The Basics of Codependent Relationships

In this type of relationship, one person is needy and the other person plays the role of the martyr. The martyr usually has low self-esteem, causing them to focus on other people as a way of avoiding their personal problems. They may sacrifice their own needs to make sure the needy person gets the help and attention they crave, leading to poor mental health outcomes and difficulty setting healthy boundaries. Someone who displays codependent tendencies may even become addicted to one-sided relationships and have difficulty functioning if they’re unable to fulfill the martyr role.

Although the codependent person displays caring behaviour, codependency isn’t a positive trait. In some situations, it can even cause significant harm to others. For example, a codependent person may cover up physical or sexual abuse committed by their spouse. Parents with codependency may do their children’s homework just to help them avoid bad grades and other negative consequences.

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Characteristics of Codependency

Someone struggling with codependency may exhibit the following signs and symptoms:

  • Exaggerated sense of responsibility for the well-being of others
  • Extreme need for recognition or approval
  • Feelings of guilt and shame if they try to set healthy boundaries or assert themselves with loved ones
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Inability to distinguish love from pity

Dependent Personality Disorder

The needy person in this type of relationship may be suffering from dependent personality disorder, a mental illness that causes a person’s neediness to become so overwhelming that they can’t function normally. People with this mental health condition may display the following symptoms:

  • Inability to make decisions without help from others
  • Extreme neediness
  • Lack of confidence
  • Poor self-image
  • Allowing others to take control of their lives
  • Doing things they don’t like to avoid being alone

Signs of a Codependent Relationship

Codependency may affect the relationship between two spouses, a parent and a child or two siblings. Extended family members may also engage in codependent behaviour with each other; for example, an aunt may take on the role of the martyr in her relationship with a niece or nephew. Anyone concerned about codependency should watch carefully for the following:

Poor Boundaries

People in this type of relationship may have trouble setting or respecting boundaries. For example, the needy person may violate the martyr’s boundaries by ignoring their feelings. The person in the martyr role may have difficulty setting boundaries with the needy person, causing them to ignore their own needs in favour of helping the other person. Codependency causes a circular relationship in which the martyr doesn’t insist on having strong boundaries and the other person violates the few boundaries that do exist.


People with codependency see it as their responsibility to care for others all the time, even when it means ignoring their own needs. For many people, codependent behaviour begins during childhood. Parents are supposed to care for their children, but some children end up caring for their parents, especially when those parents have mental health disorders. If something terrible happens, the child may start to believe they’re responsible for the parent, a belief that persists into adulthood.

Low Self-Esteem

People who take on the martyr role often struggle with low levels of self-esteem. Instead of working to create a positive self-image, someone with codependent behaviour may try to boost their self-esteem by caring for others. If they aren’t caring for other people, they tend to feel bad about themselves and start wondering if they really have a purpose in life.

Relationship Stress

Codependency takes a toll on a relationship, both for the martyr and the needy person. The martyr may lash out due to the stress that comes with worrying about everyone else all the time, while the needy person may start to feel suffocated by the martyr. The needy person may also worry that the martyr will abandon them, causing them to act out.


In an unhealthy relationship, both people are dependent on one another. The needy person may rely on the martyr for help with work, school or personal problems, while the martyr depends on the other person as a source of self-esteem. People in the martyr role also get a sense of validation out of helping the other person.

Codependency and Addiction

The term codependency was originally coined to be applied in the context of addiction. It’s common for people with drug and alcohol addictions to be involved in codependent relationships. In most cases, the person with the substance abuse problem is the one who plays the role of a needy person, while a family member takes on the role of the martyr. For example, the parent of someone with alcoholism may make excuses for their behaviour or ignore their own needs to help the person with alcoholism deal with the negative consequences of their addiction. If codependency occurs due to substance abuse, it’s important to seek substance abuse treatment that includes individual and family therapy.

Overcoming Codependency

Codependent behaviours and dysfunctional relationships can occur in the context of almost any mental health condition. Fortunately, it’s possible to overcome codependency and learn how to build healthy relationships with a reasonable amount of give-and-take. Therapy is one of the most effective treatment options as it gives a person with codependent tendencies the opportunity to explore the causes of their behaviour, improve their self-image and focus on building their own identity.

Clinic Les Alpes has experienced therapists available to help you avoid codependent behaviour and explore unhealthy family dynamics that could be contributing to poor mental health outcomes. As you explore your codependency patterns, you’ll get support from nurses, counsellors and other treatment professionals. Clinic Les Alpes also offers nutritional assessments, holistic treatments, equine therapy and other services to help you live your best life. Schedule an initial assessment by calling (877) 630-4284.