Have you ever been in a relationship where you felt like you were always putting your partner’s needs before your own? Or are you always the one who makes all of the compromises? If so, you may be in a codependent relationship.
Codependency is a relationship characterized by excessive dependency on one another, which can be harmful to both partners.
So, if you’re worried that you’re in a codependent relationship, here are signs to look out for:
Each person in the relationship either assumes “too much” or “too little” responsibility
The classic example of codependency is the wife who buys booze for her alcoholic husband despite nagging him to stop drinking.
Although that extreme scenario occurs in many relationships, other symptoms of codependency are just as damaging. The more subtle signs of codependence are when one partner expects the other to make life meaningful to give them value and purpose.
The best definition of codependency I’ve ever heard is “an imbalance of responsibility.”
Each person in the relationship either assumes “too much“ responsibility (picking up the pieces of the other’s irresponsibility); or “too little“ responsibility (allowing another to suffer the consequences of the behavior.)
I liken a codependent relationship to the hooks and loops of velcro. One who tends to be overly responsible invariably attracts someone who tends to be irresponsible. The result is nearly always:
- Feelings of resentment
- Being used
- Taken advantage of
- Unfairness on one side
- Feeling controlled on the other side
Examples of codependency
An example of this imbalance would be if a husband, for instance, began working overtime to pay off the wife’s debts.
Another example would be an untidy husband making extra work for the wife who desires a clean, tidy home by leaving his dirty clothes on the bedroom floor or dirty dishes left in the living room. She may complain or nag but keeps cleaning up his messes.
An acquaintance of mine is suffering the consequences of his wife refusing to get help for her depression. They desperately need two incomes to help them buy a working vehicle and pay their bills. Yet, he makes excuses for her and carries a full load of that household without her help emotionally or financially.
Another codependent belief is that if they would just change (this habit or that), I would be happy. That belief leaves you playing the victim role in the relationship. A role that will guarantee your unhappiness as long as that’s your choice.
A recent client of mine was expending huge amounts of energy trying to get her husband to stop drinking. She’d been nagging, guilting, sleeping in separate areas of the house, the cold shoulder, for years without any success.
When she accepted that her tactics weren’t working and quietly told him what he was in danger of losing (their marriage and family), he finally agreed to get support to stop drinking.
Now they are in the next phase of this enormous transition by learning how to communicate with respect to building a more stable future together.
Another client with a workaholic husband complains of her lack of a life. “It isn’t fair,” she moans. No, it isn’t. But as in the previous example, her years of complaints have only driven them further apart emotionally, building a thick wall of resentment on both sides.
If you want more from your marriage, what are you willing to change?
Resentment is the primary symptom that a codependent relationship has been in play
The “giver” in the relationship keeps wanting the “taker” to be responsible and make appropriate, courteous choices. When that doesn’t happen, the “giver” becomes resentful.
The only solution is for the “giver” to set an appropriate, reasonable, self-honoring boundary and enforce it.
Initiate healthy change in an unhealthy or codependent relationship
In my case, disconnecting from codependence meant choosing a different definition of love. Originally, love meant making someone I loved happy—doing what pleased them.
I eventually realized that making loving decisions sometimes means doing something that is in my own and the other’s best interests, whether or not they are happy with my choice.
- I would not lend money to my drug-addicted son.
- I will not always meet with a client who is having another crisis and wants me now.
- I will only agree to alter my friend’s dress if she can bring it to me before 8 p.m, not 11 p.m.
- Recently I would not call back into a session a man who walked out angry even though his partner was frantic for me to make him come back.
I’ve also found that when I am angry because someone isn’t behaving the way I think they should or doing what I want them to do, it’s because I am unwilling to change myself.
The only person I can change is me! The amazing thing is that, often, when I assume more responsibility for myself by changing what I contribute to the relationship, the other person changes in response.
It takes courage to initiate healthy change in an unhealthy or codependent relationship. The results, however, are freedom from resentment and the powerless condition of blame.
Monica Amorosi, LMHC, CATP
Licensed Psychotherapist, Clarity Therapy NYC
When either of you takes the role of a “caretaker” and “one being taken cared of”
Codependency is an imbalanced relationship where two parties are dependent on each other to meet unhealthy attachment needs.
