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What Is Codependency And How Do We Identify It?

In a world where many are not seeking drug addiction help for their addiction, we have to wonder if there are codependents who are suffering just as much.


While working with an individual or family affected by addiction, it is often difficult to identify authentic codependent relationships, especially since the definitions of codependency are as varied as the people it afflicts. In Psychology Today, Dr. Shawn M. Burn even quipped, “popular definitions of co-dependence are so broad that Jesus would be classified as codependent.”

As professionals in the world of drug addiction help, we are charged with identifying and addressing codependency. How can we do so when the concept of codependency fluctuates?  How can we build consensus on treating codependency if we don’t know what codependency is?  So, exactly what is codependency and how do we identify it?

What Is Codependency?

Codependency is an emotional and behavioral condition that prevents a person from living a healthy, productive life and from experiencing mutually-satisfying relationships, because the relationships are often one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.    

Dr. Shawn M. Burn further explains: “I prefer to think of codependent relationships as a specific type of dysfunctional helping relationship. Broadly speaking, in dysfunctional helping relationships, one person’s help supports (enables) the other’s underachievement, irresponsibility, immaturity, addiction, procrastination, or poor mental or physical health.”

According to Dr. Burn, a codependent or “dysfunctional helper” in a relationship with an addicted person:

  • Rescues the addicted person from self-imposed predicaments
  • Bears the negative consequences for them
  • Accommodates the unhealthy, dangerous or irresponsible behaviors associated with the addiction
  • Takes care of the addict to the extent he/she doesn’t develop or exhibit competencies normal for those of his/her age or abilities

It is important to note that codependency is a learned behavior that involves the helper becoming keenly empathetic to the other’s struggles.  It can also lead the helper to feel guilty about the thought of limiting or terminating the help and/or relationship.

How Do You Identify Codependency?

Now that we answered the question “what is codependency?” it is important to discuss how best to identify it in our patients and how to promote drug addiction help.

Co-Dependents Anonymous International outlines characteristics and patterns of co-dependent individuals who are involved with individuals suffering from addiction.

Included are a few patterns and characteristics:

  1. DenialCodependents often minimize, alter, deny or have difficulty identifying their feelings. Additionally, they view themselves as completely unselfish and dedicated to others, and think they can take care of themselves without any help.   
  2. Low Self-EsteemCodependents often have difficulty making decisions, judge what they think, say, or do harshly, view their actions as never good enough, and are embarrassed to receive recognition, praise, or gifts.
  3. ComplianceCodependents are often extremely loyal, thus, often remaining in harmful situations too long. They compromise their personal values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger, put aside their own interests in order to do what others want, and are hypervigilant regarding the feelings of others and often take on those feelings.
  4. AvoidanceCodependents often believe people are incapable of taking care of themselves, attempt to convince others what to think, do, or feel, freely offer advice and direction without being asked, and are resentful when others decline their help or reject their advice.

Codependency can be destructive for both the codependent and the individual struggling with addiction. Without treatment or intervention, a co-dependent relationship is detrimental to all involved. Above all, it may prevent those struggling with substance abuse from getting the professional help they need.

The next time you find yourself asking “what is codependency?”, we hope the answer includes “a situation that needs immediate and appropriate intervention.”  For more information on codependency or drug addiction help for your patients, contact a Care consultant at Lighthouse today by calling 1-800-RECOVERY.

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