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Is it love or is it codependency?

March 6, 2023
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

Is it love, or is it codependency?

When it comes to trending topics, love may be one of the hottest topics of all time. For centuries people have debated, written about, and pondered upon love. It also features in movies, music, poetry, and even religious texts! So, it is safe to say one would be under a rock to escape the countless definitions of love.

Yet, when we say we love someone – romantically or otherwise – are we sure it is love?

Maybe you are experiencing feelings of attachment or affection, or even devotion for another person. Or maybe, you enjoy being around them and say you love them to express how much they mean to you. But could the intense emotions you are experiencing be a relationship addiction, also known as codependency, and not love? 

Let us find out.

What is Codependency?

Not long ago, terms such as narcissism, gaslighting, and trauma were only part of medical lingo or spoken of in therapy sessions. But with an increasing number of individuals turning to social media for awareness and self-diagnosis of mental health issues, many of these terms are now becoming common speak.

Codependency is one such term that is growing in popularity. Undoubtedly, social media has helped spark a much-needed dialogue on codependency. But, as is the case with any disorder, clearly understanding the topic is vital to identifying and treating it effectively.

So, what is codependency?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines “codependency as the state of being mutually reliant; for example, a relationship between two individuals who are emotionally dependent on one another”. It explains codependency “as a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on or controlled by a person who has a pathological addiction such as alcohol and gambling.”

Researchers on the topic describe codependency as an unhealthy devotion to a relationship at the cost of your own personal and psychological needs. They add that one does not become codependent by merely being connected to or involved in the care of a dysfunctional individual. Instead, what makes one codependent is continuing the relationship that overtly or covertly supports the dysfunctional behaviour.

Moreover, codependency is also closely linked to narcissism, a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of appearance. Individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) can also be codependent due to their need to feel needed and receive attention from their partner. 

Both codependency and narcissism are behavioural patterns developed in response to emotional neglect in childhood.

Codependency can exist in romantic relationships or relationships with a parent or child, other family members, or even a friend.

Signs of Codependency

The term codependency has been tossed around a lot lately, adding to the confusion on how to identify it. Moreover, due to limited clinical research on codependency, the term has no universally accepted definition or diagnostic criteria. Furthermore, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the authoritative guide for diagnosing mental illness, does not recognise codependency as a distinct personality disorder.

But even though it is often relegated to the self-help section, experts agree that: codependency is a complex psychological construct marked by several negative psychological characteristics.

What is codependency in a relationship?

A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction reveals the lived experiences of codependency. Participants spoke about feeling a lack of balance, poor internal stability, and a deep fragility of self. Moreover, participants described engaging in activities that would get validation and boost their self-esteem. One participant spoke about “feeling a sense of void”; another described experiencing a “hole in the soul”. These accounts of participants offer additional insight into some common codependency characteristics, such as emotional suppression and external focusing – two characteristics that have been frequently associated with codependency in the quantitative research literature. 

According to Cleveland Clinic, signs of codependency in a relationship include:

  • You feel like you need to save them from themselves
  •  You want to change who they are
  • Taking time out for self-care makes you feel selfish
  • It’s to explain how you’re feeling about the relationship
  • You feel anxious when you don’t hear from them
  • You have trouble being with your partner
  • You routinely cancel plans to spend time with your partner
  • Your personal space doesn’t feel like yours
  • You feel like you ask for too much
  • Your partner’s behaviour escalates when you try to set healthy boundaries

Codependency vs interdependency

Love. Is it an emotion? Is it a choice? Going by an online dictionary definition, “love is a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person; a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend”.

Whether love is an emotion or choice is debatable, but what it certainly is not is codependency. Instead, love is interdependency. However, with popular culture dishing out hundreds if not thousands of conflicting messages on the topic, codependency can often be mistaken for love.

This is why drawing the line between codependency, and love is crucial. Here are the key differences between codependency and interdependency: 

Codependency: My sense of self-worth comes from my relationship with a person. My emotions, behaviour, and decisions depend on my partner’s feelings, actions, and needs. I always neglect my personal needs and want to meet those of my partner.

Interdependency: I am an autonomous individual, and so is my partner. I find personal satisfaction through my achievements and interests as well as my relationship with my partner. My partner and I encourage one another while respecting each other’s boundaries.

Codependency: when one or both of the partners have an addiction

While codependency may not always occur with substance abuse, early interpretations of the term were first associated with behaviours demonstrated by wives of alcoholics in the 1940s. Moreover, the term was coined in 1950 by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to describe individuals whose unhealthy choices encourage and enable their significant other to addiction.

So, can both partners in a relationship be codependent on each other? And can both have addiction issues? Yes, and yes. Studies show that not all spouses of persons with addiction may necessarily be codependent. However, a codependent relationship with a person with addiction helps enable their partner’s addiction. This is mainly because of the codependent’s sense of accountability for their partner’s actions. Moreover, when both partners in the relationship have an addiction, both enable each other’s behaviour. Enabling can include defending the behaviour of the person with addiction, helping the person avoid the consequences of their actions, and giving the person resources, such as money, that will support their addiction.

How to stop being codependent

Codependency is a treatable condition. Dealing with codependency often involves awareness of what codependency is in a relationship, open communication on how to stop being codependent, planned psychotherapy sessions on how to stop codependency for both partners, individual counselling, and peer group support.

Codependency treatment may also involve specific treatment for comorbidities of codependency, including psychological and physical disorders. Moreover, since codependents usually have no sense of self and understanding of setting boundaries, moving them from one authority (their partner) to another (a professional therapist) has to be done with caution and care.  

However, diagnosing codependency can be difficult as the term has been rapidly evolving over the years. Research reveals that codependency could be due to several factors, including a tendency to care, failure of the prefrontal cortex to hold back empathic responses, and a multitude of aversive experiences in a dysfunctional family (such as conflicts between parents, abuse and neglect), which could play a role in the development of codependency.

Most codependent behaviour often goes unrecognised and misunderstood even by those experiencing it. As a result, most codependents often seek treatment only for their symptoms, which could range from depression to stress. This is why awareness and more research on the topic are key to helping those suffering from codependency.

If you or someone you know is going through the signs of codependency, reach out to a mental health professional. You can browse our directory of treatment centres across India here.


–       Irwin, H J Codependence, Narcissism, and Childhood Trauma J Clin Pyschol.

–       Borges Bortolon, Cassandra; de Campos Moreira, Taís; Signor Luciana; Léa Guahyba, Barbara; Figueiró  Rizzieri, Luciana; Ferigolo, Maristela, and Tannhauser Barros, Helena Maria (2016) Six-Month Outcomes of a Randomized, Motivational Tele-intervention for Change in the Codependent Behavior of Family Members of Drug Users Substance Use & Misuse (formerly The International Journal of the Addictions)

–       Bacon, Ingrid; McKay Elizabeth; Reynolds, Frances; McIntyre Anne The Lived Experience of Codependency: an Intepretative Phenomenological Analysis (2020) International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction

–       PsychCentral Codependency vs. Interdependency

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–   Cermak  Timmen L ; Hunt, Terry; and Keene, Bonnie Codependency: More than a Catchword Gale Academic OneFile 

–  Edited by Granfield, Robert; Reinarman; Craig  Expanding Addiction: Critical Essays Dokumen Pub