Why did the codependent cross the road? To help the chicken make a decision. Since its debut in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the term “codependent” has become the stuff of punchlines, but it is a real thing.

While not an actual diagnosis, the term “codependent” was first used to describe how family members of individuals with substance abuse issues might actually interfere with recovery by overhelping.

As the term spread, so did the idea of the importance of context for people struggling with substance abuse. Indeed, before this shift, treatment tended to focus purely on the addicted individual without much thought for their broader support system.

But since then, the term has gotten a lot looser, so much so that it’s become a catchall for any enabling, over-dependent, or dysfunctional relationship. At its worst, anyone who offers support for a loved one risks being dragged down a rabbithole labeled “codependent.”

So what is it exactly? For our purposes today, we’ll focus on the over-helper’s side of the aisle. Here are four ways to tell if you’re part of the problem and three ways to stop.


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