Codependency and Enabling

What is Codependency and Enablement?

Codependency and enablement are two different things. However, they can often go hand-in-hand. Get to know the common signs of the two and ways to avoid a codependent or enabling relationship.


The term ‘codependency’ refers to the emotional and physical reliance a person forms on another person. It can be found in familial, friendly, or romantic relationships. In codependent relationships, the reliance dynamic causes a harmful and unbalanced interaction between the individuals. 

A codependent person may neglect their own wants and needs by placing more attention and effort on those of the other person. By not establishing healthy boundaries and expectations, one person often ends up giving far more than they receive in the relationship. 

Thus, one person assumes the role of the ‘Giver’ and the other the ‘Receiver.’ This can result in an abusive relationship, because the individual being depended upon may feel that they can get away with almost anything.

The underlying dynamic between the two people can become deeply grounded in fear. The  ‘Giver’s’ over-earnestness to please often sets unrealistic and/or unhealthy expectations for their future actions. In this way, they trap themselves in a cycle of needing to compete or keep up with their own established standards and fear of consequences that may occur if they do not perform as usual.

By not establishing healthy boundaries and expectations, one person often ends up giving far more than they receive in the relationship.

When a codependent person does not regularly express their feelings, they can have a hard time recognizing where the line between the other person’s emotions ends and theirs begins. One person’s identity becomes intertwined with another person’s when they are not able to be expressive. This self-neglect and lack of individualism can lead to a multitude of other problems.

Codependency vs. Dependency

Humans are social creatures. We rely on each other on both a local and global level to survive and thrive. In a healthy relationship, two people rely on each other for various needs. So long as there is balance and reciprocity, the relationship can be mutually beneficial. This mutuality in an interdependent relationship is what creates value and support in the relationship for both parties. 

A codependent relationship, on the other hand, is unbalanced, under-reciprocated, and creates over-dependence. A ‘Giver’ will sacrifice confidence, self-care, and ambition to an unhealthy degree for the other person. 


Enabling behavior, in simplest terms, is doing something for a loved one that they should be doing for themselves. Enablement typically starts as an effort to show support and care to someone while they are having a hard time. However, this support is done in a way that promotes unhealthy habits and behaviors. 

Some relationships have both enablement and codependency dynamics at play. This might look like a person who puts their own wants and needs aside to help a person struggling with addiction, but the type of help they offer only allows the person to continue their habit with fewer consequences. The situation can quickly become out of control, especially when substance abuse is a factor in the relationship.

Helping vs. Enabling 

When a loved one develops a serious problem, it is typically our first instinct to help them in the best ways we know how. However, It can be tricky to differentiate when we are helping a loved one or supporting poor behavior. 

Enabling behavior, in simplest terms, is doing something for a loved one that they should be doing for themselves.

Truly helping someone is pulling them from the clutches of substance abuse, mental illness, abusive tendencies, etc. Enabling and reinforcing bad habits and behaviors will only prolong their personal struggles.

What Enabling Looks Like

Though you may feel like you are being helpful to a loved one, it is all-too-easy to become a ‘crutch’ for them that aids in their addiction. 

Signs of Enablement 

Some common signs of enablement include: 

  • Protecting a person from the consequences of addiction by covering for them or telling lies to prevent them from inevitable consequences
  • Keeping secrets about poor behavior, abuse, or addiction and failing to alert other loved ones of a serious problem in effort to avoid drawing attention to the matter
  • Making excuses for a loved one. For example, a person may call in sick to work or school for the other person when they are actually hungover
  • Taking on responsibilities for the other person—such as cleaning or child care—when the addicted individual is failing at fulfilling their daily duties
  • Providing financial assistance such as giving money that will be used to support reckless, harmful, impulsive, or lazy behavior

When we think of enablement, we typically think of it in terms of substance abuse. Enablement, however, can mean supporting an array of other addictive or compulsive behaviors such as gambling, shopping, eating, hoarding, etc. The effects may not be as apparent, extreme, or socially unacceptable as substance abuse, these behaviors can interfere with personal and professional life and even result in emotional, physical, relational, and financial harm.

What Codependency Looks Like

Codependency is commonly referred to as “relationship addiction”. It is a behavioral and emotional condition that prevents a functional, healthy relationship from developing. A codependent person can oftentimes find themselves in dangerous circumstances due to their desperate need for approval from another. It is important to recognize warning signs of a codependent relationship, and take proactive steps to stop it from continuing. 

Signs of Codependency

Codependency is expressed in a variety of ways. At times, people do not fully recognize the severity of their codependency or that it is even occurring at all. This is because a person may have had a long line of codependent relationships, or be so deep in the dysfunction that they do not recognize the state of the relationship. 

Codependency is commonly referred to as “relationship addiction”.

Common signs of a codependent relationship include:

  • Not following through with expectations and boundaries 
  • Prioritizing a loved one’s well-being over your own 
  • Disregarding ‘gut instincts’ 
  • Feeling lost or insecure without the other person
  • Denying problems in the relationship 
  • Turning to drugs or alcohol to deal with the stress and dysfunction of the relationship
  • Feeling responsible for the other person’s thoughts, actions, and feelings

Causes of Codependency

Codependent relationships can occur at any point in one’s life and in any type of relationship dynamic. Nonetheless, it is typically rooted in negative childhood experiences. A childhood surrounded by a dysfunctional family may experience a variety of codependency problems in adulthood. 

There are two extreme experiences most often linked to codependency: 

  • Overprotective parenting and coddling 
  • Repeatedly ignored pain, shame, or fear

These behaviors are typically passed down, generation to generation. They are learned behaviors that follow with unhealthy coping mechanisms. Codependent individuals often do not openly discuss their issues because they don’t want to ‘burden’ their loved ones. Without confrontation of these issues, the cycle of codependency and struggle typically continues for far too long.

Breaking the Cycles of Enabling and Codependency

Enablement and codependency are a sure sign that both individuals in the relationship need help. Either of these two unhealthy relationship dynamics can lead to obsessive behavior, unrealistic expectations, and even addiction. Even if these behaviors have been present for a long time, the cycles can be broken.

Treatment and Self-Care 

Whether you recognize signs of enablement, codependency, or both in any of your relationships, it is important to seek out help. Doing so is in the best interest of you and your loved one. 

By taking a step back from the relationship and involving a professional, you are welcoming the help and support needed for you and your loved one to recover. Contact us today so we can help start you on a journey to reclaiming healthy relationships.