Co-Dependent Relationships: What Is Co-Dependency & The Impact On Relationships

Written by NRPC Editorial

December 24, 2023


As human beings, we are extremely complex so it stands to reason that any relationships that we have are going to also be complex.  There are multiple forms that relationships take whether it be romantic, familial, friendships or work colleagues and each relationship will require a different set of factors in order for it to flourish.

In the midst of these human relationships, there exists a complex dynamic known as co-dependency. Co-dependent relationships can be both emotionally and psychologically draining, often leading to a cycle of unhealthy behaviours. In this blog, I will explore the definition of co-dependency, look at how these relationships function, and shed light on the profound impact they can have on those involved.

Understanding co-dependent relationships

Co-dependency refers to a pattern of behaviour where one person excessively relies on another for emotional support, validation, and a sense of identity. This reliance often stems from deep-rooted insecurities, low self-esteem, or unresolved emotional trauma. Co-dependent individuals may feel an overwhelming need to please others, sacrificing their own needs and desires in the process.  Essentially, one person in the relationship needs the other, who in turn needs to feel needed – it’s a circular relationship.

What does a co-dependent relationship look like?

Co-dependent relationships typically involve two individuals: the enabler and the dependent. The enabler assumes the role of the caretaker, constantly seeking to meet the needs of the dependent. They may feel a sense of purpose and self-worth by taking care of others, often neglecting their own well-being. On the other hand, the dependent relies heavily on the enabler for emotional support, decision-making, and even basic daily tasks. This reliance can create a cycle of dependency, reinforcing the enabler’s need to be needed.

A really useful theoretical framework that I use a lot with my clients is the Karpman drama triangle.  This framework looks at the roles that we play when interacting with others and it highlights the mechanisms of a co-dependent relationship.  The drama triangle looks at 3 roles that we potentially play in a co-dependent relationship: the persecutor, the rescuer and the victim*.  Essentially, when we talk about the co-dependent relationship, we are specifically looking at the role of rescuer and victim.  In these roles, the victim will need the rescuer because they will feel hopeless, helpless, powerless and ashamed as well as not able to make decisions for themselves.  More often that not, this is borne out of a relationship with a persecutor who was controlling, oppressive, critical and who often apportioned blame towards the victim.  Therefore, the victim, needs a rescuer.  That person will enable the victim to remain helpless and powerless by doing everything for them, making decisions, providing all emotional support.  The rescuer also feels needed so it serves a purpose within them too.  However, the rescuer will feel guilty if they don’t rescue the victim but also will feel angry if their efforts do not bring about any change to the victim or their circumstances and will inevitably become the persecutor, therefore continuing the cycle. 


*victim in this reference means someone acting or playing the victim role


Why do co-dependent relationships develop?

Co-dependency can occur in relationships for a variety of reasons. Here are some common factors that contribute to the development of co-dependency:

  1. Childhood experiences: Co-dependency often stems from childhood experiences, such as growing up in a dysfunctional or abusive family environment. Children who were raised in homes where their emotional needs were not met or where they were constantly seeking validation and approval may develop co-dependent tendencies in their adult relationships.
  2. Low self-esteem: Individuals with low self-esteem may be more prone to co-dependency. They may seek validation and a sense of self-worth from others, leading them to rely heavily on their partner for emotional support and validation.
  3. Fear of abandonment: Co-dependent individuals often have a deep fear of being abandoned or rejected. This fear drives them to excessively please their partner and avoid conflict, even at the expense of their own needs and well-being.
  4. Unresolved trauma: Co-dependency can also be a result of unresolved emotional trauma. Individuals who have experienced trauma may develop co-dependent behaviours as a way to cope with their pain and seek comfort and security in their relationships.
  5. Cultural and societal influences: Cultural and societal norms can also contribute to the development of co-dependency. In some cultures, there may be an expectation for individuals to prioritise the needs of others above their own, leading to a pattern of co-dependent behaviour.

It’s important to note that co-dependency is not limited to romantic relationships and can occur in friendships, family dynamics, and even professional relationships. Understanding the underlying causes of co-dependency can help you to recognise and address these patterns in order to foster healthier and more balanced relationships.


The impact of a co-dependent relationship

  1. Emotional exhaustion: co-dependent relationships can be emotionally draining for both parties. The enabler (rescuer) may experience burnout from constantly meeting the needs of the dependent (victim), while the dependent may struggle with feelings of guilt and shame for relying so heavily on someone else.
  2. Lack of boundaries: co-dependent relationships often lack healthy boundaries. Both individuals may struggle to assert their own needs and desires, leading to a loss of personal identity. This can result in feelings of resentment, frustration, and a loss of self.
  3. Lack of personal growth: co-dependency can hinder personal growth and development. The enabler may become so focused on the needs of the dependent that they neglect their own goals and aspirations. Similarly, the dependent may become reliant on the enabler, hindering their ability to develop independence and self-sufficiency.
  4. Co-dependent behaviours: co-dependent relationships can perpetuate a cycle of unhealthy behaviours. The enabler may enable the dependent’s destructive habits, such as substance abuse or self-destructive behaviours, in an attempt to maintain control and keep the relationship intact.
  5. Difficulty in ending the relationship: ending a co-dependent relationship can be incredibly challenging. Both individuals may fear being alone or struggle with feelings of guilt and abandonment. Breaking free from the cycle of co-dependency often requires help and support from a professional therapist or from a strong support network of family and friends and a commitment to personal growth.

Co-dependent relationships can be incredibly detrimental to the well-being of those involved. Understanding the dynamics of co-dependency is vital in order to break free from this cycle and foster healthier, more balanced relationships. Seeking therapy or counselling can provide valuable support and guidance for individuals looking to overcome co-dependency and develop healthier patterns of relating to others.

Remember, it is never too late to prioritise your own well-being and establish healthy boundaries in your relationships.


Hayley McAuley


Curious Counselling & Psychotherapy

Published : Dec 24, 2023