Understanding Codependency Part One: Ten Signs and Symptoms of Codependency



Like many other significant mental health conditions, the term “codependency” is frequently used colloquially in various contexts. However, it’s crucial to delve into its origins and true meaning to gain a comprehensive understanding. In this article, I aim to provide clarity on the term’s background and authentic definition. Subsequently, we’ll explore the signs of codependency, enabling you to assess whether you might be entangled in a codependent relationship, and in part two, insights into what steps you can take to address it.


The term codependency has a rich history back to 1936, when Bill W. and Dr. Bob established Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and redefined alcoholism as a disease. This shift led to the creation of various 12-Step groups, including Al-Anon in 1951, which addressed the impact on families of those struggling with alcoholism. By the 1970s, treatment providers recognised the need to involve family members in the recovery process.




Chemical Dependency to Co-Dependent to Codependency


In the 1970s, treatment providers recognised the limitations of the medical model, which primarily focused on treating the alcoholic as an individual with a disease. Acknowledging the importance of social networks and family dynamics, treatment centres started including partners and family members in the alcoholism treatment process, resulting in lower relapse rates and extended periods of sobriety. In the early 1980s, the recognition of shared similarities between drug addictions and alcoholism led to the adoption of the term “chemical dependency” by various drug treatment programs. This unified approach allowed for a cohesive treatment paradigm, with “co-alcoholism” evolving into “co-chemically dependent” and eventually shortened to “co-dependent” to reflect these changes.


Initially, codependency referred to an individual’s compulsive inclination toward relationships with chemically dependent partners. According to Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse in her 1984 book ‘Co-Dependency an Emerging Issue’, someone is codependent if they are/were (a) in a romantic relationship with an alcoholic, (b) had alcoholic parents or grandparents, or (c) were raised in an emotionally repressed family. Over time, codependency evolved into the standard diagnostic term for partners of chemically dependent individuals or those enabling a friend or loved one. Consequently, addiction treatment centres started offering support and treatment services specifically for codependents, emphasising assistance during the treatment process and fostering understanding of their enabling role in the problem or disease.




Beyond Alcoholism


In the 1980s, the term codependency expanded beyond alcoholism to describe individuals who choose relationships with addicts or narcissists. Originally centred around enabling behaviours in chemically dependent individuals, codependency evolved to include a broader range of people who like to please and sacrifice themselves for others without reciprocation. This evolution in understanding paved the way for comprehensive treatment and support services for codependents from all walks of life.


Codependency is complex and often misunderstood. It can have profound effects on individuals’ mental and emotional well-being. It typically manifests in relationships where one person becomes excessively reliant on another for their sense of identity, self-worth, and emotional fulfilment. In his 2013 book, ‘The Human Magnet Syndrome’, Ross Rosenberg coined a concise definition of codependency.


“Codependency is a problematic relationship orientation that involves the relinquishing of power and control to individuals who are either addicted or who are pathologically narcissistic. Codependents are habitually attracted to people who neither seem interested nor motivated to participate in mutual or reciprocal relationships. Hence, the partners of codependents are often egotistical, self-centered and/or selfish. Typically, codependents feel unfulfilled, disrespected and undervalued by their relationship partner. As much as they resent and complain about the inequity in their relationships, codependents feel powerless to change them.”



Ten Signs of Codependency:


Low Self-Esteem: Codependents often have a diminished sense of self-worth, deriving their value from being needed by others and having few personal needs. 


Excessive Compliance: Overly compliant, codependents readily agree to suggestions, requests, or inappropriate orders, often at the expense of their own well-being.


Neglect of Personal Needs: Due to an excessive focus on the problems, struggles, and needs of others, trying to be everything to everybody, codependents regularly neglect their own needs. They may also find it difficult to identify and communicate their own emotions.


Devaluation of Own Goals: Codependents champion and support the needs, goals, and dreams of others, while ignoring or devaluing their own aspirations. They will also successfully solve the problems of others, but struggle to address their own issues due to a lack of motivation or capability.


Perpetual People Pleasing: As consistent people-pleasers, codependents always seek to help or lend a hand, and find it challenging to decline requests for assistance. Saying no makes them feel bad or guilty. Conversely, they are unable to ask for what they want or need, and feel selfish or needy when asking for help.


Over-Commitment in Relationships: Codependents tend to over-commit in relationships, creating excessive workloads and personal schedules that feel overwhelming. They may willingly conform to unrealistic and unreasonable relationship expectations, and often exhibit confusion between work and personal relationships.


Fearful of Conflict: Fearing and therefore avoiding disagreements and conflicts forces codependents to maintain harmony in relationships even at their own expense.


Difficulty Setting Boundaries: Codependents struggle to set firm boundaries, making it challenging for them to establish consequences when mistreated or abused. However, they may attempt to control or manipulate others who neglect them.


Pushing “Help” onto Others: To feel helpful, codependents may push their assistance onto others, sometimes intruding into personal boundaries.


Powerless to Protect Themselves: Codependents experience a sense of powerlessness in safeguarding themselves from harm, and are susceptible to manipulation and exploitation by individuals focused on their own interests.




Understanding codependency is a crucial step toward fostering healthier relationships and promoting personal well-being. We’ve explored the evolution of codependency from its historical roots in Alcoholics Anonymous, to a broader diagnostic term encompassing various relationships. We’ve delved into the signs and symptoms of codependency, and shed light on the complex nature of this relationship orientation. In the next part of this series, I will focus on practical insights and strategies for those who recognise codependency in their lives. We will discuss effective steps one can take to address codependency and cultivate more balanced, fulfilling relationships.


Codependency frequently pops into my personal discussions. When I shared the idea of this blog post with a friend, she revealed she had composed additional verses for Dolly Parton’s song ‘Jolene.’ After seeking her permission to add them to my post, she graciously agreed. For a bit of fun, you can find the new verses starting from approximately 1 minute and 45 seconds into the song.