Relationship issues are a common reason people seek counseling. Unhealthy relationship dynamics develop and persist for a variety of reasons. Identifying the nature of the presenting problem is essential for working toward resolution. Sometimes the issues are rooted in codependent behaviors. Codependency is not a mental health disorder, but it is the cause of many relationship issues, and is often associated with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and low self-esteem. Codependency is defined as excessive emotional or psychological reliance on another person. In a codependent relationship, one person enables the self-destructive or dysfunctional behavior of their loved one.

Relationship dynamics are learned, usually from early caregivers who set the framework for future relationships. Early attachment is an essential part of development. In fact, emotional exchange and the appropriate response from a caregiver during the first year of life is essential for the development of empathy. Empathy is paramount in establishing healthy relationships with others, and without it, we see the emergence of dangerous, anti-social behaviors.

Children who grow up with parents who have narcissistic personality traits are at risk for developing codependent behavior patterns. A narcissist is someone who does not have empathy and will exploit others to get their needs met. They usually have a preoccupation with success to which they feel entitled to, as evidenced by extreme arrogance and jealousy of others. Personality disorders are rigid ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that impair functioning in different aspects of life. They can be very difficult to treat given the characteristic lack of insight and inflexibility involved.

While some codependent behavior patterns are established later in life and reinforced through toxic relationships, codependency is usually the result of a dysfunctional relationship early in life. The child’s caregiver probably had unmanaged, significant mental health or substance abuse issues which they did not get help with; instead, the burden was placed on the child to keep things at bay. The child avoided conflict at all costs by tolerating and ultimately supporting abusive behaviors from the caregiver in a never-ending quest for approval and affection. This kind of support, or enabling, is a hallmark of codependency.

In these kinds of relationships, the codependent has learned to ignore their own needs, and instead places great importance on satisfying the needs of their partner. The codependent’s happiness becomes reliant on the happiness of another person. A true narcissist, however, will never be satisfied. If the codependent tries to establish boundaries, they are often rejected or threatened with loss of the relationship, which the codependent relies on for self-worth.

Healing from a toxic relationship is possible. Healthy relationships require firm boundaries. Boundaries are not something we are necessarily taught. Boundaries are a learned behavior. If these were never modeled for us as children it takes effort to learn as an adult. Or, if we fell into a toxic relationship as an adult, boundaries will have to be re-established. The first step is deciding what you will and will not tolerate in a relationship.

Codependency and toxicity are not always as black and white as the “addict and the enabler”. There is a lot of grey area. Sifting through feelings and resolving sources of conflict can most effectively be done through couples counseling and individual therapy. There are also many resources which offer insight into sources of relationship distress. Codependent No More is a helpful book for those wanting gain some perspective and self-understanding.