In most circumstances, one member takes on the role of a caretaker, and the other takes on the part of being taken care of. These dynamics create a power imbalance making the relationship transactional. A codependent relationship is, therefore, unhealthy and unsustainable.
At first, codependent relationships can feel mutually beneficial; therefore, people may perceive them as healthy or compatible.
- The caretaker feels needed, benefits from caring, and therefore feels useful and secure in the relationship.
- The partner being cared for gets all their needs met and avoids stressors or accountability.
This dynamic, however, is unsustainable.
Why is codependency unhealthy?
Relationships are supposed to be mutually beneficial in unequal ways. Both parties need to depend on the other, both parties need to carry some burden of work, and both parties should be at an equal level.
All humans have needs, and when one partner sacrifices to take care of the other, that partner will eventually burn out. This may lead to:
- Dissatisfaction in the relationship
- Neglect of self
- Resentment for not being treated equally
The person being cared for may start to feel neglected or ignored and resent their partner for changing or doing less work.
Furthermore, everyone must learn to:
- Tolerate stress
- Make choices for themselves
- Face accountability when making mistakes
Related: Why Is Accountability Important?
Sometimes the partner being cared for evades these things, making it difficult for them to shift to healthy or adaptive behavior.
How does someone become a caretaker?
There are many pathways of development that could lead someone to be a caretaker. Perhaps they needed to manage the emotions of their household growing up. Maybe they needed to work to provide financial assistance to their family.
It’s possible they could have a history of relationships that made them feel bad for having needs. These experiences create a core belief that they are only worthy in relationships when they are not a burden.
Therefore, they create security in relationships by meeting every need of their partner, solving problems for their partner, or sacrificing their own needs, so they do not seem needy.
How does someone get taken care of in a relationship?
Getting all of your needs met by someone may be appealing to many people. This means that people might be more likely to fall into the “cared-for” role in a codependent relationship.
However, some people will have a higher risk of taking on this role. If someone feels entitled to an easy life with minimal distress, they may seek partners who care take.
Maybe they have had a lot of distress in their life and cannot tolerate more, or perhaps they have endured minimal distress and want to maintain that.
On a more insidious level, some people may feel entitled to control or power over another person, making them dangerous partners in a codependent relationship. These individuals may exploit the caretaker and continually ask for more.
In general, many people get taken care of in relationships without realizing it.
How can you know if you are the caretaker?
- You want to save someone or cure someone.
- You want to change who someone is at their core.
- You feel selfish if you want to care for yourself or ask for help.
- You cancel things in your life to fully focus on your partner.
- You don’t trust your partner can take care of anything on their own.
- You feel resentful at how much your partner depends on you.
- You feel you can’t set boundaries.
- You own the mistakes of your partner.
- You are afraid or uncomfortable with holding your partner accountable for mistakes.
How can you know if you are being taken care of?
- You feel resentful when you have to do things on your own.
- You perceive your partner as selfish when they don’t do something for you/need you to do something for them.
- You project responsibility onto your partner when things go wrong.
- You allow your partner to take care of things you could do independently.
- When you no longer need care, you find yourself less attached to your partner.
- You believe you are incapable of change or do not need to change.
- You feel afraid or uncomfortable when left alone or rejected when your partner does things alone.
- Your difficulties get worse when boundaries are set.
Can codependent relationships be changed?
Codependent relationships can be saved only if each person adjusts their role in the relationship. Both partners must shift to take care of themselves more effectively and trust that the other can meet their own needs.
Related: How to Break Codependency Habits
This means a caretaker has to work less on their partner and more on their own needs. They will need to trust that their partner won’t abandon them just because they aren’t fixing every problem anymore.
The partner being cared for will need to help meet the caretaker’s needs and manage their own needs. They will need to tolerate distress and accountability.
This change will initially feel stressful to both parties and may even feel dissatisfactory or unsafe. However, these changes are necessary to build an equitable and healthy relationship.
Licensed Psychotherapist | Certified Perinatal Mental Health Specialist
Codependency is essentially a boundary issue. One partner is overly involved in the functioning of the other, and the other partner under-functions.
At first glance, we might conclude that the under-functioning partner is taking advantage of the over-functioning one. However, both partners are somewhat responsible for the inevitable conflict and lack of intimacy that ensues.
