Codependency, a popular term in recent years, refers to a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which one person relies excessively on another for emotional, psychological, or even physical support. This pattern frequently results in one person – the codependent – enabling their partner’s or loved one’s unhealthy behaviours. We will delve into the complexities of codependency and enabling in this article, discussing their origins, characteristics, and the consequences they have on individuals and relationships.

The Causes of Codependency

The term “codependency” derives from a study of families dealing with substance abuse, in which researchers discovered a pattern of unhealthy behaviours between the addict and their close family members. Codependency emerged as a term to describe family members who took on the role of carer, often to the detriment of their own needs and well-being. Codependency has evolved over time to include not only substance abuse, but also other types of addiction and dysfunction.

Codependent Characteristics

Codependents exhibit certain characteristics that are common in all types of relationships. These are some examples:

Excessive caregiving: Codependents frequently feel a strong need to care for others, often putting others’ needs ahead of their own. Over time, this can lead to burnout and resentment.
Low self-esteem: Many codependents experience feelings of unworthiness, which may lead them to seek validation from their relationships.
Codependents may cling to unhealthy relationships because they are afraid of being alone or rejected.
Poor boundaries: Codependents frequently struggle with setting and maintaining boundaries, allowing others to exploit or control their lives.
Difficulty expressing emotions: Many codependents find it difficult to directly express their feelings or needs, which can lead to passive-aggressive behaviour or emotional outbursts.

A Case Study on Enabling in Codependent Relationships: Sarah and Tom’s Story


This case study examines the codependent relationship between Sarah and Tom, a married couple in their mid-thirties. Their dynamic showcases the characteristics and consequences of enabling in a codependent relationship, offering insight into how these patterns develop and the potential impact on both partners. To protect their privacy, names and identifying details have been changed.


Sarah and Tom have been married for ten years and have two children. Tom has struggled with alcohol addiction for much of their marriage, and Sarah has taken on the role of primary caregiver for their family. Over the years, Sarah has become increasingly codependent on Tom, enabling his addiction while neglecting her own needs and well-being.

Characteristics of Sarah’s Codependency

Sarah consistently prioritizes Tom’s needs above her own, taking care of the household, their children, and managing Tom’s alcohol-related issues. She feels responsible for Tom’s happiness and well-being, often at the expense of her own. Sarah struggles with feelings of unworthiness and seeks validation through her relationship with Tom. She believes that by helping him, she can prove her worthiness and gain his love and appreciation.

Sarah is terrified of losing Tom, which causes her to cling to their unhealthy relationship. She believes that if she stops supporting him, he will leave her or spiral further out of control. Sarah has difficulty setting boundaries with Tom, allowing him to take advantage of her kindness and caregiving nature. She often gives in to his demands, even when it compromises her own well-being. Additionally, Sarah struggles to express her feelings and needs openly with Tom, which leads to passive-aggressive behavior and emotional outbursts.

Enabling Behaviors

Sarah’s codependent relationship with Tom is characterized by several enabling behaviors:

Sarah downplays the severity of Tom’s alcohol addiction, convincing herself that it is not as bad as it seems. This denial allows Tom to continue drinking without facing the full consequences of his actions. Sarah also provides financial support for Tom, often covering the cost of his alcohol purchases, even when it strains their family budget. This financial support enables Tom to continue his addiction without facing financial repercussions.

Sarah frequently makes excuses for Tom’s behavior, covering up his actions to protect his reputation and avoid confrontation. She may lie to friends and family about the extent of Tom’s addiction or provide justifications for his actions. In doing so, she shields Tom from the consequences of his choices and reinforces his destructive behavior.

Sarah often takes on Tom’s responsibilities, such as handling household chores, caring for their children, and managing their finances. By doing this, she enables Tom to continue his addiction without facing the consequences of his neglectful behavior. Moreover, she repeatedly “saves” Tom from the negative outcomes of his actions, preventing him from learning from his mistakes and reinforcing the cycle of dependency.


Sarah and Tom’s story highlights the complexities and consequences of enabling in codependent relationships. As Sarah continues to enable Tom’s addiction, both individuals suffer, and their relationship deteriorates. Breaking the cycle of codependency and enabling requires recognition of the problem, establishing healthy boundaries

Enabling is an important aspect of codependent relationships. It happens when a codependent person allows or even encourages their partner’s harmful behaviour, usually to keep the relationship or avoid conflict. Enabling can appear in a variety of ways, including:

Denial: Codependents may minimise or dismiss the seriousness of their loved one’s unhealthy behaviours, making it easier for the person to continue engaging in destructive patterns.
Codependents may provide financial assistance to their loved ones in some cases, even if it allows them to continue their destructive habits.
Excuse-making: To avoid confrontation or protect their partner’s reputation, codependents may make excuses for their partner’s behaviour or cover up their actions.
Taking responsibility: Codependents may assume their partner’s responsibilities, such as paying bills, managing their schedule, or even finishing their work, allowing their partner to continue their harmful behaviour.
Codependents may repeatedly “save” their loved ones from the consequences of their actions, preventing them from learning from their mistakes and reinforcing the cycle of dependency.

The Effects of Enabling

Enabling perpetuates a dysfunctional cycle with serious consequences for both parties in the relationship. Because the person receiving support is shielded from the natural consequences of their actions, a lack of accountability can lead to a worsening of their harmful behaviours or addiction. Meanwhile, the codependent individual may suffer from emotional, mental, and physical health problems as a result of constant stress and disregard for their own well-being.

Ending the Cycle

Both parties in the relationship must be willing to change in order to break the cycle of codependency and enabling. This could happen. Seeking professional assistance: Therapy or counselling can help codependents address the underlying issues that drive their behaviour, as well as their partners confront their harmful patterns. Couples therapy can help both individuals work on their relationship dynamics together in some cases.
Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries: Codependents must learn to set and maintain healthy boundaries with their partners, clearly communicating their limits and expectations.
Building self-esteem: It is critical for codependents to develop self-worth and confidence in order to resist the urge to seek validation from their relationships. Activities that promote personal growth and self-discovery can be beneficial in this process.
Developing effective communication abilities: Communication that is open and honest allows both parties to express their needs and feelings without resorting to passive-aggressive behaviour or emotional manipulation.
Encourage personal responsibility: Codependents must resist the temptation to save their partners from the consequences of their actions, allowing them to learn from their mistakes and accept responsibility for their choices.
Encourage autonomy and independence in both parties: Encouraging autonomy and independence in both parties can help break the cycle of dependency, allowing each individual to grow and thrive in their own right.

Codependency and enabling are complex dynamics with long-term consequences for the people involved and their relationships. Recognizing and addressing these patterns is critical for breaking the dysfunctional cycle and fostering healthier relationships. Codependents can reclaim their lives and nurture more balanced, fulfilling relationships by seeking professional help, developing healthy boundaries, and building self-esteem.

Subscribe to Dr Jenner's Blog via Email

Dr Jenner creates a wealth of resources, articles and podcasts. Please subscribe to be notified.

Please Contribute