What is Co-Dependency and How to Recognize It 

You have likely heard the term co-dependency before, but what exactly is co-dependency?

Some behavioral surveys suggest that roughly 90 percent of the American population shows at least some form of co-dependent behavior. 

90 percent!

That is a staggering number!

And it means the chances are high that you or someone you know is participating in a co-dependent relationship. 

Co-dependent relationships exist not only in romantic partnerships.

They encompass all types of relationships and can include relationships between: 

  • Friends
  • Siblings
  • Spouses
  • Colleagues
  • Parents and (grown) children
  • Any many others

This article will examine what co-dependency means, how to recognize it, and how to break free from co-dependency. 

What is Co-Dependency?

Melody Beattie was the first pioneer of co-dependency investigation and wrote the earliest literature on the subject. 

She wrote her first book, Co-Dependent No More, over 30 years ago and has sold over seven million copies worldwide.

In 2020, Melody revised her best-selling work to include a broader scope of co-dependency and the possible underlying causes for this dysfunctional relationship behavior. 

Her most recent, updated definition of co-dependency is: 

Anyone who consistently loves someone else more than or to the detriment of loving themself. 

This definition seems simplistic, but it is quite complex given the vast and transient meanings of the culturally biased word love.  

 So let’s try an experiment. 

Replace the words loves and loving in the definition above with any of the following combinations:

  • Helps/Helping
  • Prioritizes/Prioritizing
  • Is concerned with/Being concerned with 
  • Controls/Controlling 
  • Enables/Enabling
  • Is obsessed with/Being obsessed with 
  • Caretaking of/Caretaking for 
  • Is Angered by/Being angered by 
  • Takes responsibility for/Taking responsibility for 

These words and phrases look and feel quite different from the word love. 

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And yet, any of them still perfectly fits the definition of co-dependent behavior.

So in analyzing this definition further, we’ve uncovered what a broad spectrum of behavior the term co-dependency covers and why it might be applied to such a wide variety of relationship structures. 

As you can see, the problem is complex.

It’s an umbrella term that describes an array of dysfunctional relationships, all of which have one thing in common.  

They all include one person using another’s life/behaviors/choices as an excuse for why they don’t have control/happiness/peace in their own life.  

Co-dependency is trying to control your life, and your emotions about your life, by controlling someone else’s life circumstances. 

Anytime your ability to fully love yourself, make the best decisions for you, be happy, or have peace in your life is hindered by a relationship dynamic you have with another person, this is co-dependency.

How to Recognize Co-Dependency 

Often it’s easy to see co-dependency in other people’s relationships. 

It’s never as complicated to assess something from the outside looking in, with no personal experience to color the way you think or feel about it. 

Therefore, it is easy to spot the constant drama that is commonplace in co-dependent relationships when you’re an observer. 

However, seeing dysfunction in yourself or your relationships is difficult.

The many layers of personal connection and individualized experiences tied to your relationships makes looking at them objectively difficult. 

Your feelings, internal dialogue, and historical knowledge of the other person will always color the relationship experience for you in a way that makes it gray, vague, and hard to assess in an unapologetically honest way. 

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On a recent episode of the podcast, We Can Do Hard Things, Melody discussed with the hosts some classic signs that someone might be in a co-dependent relationship. 

This list is not all-inclusive, but it’s a good basis for identifying the common signals and emotions of co-dependent behavior:

  • Denial: of the relationship issues and the feelings created by them, like sadness or loneliness
  • Reactivity: being easily triggered by the other person and reacting in uncontrolled ways
  • Being a ‘Yes’ person: always saying yes to the other person when the true desire is to say no
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Repressing one’s needs/feelings
  • Feeling at the mercy of another’s actions

The Connection Between Addiction and Co-Dependency

Another way to identify if you or someone you know is in a co-dependent relationship is if addiction issues also play a role. 

According to Ms. Beattie, underneath their addiction, most addicts are just co-dependent people who use their addiction to medicate their own pain. 

And with addiction and relationships, being the addict isn’t the only sign of co-dependency. 

People who are not addicted to substances or vices, but participate in relationships with people who are, are also co-dependent within that relationship. 

Often those who engage in relationships with addicts feel they want to help the addict.

They need to “save” them, or feel responsible for the addict’s life consequences. 

This goes back to the definition of co-dependency.

Anyone who feels they can make their own life better by controlling, helping, obsessing about, or taking responsibility for another person’s life is co-dependent. 

How to Break Free From Co-Dependency

Now that we’ve learned just how prevalent co-dependent behavior is in American relationships and what the signs are, you’ve probably realized that co-dependency has touched your life. 

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Armed with this new information, you can examine your own relationships and the relationships of those around you and break free from the grasp of co-dependency. 

When asked what the single biggest thing a person could do to address co-dependency in their own relationship was, Ms. Beattie responded with this:

“One of the most important things we can do is to take responsibility for our own triggers, for what triggers us. Separate ourselves from that source, meditate or do something that calms us down so we’re not triggered, then have a discussion where we’re not blaming the other person for ruing our lives.” 

The key takeaway here is that we all need to focus on ourselves

Take responsibility for our own actions, stop blaming our feelings and circumstances on the actions of others, and get honest with ourselves about the part we play.

To do this, we need to practice a lot of acceptance.

Acceptance for ourselves and the other person, and acceptance of what is. 

Another way to look at this is to let go.

We must accept that it is solely up to us what our life looks and feels like and let go of the idea that our contentment relies upon another. 

Remember, nobody else’s life choices can dictate what we choose for ourselves. 

Happiness, peace, joy, fulfillment… all are possible and always available to us if we choose them for ourselves.

Please check out these toxic relationship quotes for more insight.

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Lia works as a meditation teacher, mentor, and spiritual guide for anyone seeking lasting happiness and fulfillment. After earning a bachelor's degree in health sciences from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, she spent 17 years as an entrepreneur in the food service industry. It was from fulfilling leadership and management duties in this industry that Lia became interested in what makes and keeps people happy. In her quest to uncover the golden rules of lasting happiness, she traveled to India and studied meditation at Ekam-Oneness, A World Center For Enlightenment, and then became a Certified Meditation Instructor with Chopra Global in 2020. Today, Lia combines her knowledge of science and spirit in classes and workshops on meditation and science-based spirituality practices. She writes to share information and insights about meditation, happiness, personal growth, healing, and self-discovery. Lia lives with her family in Montana, where she enjoys hiking, snowboarding, adventuring, and reveling in the beauty of the natural world.