The under-functioning partner ensures neither partner leaves the other
At first glance, this partner is typically someone who might be considered “emotionally immature.” They may struggle with externalizing behaviors like:
- Explosive anger
- Other mental health issues
Upon deeper reflection, we often see some history of broken relationships or trauma in this partner’s narrative. These painful experiences solidify destructive behavioral patterns as coping mechanisms to find love and connection.
The under-functioning partner attracts, often unconsciously, an individual who takes on the caretaking role, helping them feel the care and attention they craved earlier in their development.
What the under-functioning partner mistakes for love is, in actuality, a carefully played out contractual dance that ensures neither partner leaves the other.
It keeps the partners disconnected and ensures the under-functioning partner will continue to exhibit destructive behaviors like the ones mentioned above.
The over-functioning partner takes the caretaker role at the expense of their own self
The over-functioning partner is often seen as someone mature, responsible, and perhaps even “sweet.”
They take pride in their ability to care for others, and they may have been pressured to take on the caretaker role early in life at the expense of their own sense of self. This partner makes all the:
- Health appointments
As you might expect, this partner often develops resentment towards their partner. But do not be fooled, reader! The over-functioner, too, is somewhat responsible for this cycle of conflict.
The over-functioning partner is somewhat duplicitous in that they do not clearly assert their needs to the under-functioner.
In this way, the over-functioning partner keeps their loved one close and in debt but sacrifices the intimacy that comes from the authentic give-and-take resulting from courageous, thoughtful, and assertive communication.
How to get out of this codependent dance
Codependency is one of the most common and destructive patterns I see in couples who come into my office. Here are some of the things I’ve found that can help a couple get out of this codependent dance:
The under-functioner needs to learn to take responsibility for their harmful behaviors, apologize, and make small but consistent changes that demonstrate taking care of themselves.
Usually, there are underlying issues that have helped shape these destructive behaviors, and they need professional support to address them. This might look like going to an anger management group, Narcotics Anonymous, or a trauma therapist.
Get real with your needs
The over-functioner needs to get real with the fact that they, too, have needs. They may have spent their entire life taking on the caregiving role, so they do not know the difference between caring about someone and caring for someone.
- Caring about someone involves a healthy give-and-take, in which both partners are vulnerable in asking for help from time to time.
- Caring for someone keeps a person contractually obligated to stay with them. However, it prevents intimacy from growing in the relationship.
This partner may also benefit from individual therapy, Al-Anon, or mindfulness practices to help them connect with their needs and self-worth.
Both partners need to work on their communication
A couples therapist can help partners map out their cycle of conflict so that the two can approach the pattern together as a team instead of getting caught in this duplicitous web of codependency.
The Bottom Line: Codependency centers on patterns of boundary-diffusion in a relationship. One partner acts overly responsible for the other’s behavior, and the other accepts their partner’s inappropriate caretaking.
The result—the couple spirals into a dance of resentment and conflict and eventually drifts apart emotionally over time.
The solution? Both partners need to do the challenging work of owning their “stuff,” whether it be a traumatic event years ago or a persistent pattern of low self-esteem.
From this place of self-reflection, the partners can finally communicate with clarity, vulnerability, and authenticity—the only way out of codependent habits and toward true intimacy.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
The common codependency dynamic that is discussed in clinical counseling is one of a “giver” who tends to the needs of the “taker” who typically struggles with some substance use issue, addiction, or other persistent mental health issues.
Codependency occurs when maintaining this fragile relational dynamic is protected as the main priority, despite the consequences of doing so.
Why is it so hard for people in codependent relationships to recognize it?
Givers within the codependency often don’t self-identify as codependent. This dynamic between the two individuals usually develops unconsciously.
No one ever intentionally sets out to become a caregiver of a partner with persistent problems. But the unconscious nature of these relationships makes it even more challenging to recognize that harm is being done.
Here are some common signs to recognize if you or a loved one is in a codependent relationship and what might be underneath the behaviors of this unhealthy dynamic.
You search for the “perfect help”
When you are working harder to fix your partner’s problems than your partner is, this is a huge red flag of codependency.
Many givers don’t directly seek out therapy to help address their own codependency but might seek out couples counseling or rehabilitation services for their partner, regardless of their partner’s interest in participating in these treatments.
Often the thought is, “if I could just find a perfect treatment for my partner, all our problems would be resolved.” This keeps the dynamic protected because it also distracts the giver’s need for treatment.
To break this cycle of codependency, both partners must desire and want change. It is not reliant on one person getting help.
