Caring or Codependency?

What is codependency?

It may be a term you’ve heard thrown around before but if you are confused as to what it actually means, that may be because the definition of co-dependency has evolved over time. The term codependency was first coined in the 1970’s, and referred to a person’s penchant to enter into, and continue to exist in, a relationship with a partner who had an alcohol or drug addiction. According to S. Wegscheider-Cruise (1984), a person was considered codependent if they were (a) in a love or marital relationship with an alcoholic, (b) had one or more alcoholic parents or grandparents, or (c) were raised within an emotionally repressed family.

Soon, “codependency” became the standard term used to describe the partners of those struggling with addiction, or other individuals who enabled a friend or loved one struggling with addiction. In the 1980’s, the primary focus of codependency treatment was to support the codependent during the treatment process, while facilitating care and understanding about their enabling role in the problem, or disease.


Today, the definition of codependency has expanded to mean the following:

  • A dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.
  • A person who continuously tries to help another person who cannot be helped, so much so, that it becomes compulsive and defeating, and results in a disturbance of the codependent’s identity development.
  • Melody Beattie defines codependency as “a person who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”


Gerald is a 65 year old man who lives with his wife Edith and their 40 year old son, Aiden. Aiden is a self employed contractor who works about 20 hours a week and nets $25,000 a year. He lives in his parents’ basement and spends a lot of his free time gambling online. Gerald and Edith, both retired, help Aiden manage his contracting business and help him pay his bills. Since college, Aiden has had a few opportunities to marry, but his parents would question his desire to move away from them and his two nieces, who live close by, and whom he has a relationship with. Aiden has also had many opportunities to expand his contracting business but always turns them down, telling his parents to “mind your own business.” Gerald occasionally expresses frustration about Aiden’s lack of initiative when it comes to his own life. Whenever Gerald suggests it may be better for Aiden to move out, Edith immediately shuts Gerald down, stating that they can never abandon Aiden and it’s best for him to live at home. Edith emphatically states that she knows what’s best for Aiden and she’ll never stop caring for her son. Recently, Aiden went out drinking with some friends and ended getting a DWI. His parents went down to the police station to pick him up, accompanied him to court, and paid the necessary fines associated with the DWI.


In this vignette, Gerald and Edith are codependents who enable their son Aiden’s immature, irresponsible and under-achieving behavior. Sadly, they truly believe that the way they treat their son is best for him, so despite their frustration with Aiden’s behavior, his chances of improving his situation are almost zero.


Are you a codependent or involved in a codependent relationship?

  • Do you feel responsible for other people or for other people’s feelings, actions and choices?.
  • Do you refuse help from others, but are the first to offer help to someone else, even if they aren’t asking?
  • Do you do too much for people and then feel taken advantage of?
  • Do you feel guilty spending time or money taking care of yourself?
  • Do you think people in your life would go downhill without your constant efforts?
  • Do you agree to do things you don’t want to do, because that feels more comfortable to you than having to say “no” to someone?
  • Do you look to outside sources (other people, relationships or situations) to define your own self worth?
  • Do you find yourself attracted to (or attracting of) needy people?
  • Do you feel bored, empty, and worthless if you don’t have a crisis to deal with, a problem to solve, or someone to help?
  • Do you feel that if the people around you would just shape up, you wouldn’t have to feel so exhausted all the time?
  • Do you tell people what they want to hear so they will like you?
  • Do you feel anxious when loved ones don’t do as you tell them to?

The above is just a small sampling of codependent feelings and behaviors. If you recognize yourself in any of the questions, practicing the ideas below can help you get out of codependent relationships and get you back to living a healthier, more balanced life.

1) Get honest with yourself and others – Codependents often tell people what they want to hear because they are afraid that if they speak the truth, they will be ridiculed or worse, abandoned. The truth is that you can please some people some of the time, but you probably won’t succeed in pleasing everybody all the time. Practice being true to yourself in your communication with others. Even if someone isn’t pleased with your feedback, they will likely still value the relationship they have with you. Shifting your priorities from pleasing someone else to working on healing yourself can help motivate you.

2) Learn to say no without feeling guilty – You have the right to decide how to spend your time and money. Remember that you don’t owe anyone anything just because they are asking.

3) Pay attention to how you feel – codependents are often so busy trying to please everybody else that they do not pause to consider what their own opinion actually is. Begin practicing this when you are alone and have time to think, rather than when you are in conversation and required to respond. Check in with yourself multiple times a day and just ask yourself for your own opinion. (What do I want to eat for lunch today? What did I think of what my boss told everyone at the staff meeting? How do I really feel about my sister deciding to host the Purim seuda without consulting me?) It may feel strange at first, but the goal is that responding from how you feel, rather than what others want to hear, will become more natural over time.

4) Set boundaries with yourself – An internal boundary is what you say to yourself regarding a tricky situation. Your needy friend Malka is constantly keeping you on the phone to vent or for advice, but the relationship is one-sided and you are getting tired of being a sounding board without getting anything in return. Your internal boundary is you listening to you own need and deciding to set limits when Malka calls.The internal boundary is also not allowing guilty feelings to flood you for doing so.  

5) Set boundaries with others – The external boundary is between you and Malka. You choose not to pick up the phone when Malka calls or you limit the conversations you have with her. In doing this, you do not defend or explain yourself.

6) Learn to communicate assertively with others  – this can be an especially tough one for codependents, and will take practice and perseverance to master. Communicating assertively simply means expressing your opinions or needs in a sincere, respectful and matter-of-fact way. Here are some examples of assertive communication:

-“I’d really appreciate it if you could make more of an effort to clean up after yourself.”       

 -“I’d love to help out with the girls today but I won’t have time.”       

-“The best thing for you is to learn how to budget your own money.”

Compare this with passive communication:

-Codependent cleans up after family members.                                                               

“Sure, I can babysit today.” (but codependent really doesn’t have the time and will do it resentfully.)                                                                                                                 

 -“Sure, I’ll loan you some spending money.”

Or, aggressive communication (when the codependent just can’t take it anymore):        

-“You are so (expletive) lazy. How many times do I have to tell you to clean up after yourself?”                                                                                                                      

-“You need to figure out how to manage your own kids and your own schedule without freeloading off everyone else constantly.”

-“I am so sick and tired of loaning you money. Grow up and figure it out.”

7) Take care of yourself – It will likely feel uncomfortable and unnatural in the beginning, but make it a priority to put yourself first. Remind yourself that practicing this will help you recover from codependency. Take time to meditate, exercise, eat better, shop for yourself, etc

Untreated codependency is harmful because it doesn’t allow healthy, reciprocal relationships to develop and flourish. Codependents usually struggle with some level of depression and anxiety and in very severe cases, suicide. If you recognized a family member, friend or yourself in this article, take time to learn more about codependency and the role it could be playing in your life. With help, recovery from codependency is possible.


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