What Causes Codependency? — Talkspace

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 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 security, 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.

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