Individuals with persistent addictions and mental health diagnoses need to find their own motivation for change that cannot be substituted by their partner’s desire for them to change.
If the comfort of the relationship does not create friction for the individual with the problem because the giver is enabling them, they are less likely to seek and accept this help.
That means you are better off creating firm boundaries in your relationship to allow natural consequences of your partner’s behavior to help them feel the impact of their actions and desire to change.
There’s strong resistance to accepting support
The strange dynamic of codependency is when help is offered to decrease the impact of the problems the partnership faces, the giver might decline or find excuses to refuse the help.
Offers of support from others might threaten the giver’s identity as a caregiver, creating a strong reaction to maintain the relationship’s status quo.
For example, after complaining to a loved one about your exhaustion from caring for your detoxing husband after he returned from yet another drinking binge, your loved one offers to help care for your husband so you can get some time out of the house.
You find yourself immediately declining your loved one’s offer and become frustrated by this offer.
- “How could they possibly understand how to care for my partner when detoxing? I am the only one who truly understands how to care for him.”
- “I cannot possibly trust anyone else to help to care for my partner. He needs me.”
What is below this resistance for help? Well, usually, a real fear of not being needed by your partner anymore. If you are no longer needed to be the primary caregiver, what would your new identity be?
You might find yourself experiencing strong emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, or irritability if offers of help from others threaten the fragile balance of the current dynamic with your partner.
In this example, the resistance might be related to the fear that if your husband’s sister can take care of him now, he won’t need you anymore, and the relationship will no longer have the glue that keeps it together.
There is a fear to change
In healthy relationships, there should be a natural progression towards growth and development as individuals and as a couple.
When a relationship is codependent, it is by nature too fragile for any type of growth and development, as this might disrupt the tenuous balance of the couple.
The giver in the codependent dynamic often fears change and might unconsciously do actions that keep things the same, even if that situation is painful, harmful, or even dangerous.
Be mindful if you find yourself making excuses for ignoring your own needs and personal development.
The giver in a codependent relationship often declines or decides to hold themselves back from opportunities that would better their lives in the sacrifice of dedicating all their energy, time, and resources to care for their partner.
For example, you decline taking classes to advance your own career because you worry about your husband drinking alone at home and relapsing.
Instead of being honest about the reasons you haven’t pursued this opportunity, you make excuses such as:
- “That class was too pricey anyway. I’ll wait for a cheaper option.”
- “I probably wouldn’t get a job advancement anyway, so it’s a waste of time.”
- “My income is so low compared to my partner’s, and my value is to be at home.”
Making excuses keeps you distanced from acknowledging the real reasons you are not seeking change for yourself—your attachment to your loved one’s problems.
Psychotherapist, Licensed Creative Arts Therapist
I confess, as a therapist who works a lot with codependence, I hate the word codependence. People sometimes hear that word and think it’s unhealthy to depend on others. Depending on others is normal and healthy.
When thinking about codependency, I think about the idea of losing your sense of self and the idea of wanting to control others and outcomes.
What are some signs of a codependent relationship? This list is not exhaustive.
You often cancel your plans to accommodate when your partner or friend invites you
There may be times when you know your person could benefit from time with you or would appreciate your support. That said, if you find this becoming a pattern, it could be a sign of codependency.
Perhaps you hesitate to schedule plans on a Friday because someone else said they might be available. Or maybe you had plans with one friend, and you cancel when your partner/friend/family member says they want to see you. It’s worth noticing if this is a pattern.
You are trying to fix other people’s problems, whether they ask for help or not
It is a common tendency in codependence to try to solve others’ problems, taking on emotional or physical labor to make things better. It’s particularly significant if you are trying to fix things you were not asked to fix.
You may also notice that when you try to fix things, you are not met with interest and excitement. There is a difference between helping when asked for vs. always stepping in to help others, even when not asked.
You feel fully responsible for the other person’s emotions
Do your actions impact others? Yes. Are you fully responsible for everyone else’s emotions? No.
Feeling like you need to operate in a certain way to ensure someone else doesn’t get upset can be a sign of codependency. Additionally, feeling like you need to resolve any challenging emotions in someone else is often linked to codependency.
Can you offer to help? Absolutely. That said, the other person holds the ultimate responsibility for meeting their own needs.
