keep peace, satisfy, or attempt to rescue or cover for another family member can lead to the person developing codependency disorder.
  • Children who have been raised in dysfunctional or addicted families tend to develop certain character traits that lead to codependency. Having been brought up in an environment lacking love and nurture, they are missing the foundations that promote development of self-esteem and an authentic identity. Not having been taught healthy ways to cope with life’s problems, they are more likely to resort to addictions or to develop personality disorders. Because as children they were raised in an unsafe environment, their emotional needs have been seldom met. As a result, they grow up lacking a sense of their own identity and worth as human beings, which results in them feeling less than and adopting a victim role in life. As adults, they believe they have no right or choice over how to conduct their lives. In addition, not having had healthy role models and relationships to emulate, their own relationships are bound to be fraught with abuse and dysfunction. For example, if a child’s emotional needs are not sufficiently satisfied, he may become overly dependent and go through life trying to please others to gain the love he missed as a child. If a parent is overprotective, a child may never learn to stand on his or her own feet emotionally and intellectually. If parents are perfectionistic, the child believes nothing he or she does is ever good enough. And if the parents rely excessively on guilt and shame motivation, the child learns to feel selfish for trying to have his or her needs met. Any of these patterns can leave a child with a lack of a healthy sense of identity and self-esteem, which leads to the development of codependency.

Overview of codependency

  • Even though the term codependency has been used for many years, there still is no one set definition to fully explain the disorder. There are many characteristics associated with this type of behavioral addiction, but as a general guideline the criteria that describes a person to be a codependent are:


Criteria of Codependents


1. Absence of relationship with self: An absence of relationship with one’s self. Codependents suffer from low self-esteem and self worth. They know little about their inner life, their needs, wants, and desires.

2. Dependency on others: A dependency on others, or relationships where the unspoken aim is a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

3. Compulsive helping: A lack of clarity about what they are responsible for, and what is not their business. Codependents try to control others through their compulsive helping in order to feel safe themselves.

4. People pleasing: A pattern of pleasing others at the cost of disregarding their own needs and wants.


  • A codependent person’s addiction to his or her relationships takes many forms. The codependent may come across as very caring, offering to help and or taking responsibility to solve the problems of other people. They may present themselves as martyrs; disclaiming any needs of their own, while acting as if their sole purpose in life is to serve others. They may come across as victims, seemingly helpless and submissive, giving the impression as if they are desperate for others to save and rescue them. Or they may come across as predators and aggressors trying to control and abuse others. But the foundation of all behaviors demonstrated by codependents is the core belief that they are not capable or worthy enough to cope with their life on their own and that they need others in order to justify or fulfill their existence. This type of faulty belief fundamentally stems from them having little sense of their own value and worth as authentic human beings.
  • Codependents do not see themselves as fully functioning adults with the resources and tools to cope with life. So they look towards their relationships to provide the strength and competence that they believe they lack. A codependent person has lost the connection to his or her core self. They are unsure about their identity and are often unaware of their needs, wants or desires in life. As a result they become dependent on others to provide them with a sense of identity and purpose. In addition to using their relationships as a way to cope with life, codependents may also use other types of addictions — such as to drugs, alcohol, gambling or food — to fill the void they feel inside. In place of esteem for themselves that is internally rooted, codependents base their self worth on what other people think or feel about them. Their sense of worth and value comes from how good and helpful they are in their relationships or how much others like and praise them. Unlike a normal person who believes they are enough and lovable as they are, a codependent lacks this core belief about him or herself. As a result, they dismiss their humanity and integrity, living their lives at the mercy of getting approval from others. Instead of meeting their own needs, they meet the needs of others. Instead of responding to their own thoughts and feelings, they react to those of others. Whether through helping, manipulating or controlling behaviors, codependents use their relationships as a means to boost their self worth and esteem. Their motivation in forming any relationship is not based on mutual love and support but how that relationship is going to attribute to their sense of identity and well-being.
  • It needs to be noted that we all need our relationships to live full and satisfying lives. The problem with a codependent is that their goal in a relationship is based on something other than equality and mutual love and support. Unbeknown to them, most codependents have a hidden agenda in their relationships, which is to validate their worth and identity. In short, they use people to provide the love they should be giving themselves. A codependent is much like a child, a child who is still looking to others to provide them with a feeling of love, safety and security. The attributes instilled during childhood in healthy adults are missing with a codependent, so as grown-ups, they still turn towards others to care and fulfill their needs. Because they were raised in addicted or dysfunctional families and have seldom witnessed healthy interactions between their parents, a codependent tends not to know what a healthy and interdependent relationship looks like. The result is they cannot differentiate between healthy caregiving and codependent enabling, or understand the boundaries between responsibility towards self and responsibility to others. A codependent finds it difficult to emotionally detach from others. Having not been able to develop their full identity as children, they find it difficult to distinguish where they end and another starts. Living as children in adult bodies, codependents look to those with whom they have relationships as parent figures, and therefore as the means to instill their sense of value and worth as human beings. The result is their relationships are always lopsided — unequal and bound to be unhealthy, dysfunctional, or abusive.
  • Communication is another area where codependents have major problems. Not having been able to find stability and safety in the relationship with their parents or primary caregivers in their developmental years, as adults they tend to fear abandonment and rejection and are petrified to trust and communicate honestly with others. They have difficulty saying no without feeling guilty and when they say yes to that which they do not want, they get resentful. Their biggest fear is verbalizing their own needs and wants. They imagine that if they give voice to their needs and wants they will face rejection, ridicule, punishment or abandonment – the very things they experienced often in their childhood years. So instead of the feelings of confidence and entitlement that an adult has to communicate honestly with another, a codependent, lacking these resources, ends up undermining their own integrity and communicates in ways to please or to avoid upsetting others. Because of faulty values instilled in them as children, a codependent may think it is selfish to assert their rights and communicate honestly with others. This is even more so where a person raised in Middle Eastern countries is brought up to believe it is wrong to put one’s own interest first and take care of one’s own needs first. But for a person, living upon such misguided values means relationships based in dishonesty and a lifetime spent in misery and codependency.  

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