It takes at least two people to form a codependent relationship, but understanding what causes codependency can help you recognize when and why you might regularly find yourself in these relationships.

Codependency is a pattern of relationship behavior where you become overly reliant on another person to meet your emotional and psychological needs. It’s characterized by over-indulging others to gain approval and validation — often at the sacrifice of your well-being.

Codependent behaviors are ingrained in us for various reasons, most of which have to do with adverse life experiences.

Trauma is a situation of psychological or physical overwhelm. It can affect children or adults, and it has a variety of long lasting effects, including ones that influence how you interact with people around you.

According to Heidi Augsburger, a licensed mental health counselor from Auburn, Indiana, codependency from trauma can be a way of subconsciously protecting yourself.

“Individuals who have experienced trauma or abuse in their past may develop codependent tendencies as a way to feel safe and gain a sense of control over their environment,” she explains.

But negative experiences don’t have to be traumatic to impact your future relationships.

Adverse life experiences, like chronic bullying or parental death, can also lead to feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, and anxiety that may create codependent behaviors.

“Individuals with low self-esteem may seek validation and self-worth through their relationships,” Ausburger says. “They may become overly focused on meeting the needs of others to feel valued and accepted.”

She adds that seeking to control others as a way to manage anxiety and insecurity can also lead to codependent behaviors.

Attachment theory is a psychological concept used to explain relationship formation. It states the relationships you had with childhood caregivers influence the relationships you form as an adult.

If your psychological and physical needs were met as a child, you’d likely form secure attachments as an adult. If your needs weren’t met as a child, you’re more likely to develop insecure attachment relationships.

Insecure attachment can emerge as unhelpful behaviors like emotional avoidance, fear of abandonment or rejection, and needing external validation.

All of these traits can contribute to situations where you cater to someone else’s needs as a way of achieving a sense of self-worth, identity, or approval.

“This need for external validation can result in a deeply ingrained belief that one’s self-worth is contingent on meeting the needs of others,” says Angela Ficken, a licensed independent clinical social worker from Boston, Massachusetts.

Ficken indicates maintaining relationships with loved ones who experience addiction, mental health issues, or other forms of dependency can exacerbate codependent behaviors.

These situations are emotionally demanding and may make you feel solely responsible for a loved one you think is unsuccessful in caring for themselves.

“The emotional toll of these experiences can manifest as a pattern of overcompensating for others and neglecting one’s well-being,” she explains.

Some people may be more likely to experience codependency due to differences in brain activity.

According to a study from 2019, your brain’s natural prefrontal cortex activity may play a role in how likely you are to develop codependent behaviors.

Sometimes, you do the things you do because they’re all you’ve ever known.

If you grew up with caregivers who were codependent, for example, you may have learned codependency behaviors from observing them.

The signs of codependency can vary as much as what causes codependency, and you don’t have to experience every behavior to be living in a codependent relationship.

Common signs of codependency include:

  • needing to be in a relationship
  • inability to make decisions without the other person
  • an excessive sense of responsibility for what others do and say
  • a drive to “save” or “rescue” people
  • feeling regularly hurt when your efforts aren’t recognized
  • doing more than your share almost all of the time
  • an extreme need for approval
  • feeling guilty for doing things for yourself
  • regularly doing things you don’t want to because you believe it will make someone else happy
  • difficulty identifying your emotions
  • inability to set and respect boundaries
  • dishonesty
  • fear of abandonment
  • a strong need to control others and situations
  • difficulty communicating openly
  • lack of trust
  • negative self-talk
  • constant feelings of inadequacy
  • trouble saying “no”
  • believing your thoughts and feelings aren’t as important as someone else’s

Codependency vs. interdependence

Both codependency and interdependence involve depending on another person, but Ficken explains they are two contrasting relationship dynamics.

“Interdependence is a healthy and balanced form of reliance on each other, where both individuals contribute to the relationship while maintaining their identities,” she says. “In contrast, codependency involves an imbalanced dependence on another person’s approval or emotional stability.”

Interdependence involves a mutual give-and-take, while codependency is usually one person in the role of “giver” and the other as “taker.”

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No matter what causes codependency in your life, you can change your relationship patterns for the better.

Ausburger and Ficken recommend the following tips to manage codependent behaviors:

  • practice self-awareness and introspection
  • build your self-esteem through empowering hobbies, goals, and skill-building
  • learn how to set and maintain personal boundaries
  • seek opportunities to develop your independence, like taking classes, expanding your social circle, and exploring new interests
  • practice guilt-free self-care to meet your own physical and psychological needs
  • actively work on openly communicating your wants and needs
  • surround yourself with people in sustainable, balanced relationships
  • seek professional mental health support to address underlying codependency causes
  • learn more about codependency to help you recognize unhelpful behaviors when they occur

It’s not always easy to know what causes codependency in your life. Trauma, adverse life experiences, and attachment styles are just a few factors that can influence how you form relationships.

You can’t always control what causes codependency, but it’s never too late to work on improving codependent behaviors.

Building your self-esteem, improving communication skills, and speaking with a mental health professional are all ways to shift away from codependency in your relationships.