You have difficulty or feel guilty when trying to say no
One thing I often see in codependency is losing (or never defining) boundaries.
People navigating codependency may feel that their needs are unimportant or that they can’t disappoint others by setting boundaries and saying no. This can often lead to emotional exhaustion and resentment.
You are afraid of being alone
This can signify that you don’t know who you are or don’t trust yourself. I want to be clear that preferring not to be alone is different from feeling lost, uncertain, and unmoored when you are alone.
It’s okay to prefer being social, but if your desire to be with others comes paired with some of those lost feelings, that can be a sign of codependency.
The needs of others always take priority, at the expense of you and your own needs
Relationships include “give and take,” and sacrifice can be a part of that. It’s time to take notice, though, if you find that you are doing so repeatedly at the expense of yourself.
You may find that you are feeling tired, resentful, or overwhelmed. You may also find that you have put your needs and priorities aside to your own detriment. This can be a sign of codependency as well.
Codependence lives on a spectrum, so while I offer these thoughts, it’s worth considering what is and is not working for you. You may find some of these ideas resonate, and others don’t. It’s always worth checking in with yourself to decide how you feel in these areas.
John F. Tholen
Retired Psychologist | Author, “Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind“
A relationship is codependent when it’s so imbalanced that one partner is pathologically self-sacrificing
That person fears rejection and abandonment, and the primary concern guiding their decisions is usually to please—or at least appease—their partner.
If unchanged, this pattern makes the dependent partner increasingly angry with both their partner and themselves.
Codependency is generally considered an addictive disorder in which a person tends to value their major relationship excessively.
They tolerate and even facilitate (“enabling“) unreasonable, often self-destructive, behavior on the part of relationship partners—who often also have an addictive disorder of some type (e.g., alcoholism, drug dependency, compulsive gambling, etc.).
What causes codependency?
Codependency results from a complex interaction between a person’s inherited biology and early life experience. That interplay leaves some individuals emotionally insecure and prone to automatic thoughts that are dysfunctional—causing distress without inspiring constructive action.
Although it seems that our feelings and motivations result directly from the events and circumstances we encounter in life, they are instead reactions to our self-talk—the internal monologue that streams through our waking consciousness, interpreting our every experience.
When dysfunctional thoughts are allowed to occupy the focus of attention, they cause distress and inhibit self-assertion—even though they are almost always incomplete, unreasonable, or completely wrong.
When a person behaves codependently, their attention is usually focused on thoughts such as:
- “Although this person is causing me intense frustration, I might not be able to cope without what they do for me.”
- “It would be horrible if this person broke off our relationship, and I’d probably fall apart entirely.”
- “My feelings and wishes are not as important as keeping this relationship going.”
Dysfunctional thoughts such as these undermine self-confidence, discourage self-assertion, and prevent the codependent individual from insisting that their partner’s counterproductive behavior change or leaving a relationship even when its continuation has become emotionally painful.
What are the main signs of codependency?
A relationship becomes codependent when one party in the relationship repeatedly engages in potentially self-destructive behavior and then fails—and resists efforts to persuade them—to stop their counterproductive behavior.
All while the other party continues to participate in the relationship, support the partner, and prevents them from encountering the natural adverse consequences of their counterproductive actions.
Codependent behavior is often excused as an expression of “love” but is usually more motivated by the greater attractiveness of being a “martyr” than of being a “failure.“
As their frustration mounts, the codependent party usually experiences symptoms such as:
- Impairments of emotional control and concentration
The relationship eventually ends somehow; the self-destructive partner becomes disabled or isolated, or pursuing a hopeless cause leads to some exhaustive collapse on the part of the codependent person.
How can codependency be treated or managed?
Codependency is best treated like other addictive disorders. The first step is acceptance and recognition—overcoming denial of the irrational behavior.
The second step is acknowledging that the problem is too pervasive to be handled alone and that support from others who have surmounted similar issues is required.
Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) is a nationwide12-step organization designed to assist individuals with codependency problems.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help surmount codependency because it can alter the automatic thoughts that underlie our irrational behavior.
We can gradually enhance our emotional availability—and improve our outcomes and state of mind—by identifying and shifting our attention to reasonable alternative ideas that are more likely to reassure, inspire hope, or motivate constructive action. This is focused positivity strategy:
- Becoming mindful of our thoughts by recording and examining the ideas that occupy our minds when we are upset
- Identifying the dysfunctional thoughts that have become the focus of our attention and create feelings of emotional unavailability
- Constructing more reasonable, balanced, and functional alternatives
- Systematically refocusing our attention away from dysfunctional thoughts and toward functional alternatives.
