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Answers to Your Questions About Codependency

If you have a close relationship with someone who has a substance abuse problem or another mental illness, you are at risk of being codependent. If you've been emotionally or physically abused, you are also at risk.

Codependency is an emotional and behavioral condition. If you are codependent, you may deny your loved one's harmful behavior. You may unknowingly even enable the harmful behavior to maintain the relationship, or to feel needed. Being codependent affects your ability to have a healthy, satisfying relationship.

Dysfunctional family

Q. What's the relationship between dysfunctional families and codependency?

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

  • An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, food, sex, or gambling

  • A history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse

  • A family member who suffers from a chronic mental or physical illness

Codependent family members bury their emotions. They ignore their own needs. They develop ways to cope that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions.

As a result, attention and caring is wholly focused on the family member who's ill or addicted. Other family members' needs are ignored.

Too much caretaking

Q. What's wrong with caring for someone who's abusing alcohol or drugs or has some other problem?

A. Nothing. When someone we care about is in pain, it's normal to try to help make the person's life better.

But, if you're codependent, you feel overly responsible for the troubled person's feelings and behaviors. You may feel rejected or  angry when your loved one doesn't accept your help.

As a codependent person, you continue to come to the rescue of the alcoholic or addict. But, by making excuses for that person or bailing him or her out when in trouble, you enable the person's addiction or behavior.

For example, a wife may cover for her alcoholic husband when he can't go to work. A mother may make excuses for a truant child. A father may pull some strings to keep his child from suffering the consequences of delinquent behavior.

You could be in a codependent relationship if you find yourself trying to control others or avoiding rejection at any cost.

What are the signs?

Q. How can you tell if you're codependent?

A. You may be codependent if you have:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others

  • A tendency to do more than your share, all of the time

  • An extreme need for approval and recognition

  • A tendency to become hurt when people don't recognize your efforts

  • A drive to do anything to hold on to a relationship

  • A sense of guilt when being assertive

  • A need to control others

  • A lack of trust in self and/or others

  • Difficulty identifying feelings

  • Problems with boundaries

If you see several of these traits in yourself, talk with a mental health provider. Codependency tends to be a learned behavior from families of origin. Treatment is available and can be effective in learning new ways to cope with situations that can feel overwhelming.

Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
Online Medical Reviewer: newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 2/3/2015
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