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10 Steps to Identifying and Overcoming a Codependent Relationship

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

Important Disclaimer Before Beginning

In my professional opinion, the term “codependency” carries a very negative connotation and will often cause people to shutdown when a therapist believes this to be true about his or her client. However, until the general population alters the term, I will use codependency throughout this article.

Additionally, the majority of my clients who I believe have characteristics of being codependent usually experienced trauma during their childhood. I won’t spend a great deal of time discussing the types of trauma but many individuals have experienced big or little traumas.

Most traumatic experiences endured by a child will cause the child to feel a loss of control. For example, children whose parents abused substances often grew up without structure or predictability. This lack of structure and uncertainty can cause a child to feel out-of-control. As those children become adults, they desire control in their lives and will often look to others as a way to meet that need.

The desire to have control of one’s life is not essentially bad. All individuals desire some amount control in their life—think about when you are stuck in traffic and are unable to control getting to an important meeting on time.

However, when someone’s need for control begins to escalate, he or she will unintentionally destroy their relationships and attempt to control others behaviors, thoughts and actions.


Codependency—Although this word is often thrown around in society, it can be a serious problem in relationships and within someone’s life.

The term codependency has previously been defined hundreds of ways over the past few decades. To put it simply, a person who is codependent often feels an extreme amount of dependency from specific loved ones (spouse, children, parents, etc.).

This person will also rely on their loved one for his or her emotional and self-esteem needs [1]. A codependent relationship can and will often lead to an emotionally, psychologically, or physically abusive relationship [2].

A common example of a codependent relationship is a spouse who enables their partner to maintain their irresponsible, unproductive, or addictive behavior [1]. If you think about an individual who is addicted to alcohol, his or her codependent partner may engage in behaviors that support their partner’s drinking behaviors and habits.

Codependency is usually a learned behavior [3,4}. Meaning that, individuals who lean on others for self-esteem and self-worth often learn to do this from a parent or guardian and can pass these behaviors on to their children.

Codependency Symptoms

The list below is one I commonly use with clients in order to identify if he or she may be experiencing codependency. An individual does not need to meet all of these symptoms and may experience more characteristics than these:

  1. A tendency to do more than your “fair share” in your relationships the majority of the time.

  2. A complete dependency on a relationship.

  3. You would rather do almost anything for your partner in order to avoid feelings of rejection and them possibly leaving.

  4. Feelings of hurt and sadness when others do not notice the effort you make for them and your relationship.

  5. A strong sense of responsibility for how others behave.

  6. An overly strong need for approval from others. This is where most of your self-worth comes from.

  7. Strong fears of abandonment or being alone.

  8. Difficulty asserting yourself and expressing your feelings to others.

  9. Difficulty making decisions without the thoughts or approval of others.

  10. A lot of anger.

  11. A tendency to lie to others.

Identifying Codependency

The following are questions I frequently ask clients who may be in a codependent relationship.

  1. Do you find yourself constantly worrying about what others may think of you?

  2. Do you change your opinions and values in order to please others?

  3. Do you remain quiet during arguments and disagreements?

  4. Have you been in a relationship with someone who degrades or belittles you?

  5. Have you been in a relationship with someone who physically harms you?

  6. Do you feel rejected when significant others or loved ones spend time with other people?

  7. Do you have difficulty telling others “no” when asked to do something?

  8. Do you often feel inadequate or insecure?

  9. Do you often “hop” from one relationship to another?

  10. Do you have trouble identifying your feelings?

  11. Do you feel humiliated when your loved one makes a mistake?

  12. Do you believe that others would “go down hill” without your efforts and responsibilities?

If you answered “yes” to the majority of these questions, it may be time to seek professional assistance in order to live a happier and more fulfilling life.

Overcoming Codependency

Depending upon the severity of the codependency, treatment from a licensed family therapist may be the best option for a positive outcome. A licensed therapist will help you identify what type of relationship you would like to have with your significant other and ways you can begin to achieve that desired relationship.

When helping clients overcome their codependency, I usually begin by understanding an individual’s childhood history. Questions I ask include:

  1. When do you first remember feeling responsible for another person or their actions? Should you have been responsible for them?

  2. Did you watch your parents or caregivers excessively care for another person?

  3. Did you ever feel out-of-control as a child?

After a thorough childhood assessment, I usually shift to ask clients about their current codependent relationship and how he or she would like that relationship to change:

  1. What would be different?

  2. How would you feel instead of how you are currently feeling?

  3. What are a few thoughts you currently have about yourself that would change?

  4. What is a typical fight with you and your loved one look like?

After understanding the fight or interaction cycle of the relationship, my clients and I will discuss their ideal interaction cycle—How would you rather interact with your partner? What can you do to change your current behavior?

Many clients will need the assistance of a licensed family therapist in order to fully understand their current interaction cycle with their loved one and how they can change their pattern.

If you are in immediate danger or duress (physical abuse, your partner is withholding money, you are not allowed to see family or friends), I highly recommend that you seek immediate assistance or call the police.


Being in a codependent relationship can be a very challenging and sometimes harmful. However, codependency is often a learned behavior that you can alter in order to have more fulfilling and satisfying relationships.

Like always, have self-compassion if you find yourself engaging in behaviors that you are not proud of or are seeing how destructive they can be.

If you believe you may be codependent or find yourself struggling with finding a new way of interacting with your loved one, please reach out to a local licensed family therapist.

Codependency can be destroy your relationships and keep you from living a happy and fulfilling life.

So ask yourself:

  1. Do I continuously find myself trying to control others behaviors or enable their destructive behaviors?

  2. Do I have trouble identifying and stating my own thoughts and feelings?

  3. Do I view my loved ones actions as a reflection of who I am?

Are you in a codependent relationship? Do you have questions about it? Leave a comment below!

Do you have an article you would like me to write? Request one!


[1] Lancer, D. (2018). Symptoms of Codependency. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 20, 2018, from

[2] Mental Health America (2018). Co-Dependency. Mental Health America. Retrieved from:

[3] Carothers, M. & Warren, L. W. (1996). Parental antecedents of codependency. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 52, 231–239.

[4] Prest, L. A., Benson, M. J., & Protinsky, H. O. (1998). Family of origin and current relationship influences on codepen-dency. Family Process, 37, 513–528.

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