A person can gradually become less susceptible to codependent behavior patterns by focusing on—and may diminish the chances of their child becoming codependent—by teaching functional thoughts such as:
- “I’m only human and can’t stop someone from self-destruction when they aren’t ready to change.”
- “Although it may seem noble, continuing to support my partner as they self-destruct damages both of us.”
- “I can help my partner most by modeling self-care and letting them confront the natural consequences of their behavior.”
- “I can best support myself, my self-destructive partner, and this family by establishing myself as an independent single person.”
- “Relationships are usually most successful when we want—but don’t need—them.”
- “With the help of a healthy social support network, I can get my life and my family back on a positive track.”
They can’t operate or survive without the other
Being in a codependent relationship means one or both partners are overly dependent on each other. It seems like they can’t operate without the other. It’s not healthy.
Often, jealousy and control are involved. One or both partners aren’t allowed to voice what they think or do what they want.
They may feel like they have to do every little thing together or get their partner’s approval before doing anything. Even if they aren’t married, and if it won’t affect the other person.
One or both partners feel like they have to fix their partner’s problems because they can’t do it themself. One may literally believe that the other can’t survive without them. Or one may think they can’t survive without their partner.
A common pattern is when one partner acts like the parent, and one partner plays the part of the child. This can affect partners of all ages and age gaps.
The parent may be the one giving approval for activities and treating the other one like they can’t do anything right. The “parent” plays the part of the controlling and concerned adult, while the “child” is the fun-loving, irresponsible one. This may not even be true in reality.
Another scenario: The “parent” may truly be the responsible one, cleaning up messes behind the childish one. The “child” may mess things up in their physical environment or friend groups.
The “parent” then must come and clean up after the “child.” The “parent” may apologize to everyone else about the “child’s” behavior in the aftermath of an outburst. This is a common pattern among someone in a relationship with an immature narcissist.
Control and jealousy
At least one partner has to get approval for everything before they do it. One partner may not let the other do things they enjoy anymore.
One or both partners may get jealous when the other is around other potential love interests. Even if they are people the partner would have no interest in.
You rarely see one without the other
At first glance, it seems sweet when a couple does everything together. But over time, couples need their own friends, hobbies, and space.
The world will end if one partner wants to break up
Even if one person doesn’t want to be in the relationship anymore, they are afraid to break up. They are either afraid of their partner or afraid they can’t make it alone.
Can the pattern change?
The pattern can change if both partners realize there’s a problem and work to fix it. Unhealthy patterns can be replaced with healthy ones. And the relationship may begin to function like a healthy one.
If one partner is a narcissist, they likely won’t see a problem with the relationship pattern. If both partners don’t fix to change the pattern, it won’t get done. The only option here is to accept the codependent relationship and be happy with it or break up.
Those who want to learn more should search for books about codependency, toxic relationships, and healthy relationships. If you think it’s a major problem, consider seeking counseling.
David Helfand, PsyD
Licensed Psychologist | Owner, LifeWise, PLLC
You rely on your partner in a way that handicaps your ability to function in their absence
Codependency in relationships can seem harmless while, in fact, creating a dynamic that hurts each individual or even the entire family system.
There is some level of support that is healthy and useful in a relationship. For example, if you decide to divide house chores, that can create more efficient work and results around the home.
In contrast, if your partner does the laundry so much that you don’t even know how to operate the machines properly, that is a problem.
A healthy, supportive relationship is when both partners contribute as a team to create a synergistic effect within their life. A codependent relationship is when you rely on your partner in such a way that it handicaps your ability to function in their absence.
Another example of this is emotionality. If someone can only be happy when their partner is happy, that is codependency.
A healthy relationship occurs when your emotions are differentiated from your partners, which means you are able to have empathy for them, but you also can experience your own authentic emotions despite what they are feeling.
How to fix your relationship
If you are worried that you are in a codependent relationship, it’s important that you first both identify that fact and talk about it. Labeling the situation and creating awareness is the first step to fixing it.
The next step is to start increasing your own emotional resiliency so that you are both able to have empathy while also tapping into your personal emotional experiences separate from your partner.
