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Can Co-Dependency be a Problem Without Addiction?

By Maren Voss, ScD, Professional Practice Extension Professor of Health and Wellnessback to back couple

Co-dependency is a term we often hear coupled with Alcoholics Anonymous since people around an alcoholic respond to the stress of addiction on a relationship.  But the stress of addiction isn’t the only type of stress that can create co-dependent patterns.  In fact, co-dependency has sometimes been called relationship addiction. This is because stress in a relationship can cause uncertainty, insecurity, and the feeling that we need to fix the other person and make the world think we are ok.  

Co-dependency has been defined as a combination of dependence, obsession, and preoccupation toward another person (Zielinski et al. 2019). A few warning signs that co-dependency might have crept into the relationship include:

  • The need to control and fix others. Co-dependent people are highly capable at fixing things and may even start to feel empty and worthless if there isn’t a crisis to fix. 
  • Setting aside personal interests to help others. As the co-dependent person devotes so much of their time to pitching in and cleaning up other people’s messes, they may start to wonder why others don’t do the same for them and get a little resentful.
  • Pretending everything is fine. Co-dependency often leads to ignoring problems, painting a glossy, sugar-coated glow around the family. This leads people to not talk about problems as they fester and seep out in troubling behaviors by family members.
  • Feeling responsible for other people. A co-dependent person tends to be a caretaker.  Another person’s pain makes them feel anxious or guilty, so they overstep and overcommit in trying to help, but really, it’s about easing personal insecurity.
  • A desperate need to be liked. At the heart of insecurity in co-dependency is a lack of self-worth. So, a co-dependent person uses relationships to fill that void, spending a great deal of energy and time worrying about how others think of them.

Is co-dependency a problem? It is often linked to boundary issues and unhealthy family dynamics. The pattern gets deeply engrained, with new research showing that co-dependent tendencies are linked to a part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) that is triggered when we respond to cues from a loved one (Zielinski, et al. 2019). Overcoming the tendency to try to fix others’ problems or minimize and deny they exist can lead to resilience in the relationship and the family (Bradshaw et al. 2021). 

Luckily, there is help available. USU offers relationship classes that can help spot (and fix) warning signs of troubling relationship patterns: https://extension.usu.edu/hru/

More information on how addictive patterns impact families and resources to help can be found at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline:



  • Bradshaw S.D., Shumway S.T., Kimball T.G. (2021) Associations Between SUD in the Family, PFC
  • Functioning, and Codependency: Importance of Family Member Recovery. In: Croff J.M., Beaman J. (eds) Family Resilience and Recovery from Opioids and Other Addictions. Emerging Issues in Family and Individual Resilience. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-56958-7_8
  • Zielinski, M., Bradshaw, S., Mullet, N., Hawkins, L., Shumway, S., & Story Chavez, M. (2019).
  • Codependency and prefrontal cortex functioning: Preliminary examination of substance use disorder impacted family members. The American Journal on Addictions, 28, 367–375.