There are many misconceptions surrounding codependency. The name alone can  cause confusion. Some think “codependency” means a person is dependent upon another person for everything, or that they have to be in a relationship to be happy. While these dynamics might be present in a codependent relationship, this is not all there is to codependency. 

While not a diagnosed mental health disorder, codependency affects people to varying degrees. Learning the various ways that codependency might manifest can help you identify it in yourself, your partner, your family, or friends—and learn how to move past it. 

What is Codependency?

Most psychologists and therapists describe codependency as an ‘addiction to a relationship.’ The addiction is present even when—and often in spite of—the relationship being detrimental to a person’s mental health and well being. For those caught in a codependent bond, it can feel monumentally difficult to break free.

A codependent person will do anything to maintain the status quo in the relationship. They tend to cater to the needs of the other person in the relationship, while ignoring or disregarding their own needs.

Codependency is not just something that happens in romantic relationships; it’s often present in authority figure or caregiver relationships. Anytime a relationship or friendship is “one-sided”, it has a potential for codependency.

Most codependent relationships are described in terms of having a ‘giver' and a ‘taker’. One or both might not be fully aware of the skewed dynamic, but it exists nonetheless. 

Anytime a relationship or friendship is “one-sided”, it has a potential for codependency.

The ‘giver’ is the codependent one, doing everything in their power to keep the other person happy while the ‘taker’ contributes little-to-nothing to make their partner, friend, or family member happy. 

What Does Codependency Look Like?

Codependency is a set of thoughts and behaviors. These behaviors are most often learned early in life, and can be carried over into a number of relationships over time.

Behavior Patterns

The behaviors that a codependent person exhibits are done for the purpose of keeping the relationship intact. Things like placating, and agreeing to lessen conflict are the most obvious signs. Other codependent behavior patterns include:

  • Not setting boundaries
  • Assuming too much responsibility
  • Doing things for others when you’re not asked
  • Inserting yourself into other relationships of that person

All of these behaviors are harmful to your mental health. Being considerate of other people’s needs and emotions is a noble cause. However, prioritizing their happiness to the degree that your own emotional wellbeing and sense of self gets diminished is unhealthy. 

Thought Patterns

Why do people act in these harmful ways? Because codependent thought patterns go beyond wanting to be accepted. Some of these thoughts and desires include:

  • Fear of not being loved
  • Believing the other person’s thoughts are your own
  • Wanting permission for everything, even everyday tasks
  • Believing your self-worth is based on others' opinions of you
  • Believing their thoughts and beliefs are your own

As these thought patterns show, some codependent people aren’t addicted to a relationship but to relationships in general. They might assess their worth based on what they can give to another person.

What Causes Codependency?

Codependent thought patterns influence behavior, but those thoughts started somewhere. Typically, they begin in relationships where a person feels their love and acceptance has to be earned. It could happen in childhood or adulthood.

Attachment Trauma

Attachment to other humans is necessary for normal development, and the younger someone is, the more important these attachments are. 

However, if something disrupts this attachment, like an experience of sudden abandonment, the person who was left behind might feel like they are to blame. They might believe they didn’t love enough, or that they didn’t behave well. They will probably take steps in their other relationships to ensure that they aren’t abandoned again. 

More often than not, these original traumatizing events had nothing to do with what the codependent person did or didn’t do. Nevertheless, these thoughts still leave them with attachment trauma. This is particularly true when it happens in early childhood. 


Codependency was originally used to exclusively describe a dysfunctional relationship with someone that had a substance use disorder (SUD).

When feelings of love and attachment for someone are strong, it’s hard to accept that they have flaws. Codependency and enabling can go hand in hand. This often appears in the form of a codependent person denying their loved one’s addiction, or even actively helping them use their SUD in an effort to keep that person satisfied and in the relationship. 

Dysfunctional Family

Childhood trauma is the root cause of many mental health issues, including codependency. Abuse, addiction, or other stressful events that involve strained relationships can drastically warp the ways that someone views interpersonal relationships.

Sometimes, tragic circumstances like abuse can lead a child to believe that the only time they get any type of attention from a family member is when they are being abused. They take this thought pattern with them through adulthood, and thus remain in abusive relationships because of this skewed definition of love and acceptance.

The earlier that dysfunctional family dynamics begin, the more likely a child will develop codependent behaviors. Researchers have found that the time between six weeks and 11 months old are the most crucial for infants to form emotional attachments.

Patterns of Codependency

Codependency thought patterns can be categorized, and codependents may display some patterns but not others. How a person exhibits codependency depends on the nature of their past trauma. 

Codependents Anonymous uses the following patterns as a self-diagnosis tool, but they are valuable in understanding the complexities of codependent behaviors and thoughts:


A codependent person will deny their own needs and feelings. Not only do others’ needs come before their own, they may deny any negative feelings that come from being the giver in the relationship.

Sometimes that person won’t admit to themselves that they are in a codependent relationship and will claim that that their partner or caregiver is attending to their needs as well.

Low Self Esteem

Part of believing that your needs don’t matter in a relationship is believing that you don’t matter. A codependent person might have feelings of “never being good enough” that lead to needing the approval of others to simply exist.

