Once people recognizethat they have codependent traits, they often begin to wonder where these codependent tendencies came from. Why are some people susceptible to codependency in their adult relationships? What causes codependency? Why is it so hard to break free from codependent relationships?

While the answers aren’t the same for everyone, for most people it begins in childhood. This is important because children are extremely impressionable. Young children dont have the cognitive abilities or life experiences to realize that the relationships they are seeing and experiencing aren’t healthy; that their parents arent always right; that parents lie and manipulate and lack the skills to provide a secure attachment.

Dysfunctional families tend to have some of these characteristics:

  • chaotic and unpredictable
  • unsupportive
  • scary and unsafe
  • emotionally and/or physically neglectful
  • manipulative
  • blaming
  • overly harsh or abusive
  • shaming
  • deny that the family has problemsand refuse outside help
  • secretive
  • judgmental
  • inattentive
  • unrealistic expectations for children (expecting kids to be perfect or to do things beyond whats developmentally appropriate)

The children are blamed for the problems or are told there isn’t a problem (which is very confusing because the children intuitively knowsomething is wrong, but this feeling is never validated by the adults).The easiest way for kids to understand their chaotic families is to listen to the negative and distorted messages from adults and assume “I’m the problem.”

As a result, children learn that they are bad, unworthy, stupid, incapable, and the cause of the family dysfunction. This belief system creates the roots of adult codependent relationships.

  • You become a caretaker. If your parent was incapable of fulfilling the parenting role, you may have taken on the parenting roleto fill in the gaps. Youtook care of yourparents or siblings, paid the bills, cooked meals, and stayed up to make sure Mom didn’tfall asleep with a lit cigarette and burn the house down.
  • You learn that people who profess to love you mayactually hurt you. Your childhood experience was that family physically and/or emotionally hurt you, abandoned you, lied to you, threatened you, and/or took advantage of your kindness. This becomes a familiar dynamic and you let friends, lovers, or family members continue to hurt you in adulthood.
  • You become a people-pleaser. Keeping people happy is another way youtry to feel in control. You dont speak up or disagree out of fear. You give and give. This feeds your self-worth and gives you some emotional fulfillment.
  • You struggle with boundaries. Nobody modeled healthy boundaries for you, so yours are either too weak (constant pleasing and care taking) or too rigid (closed off and unable to open up and trust others).
  • You feel guilty. You probably feel guilty about a whole lot of things that you didnt cause. Among these things is your inability to fix your parents or family. Even though its illogical, theres a deep longing to rescue and fix. And your inability to change your family contributes to your feelings of inadequacy.
  • You become fearful. Childhood was scary at times. You didn’t know what to expect. Some days went smoothly, but other days you hid, worried, and cried. Now you continue to have insomnia or nightmares, feel on edge, and are afraid to be alone.
  • You feel flawed and unworthy. You grew up feeling and/or being told that there is something wrong with you. You came to believethis as fact, because it was reinforced over and over when you didn’t know any other reality.
  • You don’t trust people. People have betrayed and hurt you repeatedly. The result is that it’s hard to get close and trust even your spouse or close friends. This is a your way of protecting yourself from future hurt, but it’s also a barrier to true intimacy and connection.
  • You wont let people help you. Youre not used to having your needs met or having someone take care of you. Youre more comfortable giving the help than receiving it. You’d rather do it yourself than be indebted or have it used against you.
  • You feel alone. For a long time you thought you were the only one with a family like this or who felt like this. You felt alone and shamed by the secrets you had to keep in childhood. When you combine thisloneliness with feeling afraid and flawed, its easy to see why codependents will stay in dysfunctional relationships as adults rather than be alone. Being alone often feels like a validation that you are truly flawed and unwanted.
  • You become overly responsible. As a child, your survival or your familys survival depended on you taking on responsibilities that surpassed your age. You continue to be an extremely dependable and responsible person to the point that you may overwork and have trouble relaxing and having fun. You alsotake responsibility for other peoples feelings and actions.
  • You become controlling. When life feels out of control and scary, you overcompensate for your feelings of helplessness by trying to control people and situations.

If youre a codependent, this is probably sounding very familiar and perhaps bringing back some childhood memories.

You carry all of these relationship dynamics and unresolved issues with you into your adult relationships. Even though their unsatisfying, confusing and scary, you repeat them because they’re familiar. You don’t really know what a healthy relationship is and you don’t feel deserving of one.

As a child, you’re stuck. You can’t leave your family, so you find ways to cope. You develop strategies to survive. Thinking of your codependent traits as adaptive is a compassionate way to look at them. They served you well as a child. Now youre an adult who can see the roots of your codependency more clearly. Your parents werent able to meet your needs. This doesnt mean youre flawed. You no longer need to live your life as a scared child who has to prove his/her worth through every action. Its time to emerge from that cocoon and be free. Asking for help is the first step.


Join other recovering codependents and perfectionist on my Facebook page as we inspire, educate, and help each other heal.

Additional articles about codependency by Sharon Martin, LCSW:

Can I Be Codependent if I Had a Good Childhood?

10 Things You Need to Know about Codependency

Why do Codependents Stay in Dysfunctional Relationships?

22 Ways to Love Yourself More

2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Featured image by: anthony kellyat Flickr