How Codependency Can Resemble Relationship Addiction

by Ellen Biros, MS, LCSW

Relationships and CodependencyThe term “codependent” is used loosely. A quick Google search on the term turns up a Huffington Post article titled “NBC and Brian Williams Put Codependent Relationship on Hold” and BuzzFeed’s “8 Important Facts About Always Giving Too Much Of Yourself In Relationships.” Although these articles are entertaining and certainly fall in line with an underlying cultural obsession to self-diagnose, the reality is that codependency is a complicated, multidimensional behavioral issue.

Codependency is a condition in which individuals attempt to and believe that if they control people, places, and situations, they can derive a sense of self-worth. It resembles an addiction to taking care of the needs and the problems of another person. In fact, many of the people I’ve worked with who are in these types of codependent relationships find themselves feeling, in many cases, what can be described as classic signs of addiction. Some of the experiences they report include:

  • Changes in their personality as reported by friends and family
  • Negative emotions
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Lack of motivation or lethargy
  • Anxious or paranoid thinking with no obvious reason

After ruling out that a person is abusing substances, such as alcohol or drugs, and determining that his or her symptoms are not signs of other emotional or mental health issues, I find what they are experiencing is, in fact, chronic, progressive, and relapsing addiction. In effect, many who are in codependent relationships simply become dependent on the people with whom they are in a relationship.

As such, many find it difficult to “quit” the relationship, much like a person addicted to alcohol has difficulty quitting drinking. The “relationship addiction” controls a person’s ability to rationalize and make healthy decisions in his or her best interests. Although many agree they need to end the relationship, they find themselves in a pattern of committing to end the relationship and going back. They are hoping that, perhaps the next time, they will be able to control the outcome of the relationship. These dependent relationships often cause people to lose clarity and rationality. They may stop protecting themselves emotionally and sometimes even physically.

Four Key Steps to Codependency Recovery

Finding a therapist who makes you feel comfortable and safe is a great place to begin for any person who wishes to change codependency patterns. In therapy, some of the approaches used to help someone realize and work on the emotional and cognitive aspects of codependent behaviors include:

  • Developing knowledge of what a healthy relationship looks like: I never assume that a person Admitting and accepting the addiction component of codependency takes time, and since it is a relapsing condition, encouraging people to continue to work on their recovery one day at a time is critical to their success and eventual healing.experiencing codependency has a good understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like. Part of my job is helping people understand what to expect in a healthy relationship.
  • Developing a healthy sense of self-identify: Like many people living with addiction, many people who are codependent struggle with who they are and what their purpose is. Rarely are they aware and attuned to their inner self-talk and frequently have no idea what they like or do not like.
  • Learning self-validation: People with codependency often have a tenuous definition of self, so guiding a person to learn how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, let go of self-destructive patterns of behavior, and practice self-validation will aid in the process of building self-esteem.
  • Boundary building: One of the most important steps to master in the journey of codependency recovery is learning to build appropriate emotional boundaries. Assisting the person with codependency in learning that he or she does not have power over others is a crucial step in developing healthy relationships.

Codependency recovery is a process. Many who experience it have been practicing dysfunctional relationship skills for most of their lives. Admitting and accepting the addiction component of codependency takes time, and since it is a relapsing condition, encouraging people to continue to work on their recovery one day at a time is critical to their success and eventual healing.

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Related Continuing Education Courses

In this course, the author offers in-depth and in-person strategies for therapists to use in working with clients who present with the characteristic behavior patterns of codependency. Clients are usually unaware of the underlying codependency that is often responsible for the symptoms they’re suffering. Starting with emphasis on the delicate process of building a caring therapeutic relationship with these clients, the author guides readers through the early shame-inducing parenting styles that inhibit the development of healthy self-esteem. Through personal stories and case studies, the author goes on to describe healing interventions that can help clients identify dysfunctional patterns in relationships, start leading balanced lives and connecting with others on a new and meaningful level.

Evaluative questionnaires, journaling assignments and other exercises are included to help you help your clients to overcome codependency. The rewards of successfully treating codependency are great for client and clinician alike. Even though the propensity for relapse always exists, it’s unlikely that a person who has made significant progress towards overcoming this disease will lose the gains they’ve made.


Self-defeating behaviors are negative on-going patterns of behaviors involving issues such as smoking, weight, inactive lifestyle, depression, anger, perfectionism, etc. This course is designed to teach concepts to eliminate these negative patterns. The course is educational: first you learn the model, then you apply it to a specific self-defeating behavior. A positive behavioral change is the outcome. Following the course, participants will be able to identify, analyze and replace their self-defeating behavior(s) with positive behavior(s). The course also provides an excellent psychological “tool” for clinicians to use with their clients. The author grants limited permission to photocopy forms and exercises included in this course for clinical use.


This CE test is based on the book “The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction: A Guide to Coping with the Grief, Stress and Anger that Trigger Addictive Behaviors” (2012, 232 pages). This workbook presents a comprehensive approach to working with clients in recovery from addictive behaviors and is unique in that it addresses the underlying loss that clients have experienced that may be fueling addictive behaviors. Counseling skills from the field of mindfulness therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy are outlined in a clear and easy-to-implement style. Healthy strategies for coping with grief, depression, anxiety, and anger are provided along with ways to improve interpersonal relationships.

Professional Development Resources
is approved to offer continuing education by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC ACEP #5590); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB Provider #1046, ACE Program); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA Provider #3159); the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy (#BAP346), Psychology & School Psychology (#50-1635); the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board (#RCST100501); the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs (#193); and the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists (#114) and State Board of Social Worker Examiners (#5678).