Low self esteem patterns in codependent relationships are really a double-edged sword: The giver in the relationship seeks validation that they can’t give themselves, but they don’t feel valued enough by other people to ask for support.  


someone who is compliant takes others’ thoughts and opinions as their own.

Codependents Anonymous describes compliance patterns as misplaced loyalty. It might be the hallmark of codependent relationships, in that a person will maintain the relationship despite the harm it brings.

Compliance patterns are similar to denial patterns in that the giver in the relationship puts their own opinions and emotions to the side. However, compliance behavior comes from fear—fear that an individual’s opinions or personality are wrong, or that they will be judged or rejected for them.

Therefore, someone who is compliant takes others’ thoughts and opinions as their own. This mentality is often confused with empathy. True, they are “in tune” with the feelings of those around them, but they absorb them rather than reacting to them.


It may seem contradictory, but behaviors that avoid relationships or intimacy can be considered codependent as well. These can sometimes be caused through attachment trauma. Such a person has experienced feeling abandoned by someone they trusted, and don’t want it to happen again.

This still falls under the loose definition of ‘addiction to relationships,’ but in the case of avoidant behavior patterns, that doesn’t include intimate relationships. 

Someone showing avoidant behavior might keep others at arms distance, or refuse to disclose too much information about themselves. Every interaction is superficial. 


One particularly dangerous pattern of behaviors and thoughts are those of control patterns. These habits more actively put the codependent individual’s well-being in the hands of someone else, and almost weaponizes their emotions. People with control behavior patterns are often described as clingy.

For example, one behavior of a codependent is to insert themselves into someone else’s life and other relationships. When these intrusions are rejected, it can lead to resentment.  

Particularly in relationships involving SUDs, the giver might develop the thought pattern that their partner is incapable of taking care of themselves. They sacrifice everything to care for their partners, because they believe that they need it. 

Attachment Styles

The particular set of codependent behaviors that someone exhibits corresponds strongly to their attachment style. 

Attachment styles are developed in childhood, and describe how you approach relationships, often subconsciously. Opportunities to form attachments in early childhood influence attachment styles. 

Similar to the way that attachment trauma can lead to codependency, a lack of important attachments can also contribute to a person’s attachment style. When a child is young, how present or nurturing a caregiver is has impacts lasting well into adulthood. 

Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment

John Bowlby was the first to study attachment. He observed that the amount of nurturing and caregiving between children and their parents determines their level of attachment. The more nurturing and responsive a caregiver is, the more attached a child will become to them.

Bowlby observed that it is an evolutionary trait, as the infants involved in his studies reactively reached for their mothers when stressed. He believed that children are born with the desire for emotional bonds.

When a child is young, how present or nurturing a caregiver is has impacts lasting well into adulthood.

Ainsworth’s Attachment Styles

In the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth observed infants between the ages of 12 and 18 months when briefly left alone from their mothers. In her experiment called “Strange Situations,” she determined three attachment styles. Ainsworth discusses these styles referring to children, but they can be carried with a person into adulthood.

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment is the “healthiest” form. The child can count on their caregiver to react and provide support when needed. When the caregiver leaves, the child knows that they will return. 

Insecure Ambivalent or Resistant

Children who exhibit insecure ambivalent attachment are clingy. They don’t know that their caregiver will come back if left alone. Instead of exploring surroundings, they anxiously hang on to their parent.

Ainsworth noted that they were hard to soothe when aggravated due to anxiety about their caregiver leaving again.  

Insecure Avoident

This attachment style looks similar to avoidant codependency patterns. Children haven’t formed a deep bond with their caregiver. They won’t go to them when distressed, and choose other forms of entertainment by themselves. Generally this is learned when the child can’t count on their caregiver’s responses.

Disorganized Insecure

In 1986, researchers Main and Solomon determined a fourth attachment style called disorganized insecure. This happens when the reactions of the caregiver are inconsistent, or abusive. They inherently want the connection, but experience has taught them that it doesn’t exist.

If a child needs soothing, the caregiver might not give them any kind of reaction, they might get angry at the child, or be wildly inconsistent at whether they react appropriately or ignore them.

Dependent Personality Disorder

Dependent Personality Disorder, or DPD, is a diagnosable personality disorder that can occur alongside codependency. It also develops in childhood as a result of attachment trauma. 

A person with DPD will use other people to fulfill their emotional needs. Signs are similar to control behavior control patterns, including the clinginess, resentment or sensitivity from rejection. 

While these two things can be comorbid, they do have their differences. They both involve depending on others for their emotional state, but those with DPD will require, in a way, to be served. Instead of ignoring their own needs, they put them first. They feel that they need to be taken care of and their emotions are someone else’s responsibility. 

Because outside validation is the main component of codependency and DPD, they can get confused. People frequently mistake the signs of DPD as codependency.

How to Heal From Codependency

Because codependency is usually formed from trauma and anxiety, it can get better as those concerns are addressed and treated. Even if it does not appear to be severely impacting your life, it might be getting in the way of you having the fulfilling relationships that you deserve. 

If any of the above behavior or thought patterns sound familiar, reach out today to schedule a consultation. We’ll help you get on the right track and away from codependent thoughts and behaviors, so you can receive love in a healthy, mutually beneficial way.