Breaking free: Understanding and healing from co-dependence

Co-dependence is a complex and often misunderstood condition characterised by an excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support due to an illness, addiction, or other challenging circumstances. Co-dependents may find that you often sacrifice your own needs and well-being to care for others, leading to a dysfunctional and unbalanced relationship dynamic. This pattern can result in a loss of personal identity, low self-esteem, and an inability to establish healthy boundaries.


The impact of co-dependence extends beyond the individual, significantly affecting relationships and the emotional health of both parties involved.

Emotional strain

Individuals in co-dependent relationships often experience a constant state of emotional turmoil. They may feel responsible for their partner’s happiness and well-being, leading to chronic stress, anxiety, and a range of negative emotions, including guilt, resentment, and frustration. This emotional burden can be overwhelming and exhausting, leaving the co-dependent person feeling trapped and helpless.

Loss of identity

You may feel that you tend to lose your sense of self as you prioritise others' needs over their own. This can lead to a significant loss of personal identity, as their self-worth becomes intertwined with their ability to care for and please others. Over time, they may struggle to recognise their own desires, goals, and values, further perpetuating the cycle of co-dependence.

Unhealthy boundaries

In co-dependent relationships, boundaries are often blurred or nonexistent. Co-dependent individuals may have difficulty saying no, setting limits, or asserting their needs. This lack of boundaries can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and taken advantage of, as they continually give more than they receive in the relationship.

Control issues

Co-dependence can manifest as an attempt to control the behaviour and decisions of the other person, often under the guise of care or concern. This control can be subtle, such as giving unsolicited advice or constantly trying to fix the other person’s problems, or more overt, such as manipulating situations to ensure the other person remains dependent on them. This dynamic can create a toxic environment, stifling personal growth and fostering resentment.

Impact on mental health

The constant stress and emotional strain of co-dependence can take a significant toll on mental health. Co-dependent individuals are at an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. The cycle of self-neglect and overextension can lead to burnout, further exacerbating these conditions.

The role of therapy in addressing co-dependence

Therapy can be a crucial tool in helping individuals break free from the cycle of co-dependence. Through various therapeutic approaches, individuals can gain insight into their behaviours, develop healthier relationship patterns, and reclaim their sense of self.

Individual counselling

Individual counselling provides a safe and supportive space for individuals to explore the roots of their co-dependent behaviour. Therapists can help them identify patterns, understand their origins, and develop healthier ways of relating to others. This personal exploration is essential for building self-awareness and fostering personal growth. For example, a person might discover that their co-dependent tendencies stem from childhood experiences, such as growing up in a family where they had to take on a caregiving role early on. Understanding these origins can be a powerful step towards healing.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT is an effective therapeutic approach for addressing co-dependence. It helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviours, replacing them with healthier, more balanced ways of thinking and acting. CBT can empower individuals to set boundaries, assert their needs, and build self-esteem.

Support groups

Support groups, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), offer a community of individuals who understand the challenges of co-dependence. These groups provide a space for mutual support, shared experiences, and practical advice. Engaging with others who face similar struggles can reduce feelings of isolation and provide a sense of belonging and hope.

Family therapy

Family therapy can address the dynamics that contribute to co-dependent behaviours. By involving family members, therapy can help improve communication, establish healthy boundaries, and foster more balanced and supportive relationships. This approach can be particularly beneficial when co-dependent patterns have roots in family dynamics.

Developing healthy coping mechanisms

Therapists can assist individuals in developing healthy coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills. This includes learning how to manage stress, practice self-care, and build resilience. By prioritising their well-being, individuals can break free from the cycle of co-dependence and create more fulfilling relationships.

Co-dependence is a pervasive and often hidden struggle that affects not just the individual but also their relationships. The emotional, psychological, and relational toll can be immense. However, therapy offers a path to healing, providing tools and strategies to break the cycle of co-dependence. Through individual counselling, CBT, support groups, family therapy, and developing healthy coping mechanisms, individuals can reclaim their sense of self, establish healthy boundaries, and build more balanced and fulfilling relationships.

No matter how entrenched the patterns of co-dependence may seem, there is always hope for change and growth. By seeking therapeutic support and committing to personal development, individuals can overcome co-dependence and create a healthier, more authentic life. The journey towards healing may be challenging, but with the right help, it is possible to emerge stronger, more self-aware, and capable of forming healthier connections with others

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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St. Neots PE19 & Bedford MK40
Written by Donna West, MBACP (Accred)ACTO (Snr) Psychotherapist/Clinical supervisor
St. Neots PE19 & Bedford MK40

I have worked with an array of clients whom have accessed counselling for varying reasons that they feel are inhibiting them from living an authentic life. My role within the therapeutic relationship is to work alongside an individual to facilitate self-exploration and consider alternative routes that may lay before them.

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