While not recognized as a diagnosable illness in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (a professional reference used to make diagnoses), codependence generally refers to the way past events from childhood “unknowingly affect some of our attitudes, behaviors and feelings in the present, often with destructive consequences,” according to the National Council on Codependence. Certain signs can help us identify a tendency toward codependence.

Self-worth comes from external sources

Codependent people need external sources?things or other people?to give them feelings of self-worth. Often, following destructive parental relationships, an abusive past and/or self-destructive partners, codependents learn to react to others, worry about others and depend on others to help them feel useful or alive. They put other people’s needs, wants and experiences above their own.

In fact, codependence is a relationship with one’s self that is so painful a person no longer trusts his or her own experiences. It perpetuates a continual cycle of shame, blame and self-abuse. Codependent people might feel brutally abused by the mildest criticism or suicidal when a relationship ends. In his 1999 book, Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls, author Robert Burney says the battle cry of codependence is: “I’ll show you! I’ll get me!”

Examples of codependency

Health professionals first identified codependence in the wives of alcoholic men. Through family treatment, they discovered that spouses and family members were codependent, or also had addictive tendencies. Co-addiction occurs when more than one person, usually a couple, has a relationship that is responsible for maintaining addictive behavior in at least one of the persons.

For example, co-addicted people might believe that, at some level, getting a partner or family member to become sober or drug-free might seem like the one goal which, if achieved, would bring them happiness. But on another level, they might realize they are behaving in a way that enables the addict with whom they live to maintain their addictions.

For instance, they might never confront the addict about her behavior. Or they might become her caretaker, spending limitless time worrying about her. They might assume it’s their responsibility to clean up after and apologize for their loved one’s behavior. They might even help her continue to use alcohol or drugs by giving her money, food or even drugs and alcohol, for fear of what would happen to her if they did things differently. Many codependents come to believe they are so unlovable and unworthy that to stay in a dysfunctional, destructive relationship is the best and safest way to live.

Codependent people who believe they can’t survive without their partners do anything they can to stay in their relationships, however painful. The fear of losing their partners and being abandoned overpowers any other feelings they might have. The thought of trying to address any of their partner’s dysfunctional behaviors makes them feel unsafe. Excusing or denying a problem like addiction means they avoid rejection by their partners.

Instead, as in the example above, co-addicted people often will try to adapt themselves and their lives to their partners’ dysfunction. They might have abandoned hope that something better is possible, instead settling for the job of maintaining the status quo. The thought of change might cause them great pain and sadness.

Codependence works the same way, whether the addiction is drugs, alcohol or something else, such as sex, gambling, verbal or physical abuse, work or a hobby. If the addicts’ behavior causes worry, forcing the partners to adjust to and deny the problem, they are at great risk of becoming codependent. Those who were abused as children face an even greater risk.