What Causes Codependency?

Every relationship involves concessions and compromises, but codependency can throw a partnership drastically off balance. In a codependent relationship, one partner has extreme needs (the taker), and the other devotes their time and energy to meeting those needs (the giver). These dynamics can be toxic to both people, making it incredibly difficult to build healthy relationships. 

Where does codependency come from? In most cases, it can be traced back to relationships and experiences in early childhood. Learning as much as possible about the root causes of codependency can help you address codependent issues so you can become more independent and create healthy, positive, rewarding relationships in your life. Continue reading to learn more about what causes codependency. 

5 Most Common Causes of Codependency 

Our expectations for and patterns of behavior in adult relationships are largely shaped by experiences we have early in life. In childhood, the interactions we have with caregivers shape how we believe we should be treated by others throughout life, even once we get to adulthood. These learned behaviors and certain parenting styles can lead to codependent tendencies. 

“Real or perceived abandonment, the inability to develop appropriate attachment to reliable caregivers, and experiencing significant amounts of rejection at a young age are all causes of codependency.”

Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC
1. Childhood neglect

If a parent or caretaker fails to provide their child with support and guidance during the critical formative years, it can lead children to believe that their needs aren’t important. Later in life, adults who were once neglected might continue to ignore the things they might need and avoid asking for help from others, causing a codependent friendship or relationship.

2. Overprotective parenting 

Neglect isn’t always what causes codependency. The opposite type of parenting can be just as detrimental. “Helicopter parenting,” when parents are overly controlling or shield their children from any challenges or struggles, can prevent a child from developing important skills and coping mechanisms they need later in life to function in healthy relationships. 

Adults who grew up with extremely overprotective parents may struggle to live independently, resulting in them becoming overly reliant on others. Overparenting has been linked to emotional dysregulation and a lack of autonomy, both of which are codependent personality traits.

3. Emotional and physical abuse

Many people who struggle with codependency as adults report experiencing emotional or physical abuse during childhood. 

Childhood abuse is severely damaging to our development and often leads to unhealthy behaviors during adulthood. Victims of abuse may suffer from abandonment trauma or have a strong desire to be needed by others. 

4. Permissive parenting 

Permissive parents often shower their children with love and affection. In doing so, though, they might fail to set rules and guidelines. Growing up in this kind of environment can prevent children from learning self-discipline. Many people who grow up with permissive parents have a hard time respecting and acknowledging other people’s boundaries, which is often a factor in codependent relationships. 

5. Substance abuse 

Parental substance abuse greatly increases the risk of codependent behaviors in adulthood. A child with a parent who suffers from drug or alcohol addiction may be thrust into the role of a caregiver from a young age. Addiction most often creates an unstable and chaotic home environment. 

Having to deal with substance abuse at a young age might result in an inability to understand healthy roles in adult relationships. Givers in codependent relationships may have learned to be caretakers at a very young age purely out of the need for survival. 

How Childhood Issues Manifest Codependency in Adulthood

To learn what causes codependency, it’s necessary to look back to the early years of your life. Children who grow up in an unhealthy environment can develop issues that they carry with them into adulthood. When these childhood experiences aren’t properly addressed, they can potentially lead to codependent behaviors and unhealthy relationships.


When a person’s needs aren’t met during childhood, they may crave attention and reassurance as adults. These experiences can also lead to a fear of abandonment, making it difficult to spend time away from a partner. Needy people may feel anxious or upset when their partner spends time with others. These are all classic codependent behaviors that can have a negative impact on life and interactions in interpersonal relationships. 

“In people’s early childhood, there’s a small window from birth to three years old where they need to be able to rely on someone to meet their needs of safety and security. If that’s unfulfilled, they tend to feel insatiable in terms of meeting those needs as an adult.”

Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC
Low self-esteem 

There’s a strong link between childhood maltreatment and a negative sense of self. Victims of emotional abuse and neglect may see themselves as flawed and unworthy of love and respect. A lack of self-esteem can contribute to codependent relationship dynamics. 

People pleasing 

Everyone wants to be liked, but some people feel the need to please others all the time. When children have emotionally unavailable parents, it can lead them to believe that love is something that they need to earn. People pleasers often struggle to set healthy boundaries, leading them to sacrifice their own needs for the sake of others, which is classic giver behavior in codependent relationships. 

Communication issues 

Many children learn to hide their feelings to avoid upsetting their caregivers. This can make it difficult to communicate effectively with others later in life. Dishonesty, passive aggressiveness, and a lack of communication can all contribute to codependency. 

Poor boundaries

When some people grow up in an unhealthy environment, they may never learn what boundaries look like. Not only can this make it difficult for them to set boundaries later in life, but it can also cause many people to ignore the boundaries that others try to set as well. In either instance, respecting and reinforcing healthy boundaries is essential to building healthy relationships, and many codependent people find that boundaries are an issue. 

Difficulty trusting others 

When children are lied to or let down by their caregivers, they learn that they can’t trust or rely on others. This lack of trust can make it difficult to connect with others. Codependent people often have trust issues in relationships.

Constant feelings of guilt or shame

Abuse, neglect, and other forms of childhood trauma can lead to some people struggling with guilt and shame. Someone might feel as though they don’t deserve happiness, or they may feel responsible for people or things that are out of their control. Feelings of guilt and shame can significantly influence behavior and add to codependency in relationships. 


Growing up in volatile environments can teach people to see certain behaviors as potential threats. This can lead to emotional outbursts and overreactions. When someone has an intense response to criticism or negative experiences, it can make it hard for their partner to express their wants and needs. This is a common occurrence for the giver in a codependent relationship.

Control issues 

Control issues are often rooted in insecurity, fear, and anxiety. Growing up in an unstable home can make someone feel powerless. These feelings of helplessness can contribute to controlling behaviors later in life, or they may cause someone to let their partner control their life.  

How to Break the Cycle of Codependency

It’s important to acknowledge how difficult it can be to break the pattern. Working with a therapist can help you identify and address codependent traits in your own life and relationships. During therapy, you’ll have the chance to explore the factors that contribute to your behaviors and learn how to stop being codependent

If you’ve struggled with codependency, an online therapist at Talkspace can help you overcome your mental health struggles. Over time, you can find ways to balance your own needs with the needs of others. Online therapy can give you the tools you need to build fulfilling and mutually satisfying relationships that are both healthy and positive for you and your partner. 


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