What are the Five Main Causes of Codependency?

close up image of man and woman hands tied together

Codependency describes an excessive emotional and psychological dependence on a partner. This is a partner who requires ongoing support, most often due to addiction, mental health issues, or chronic illness. 

It makes for a dysfunctional relationship characterized by one-sided and emotionally damaging dynamics. A codependent person (the “Enabler”) plans their entire life around pleasing the other person (the “Manipulator”) and sacrifices their own needs in order to satisfy the needs of their partner.

“Codependent” is a term popularized by self-help author Melody Beattie in her book – one of the world’s bestselling recovery books of all time – “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.” It was first published in 1986 and a new revised edition was published in 2022.

Codependency is often referred to as a “relationship addiction.” Just as with any addiction, the relationship and its chaotic drama act as a distraction, keeping the codependent person away from facing their own issues and inner pain. 

Codependency and alcoholism

drunk man lying on couch after work

Although Beattie brought the word “codependent” out into the world, it is first thought to have been used at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-Steps group meetings. In fact, the second of the now numerous 12-Steps recovery groups to form was Al-Anon in 1951, 16 years after AA.

This was because Lois Wilson, the wife of AA co-founder Bill W, realized that the partners of alcoholics shared what amounted to an addiction to the person who had drunk excessively. In almost every case, their alcoholic partner had behaved in ways that many others would not have tolerated.

Today we recognise this as codependency. There is now a distinct 12-Steps group for codependents called Codependents Anonymous (coDA), which was formed in 1986.

How many people are codependent?

Because codependency is a complex condition that can reveal itself in numerous ways, estimating the number of people who are codependent is difficult. Codependency is not a formally recognized mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) either, so people are not “officially” diagnosed with it.

Rather than a specific diagnosis, it is often understood as a pattern of behavior and relational dynamics. Codependency affects people across different age groups, genders, and backgrounds.

It is thought that more women than men are codependent. But this most likely derives from traditional gender stereotypes more than biological differences.

People with codependency often also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, stress, perfectionism, and depression

Codependents are generally considered to be more sensitive than most people.

In addition, they are more likely to develop an addiction, including a behavioral addiction, as they seek some way to mask or change their negative feelings.

What causes codependency?

The reasons for codependency are varied and complicated. But the five main causes are:

1. Trauma

Trauma can contribute to the development of codependency. That is the case whether it is physical, psychological, or emotional trauma.

Codependency can be a coping mechanism. It helps people to distract or numb themselves from unresolved inner wounds caused by trauma – which derives from a Greek word meaning “wound.”

Traumatic events often disrupt someone’s sense of safety, protection, and trust. This can cause them to live in a state of hypervigilance and with a fear of abandonment, which often feels overwhelming.

People who have experienced neglect or abuse may develop a perspective that they are unworthy of love. This increases the chances of becoming codependent in a relationship.

2. Growing up in a dysfunctional family

crying child beside alcoholic father

Codependency is a learned behavior that can begin when a child grows up in a dysfunctional household where there is neglect, abuse, addiction, an unhealthy relationship between parents, or a parent with a mental health problem. These early childhood experiences can increase the likelihood of someone becoming codependent. 

It could mean a grown-up child thinks it’s normal to always put someone else’s needs and emotions over their own. They can feel it’s their responsibility to ensure their partner’s happiness. 

They become experts at “mood managing” their partner, and their partner’s mood frequently dictates how they feel.

Children growing up with an addict parent often find their only way of getting attention over the drink and/or drug is to please their parent. It leaves them feeling extremely insecure.

As adults, this pattern continues as they continually seek assurance that there is some security by continually trying to please their partner. This is frequently at their own expense and to no avail.

3. Low self-esteem and fear of abandonment

Low self-esteem and fear of abandonment most often develop from childhood. If a child’s needs are unmet, and they don’t get the love and approval they need, it will leave them not valuing themselves.

Also, if one or both parents are not there for the child in a protective and loving role on a consistent basis, it can cause a fear of abandonment. This is a feeling that is continually looming.

As adults, people with a poor sense of self and low self-esteem are much more likely to become codependent. They will almost constantly look for external validation: their self-worth comes from other people’s approval – and this is most likely to be their partner.

4. Being an enabler

depressed couple. woman standing by alcholic husband

Codependency is often found in relationships where enabling behaviors and dependency are reinforced. Enablers unintentionally support their partners’ addictive or dysfunctional behaviors, perpetuating the codependent cycle.

On the other hand, codependents derive their sense of purpose and self-worth from taking care of others. However, they are unknowingly enabling their partners’ destructive patterns.

Melody Beattie’s “Codependent No More” book popularized the idea that partners and parents of people with addiction have their own disease: codependence. This causes them to act as enablers, contributing to their partner’s addiction and/or dysfunctional behavior.

5. Family and cultural expectations

Cultural and social factors have a notable influence on the development of codependency. Societal norms that prioritize self-sacrifice, martyrdom, and unconditional devotion to others can reinforce codependent behaviors.

Family and cultural expectations can exert significant pressure on individuals, shaping their beliefs, values, and behaviors. These expectations can range from career choices, societal roles and relationships.

Specific cultural backgrounds or religious upbringings may emphasize maintaining harmony and avoiding conflict within relationships. This can perpetuate codependency.

How can Tikvah Lake Recovery help?

couple having therapy

Understanding what leads to codependency is perhaps the first step towards breaking free from the destructive cycle. People struggling with codependency should seek help by contacting CoDa or addressing it in therapy sessions.

Someone who is codependent will need to look at deeply ingrained beliefs and patterns. They will need to begin prioritizing their own well-being, start seeking fulfillment as an individual, and learn how to establish healthy boundaries.

At Tikvah Lake Recovery, we provide a comprehensive choice of evidence-based treatments. These are personally tailored to support individuals in their journey toward overcoming various emotional and mental health problems.

Our friendly, dedicated team is committed to providing the support and guidance needed for each of our clients to achieve lasting recovery and well-being.

Call us today to discuss how we can help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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