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The Causes of Codependency


Human emotions are complicated. When we see a loved one suffering, it is human nature to want to help alleviate their pain. When the need to help another person supersedes your own needs, this is called codependency. Codependency defines a relationship in which one partner has intense physical or emotional needs, and the other partner spends the majority of their time responding to those needs. This often comes to the detriment of the codependent partner’s life, activities, and other relationships.

Codependency can lead to a negative spiral in which the codependent partner cares for and accommodates their loved one’s issues, enabling the loved one to maintain their challenging or destructive behaviors.

In a normal, healthy relationship, the people involved can get their emotional needs met by both their connection and other outside sources such as hobbies, interests, and friendships outside of their relationship.

In a codependent relationship, the balance of emotional fulfillment is off. Often, this means that one person gives while the other person takes. Both parties involved begin to accept their respective roles and need each other to feel “complete.”

Now that we understand what a codependent relationship looks like, let’s talk about possible reasons codependent tendencies may develop.

Childhood and Cause of Codependency

Like many psychological traits, both positive and negative, codependent tendencies may be rooted in the childhood experience. As children, we form our basis for healthy relationships based on our relationships with parents and other family members. Codependency issues typically develop when someone is raised by parents who are either overprotective or under protective.

Overprotective parents may shield or protect their children from gaining the confidence they need to be independent in the world. In such situations, a child may grow up to be scared of trying new things. For example, a parent may have forbidden you from learning to skateboard for fear of you getting hurt. This seems reasonable and parental protection is a natural response up to a point but can have many negative psychological consequences if it becomes intensely overbearing.

Another form of overprotective parenting can come in the form of coddling to the extent that a child never learns basic life skills. If a child is never taught basic life skills, it makes sense that they will seek someone to fill those responsibilities in adulthood. To view examples of this type of unhealthy parenting, observe any freshman college dorm. Within the first few weeks of dorm life, it will become apparent who was given the skills they need to begin an independent life. Many college students will find themselves in a difficult situation, having never been taught how to do simple things such as wash their clothes.

On the other side of the parenting spectrum, we see many cases of under protective parents. These types of parents can help build the foundation for codependency by not providing enough support in development. In a healthy parent-child relationship, we see a solid foundation of confidence that allows a child to build independence at a healthy rate over several years. When this is not the case, a child may end up feeling very alone and unsafe in the world. Many children of under protective parents may end up overcompensating by becoming very resistant to any guidance or support.

We often see that many children coming from households with parents that have substance use problems may have issues with codependency themselves later in life. This may be due to their familiarity with neglecting their own needs for the needs of another person. In these situations, the parent-child relationship is reversed and the child is the primary caregiver for their parent. It happens more often than you may think.

Children raised in unhealthy households may have an inherent need to satisfy those around them. They may also seek emotional fulfillment from the satisfaction of other people. As children, we are often at the mercy of our household situation. As adults, we’re free to break the cycle of codependency.

Codependency issues often go hand in hand with substance use and other mental health conditions in what is known as a co-occurring disorder.

Codependent Relationships From Childhood to Adulthood

Children raised in the scenarios above may see codependency manifest itself in any number of ways when they reach adulthood. Below we will outline some ways that codependency issues may play out in everyday adult life:

Boundary Issues

Someone raised in an unhealthy household may have a skewed sense of boundaries. This can go either way. Their boundaries may be so fragile that they give in too easily and are treated like a “doormat.” Their boundaries can also be so strong that they shut people out entirely, making healthy relationships incredibly difficult.

Underlying Guilt

Another common issue with people from unhealthy situations is a constant feeling of underlying guilt. They may feel guilty about not being able to fix their situation at home which leads to extreme feelings of guilt when something good happens to them. This guilt may lead them to feel like they don’t deserve to be happy.

Trust Issues

A childhood full of habitual lies and let-downs may lead to an adulthood full of issues trusting people. These people may always be questioning the motivations of people close to them, leading to difficulty in forming fulfilling relationships. This may lead to extreme feelings of isolation or loneliness in adulthood.

Control Issues

A codependent person may be overly preoccupied with control or responsibility. When a child is forced to grow up too fast and accept responsibilities beyond their age or maturation, this can lead to clinging to things that they can control when life gets chaotic. This can put a tremendous amount of strain on relationships.

Hypercritical Sense of Self

A codependent person may be incredibly critical of themselves. They may feel as though they are fundamentally flawed and this may have a very negative effect on their sense of self-esteem. These self-critical leanings may lead to a person feeling like they are unworthy of happiness.

We know that the issue of codependency is complicated so we’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions on the subject:

  • How do you know if you are in a codependent relationship?

If you’re in a codependent relationship you may have trouble making decisions on your own, identifying your feelings, and communicating. You may also seek approval from others and value their approval overvaluing yourself. People in codependent relationships may also have trouble trusting themselves and have poor self-esteem.

  • Why is codependency a bad thing?

Codependency can stand in the way of you having a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. People with codependency may often form or maintain one-sided, and often abusive, relationships.

  • What is a codependent person like?

A codependent person often seeks the approval of others before their self-approval. They may also have trouble communicating, making decisions, and have poor self-esteem.

  • How do I stop being codependent?

The first step in becoming independent is to understand what codependency looks like. Identifying the characteristics of codependency can help you form healthier relationship habits. It is also important to set boundaries in your relationships and resist the urge to control, fix, or save your partner. Talking to a licensed mental health professional is also a very effective way to break the habit of codependence.

Codependent tendencies may be the biggest obstacle faced by someone who is in recovery from substance use or mental health issues. It is important to know that even deep-seated codependency is very treatable with an outpatient treatment program

Here at SUN Behavioral Delaware, we understand the underlying issues that lead to codependency and we’re here to help you live a healthy and dignified life. 

Call us today at 302-604-5600 to speak with one of our compassionate healthcare professionals and get started on your road to recovery.

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