Finally, identify scenarios where either of you heavily relies on the other person. Start increasing your ability to be independent. Remember that it is okay to divide and conquer as a team as long as you can meet your basic needs should the need arise.
The term codependent emerged before we had the research for a collective understanding of attachment style.
In my clinical experience, anyone partnered with someone who has an avoidant attachment style might appear “co-dependent” as they work to create and sustain a connection in the relationship.
Women develop a sense of “self” in a relationship. (girls and boys both do this, but the boy code requires a sharp disconnection from relationships to thrive in our society)
Connection, or co-regulation, provides the foundation for a “self” through the innate and intricate processes of mirroring, attuning, and nurturing that happen before the 3rd year of life.
Mother Nature designed us to develop with our very first caregiver—our biological mother. In her arms, in her gaze, and in the sound of her voice, we learn that we exist, that we matter, and that we are lovable.
When these early attachment needs are unmet, (our mother is unwell, unavailable, frightening, or afraid), we miss out on these fundamental processes that grow our brain’s neuropathways for communication, trust, and attention.
Instead, we develop a personality adapted to deprivation.
Deep in the body of an under-mothered adult is a child starving for love— a quality of love that we associate with mothers—a nurturing, safe, inspiring love. (thus the term Mother Hunger)
As adults, before we have a chance to heal, our adaptations to early deprivation range from a numb, shut-down personality to an overly active, striving personality.
In general, it’s the hypervigilant folks that get labeled “codependent” because they work very hard to maintain relationships with people who are emotionally and/or physically unavailable. Not because they are codependent, but because this is simply familiar.
Christina Runnels, MA, LPC-S, LCDC, PMH-C
Founder and Owner, Greater Houston Counseling Services
They lack boundaries and a strong sense of self
Over the years, I’ve worked with many clients who struggle with boundaries and relationship issues.
Unfortunately, many individuals find themselves in codependent relationships without even realizing it. This imbalance within the relationship often presents itself as one person giving much more than the other.
When a person engages in a codependent relationship, this is typically a sign that the person lacks boundaries or a strong sense of self. This may look like a person being unable to decide without talking to their partner. This is the case no matter how big or small the decision.
They’re heavily impacted by their partner’s mood
Another sign is a person being heavily impacted by their partner’s mood and allowing it to ruin their mood or even their day. Other codependent behaviors may look like this:
- Having an obsessive need for external validation
- Accepting responsibility for someone else’s actions
- Continuously avoiding conflict
- Neglecting one’s own needs to care for someone else
Codependency is a behavior that can be unlearned.
Whether a person has been entangled in a cycle of codependency for years or has recently recognized signs, they can recover from it and have healthy, lasting relationships.
Here are five tips I suggest:
- Identify boundaries that work for you and seek support to hold your boundaries with others.
- Don’t be afraid to spend some time alone getting to know yourself a little better.
- Learn more about your feelings.
- Uncover the root of your relationship expectations and challenge your distorted beliefs.
- Engage in activities that make you feel good about yourself.
- Speak with a mental health professional who can offer insight and support.
Psychotherapist | Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
They feel persistent confusion and anxiety in their relationship
Persistent feelings of confusion and anxiety about a relationship are common signs of co-dependence.
A co-dependent partner has trouble holding onto and believing their partner loves them and is committed to the relationship. There is a persistent little voice in their head telling them that “they are going to leave.”
As a result, they keep checking in with their partner for reassurance. They frequently ask them:
- “How do you feel?”
- “Is everything ok?”
- “Do you love me?”
When their partner shows any sign of distance or separation, the co-dependent partner immediately flies into a panic and starts holding on even tighter. This often just makes their partner move further away, making the co-dependent partner hang on tighter—not a good pattern.
The first step in breaking this cycle is to help the co-dependent partner focus on their own feelings and behavior rather than depending on their partner to calm their anxiety.
Transformational Mindset Coach, Free To Be You Coaching
Codependent behavior is not something that is isolated to just one relationship. People who are prone to codependent behavior will experience these problems in most, if not all, aspects of their life.
As a professional in this field offering coaching for those struggling with codependency, here are the top three signs to know if you are codependent:
You feel it is your responsibility to fix and help other people even when they don’t ask
Codependency is a learned behavior, and you likely witnessed these traits within your own family structure.
A parent that is codependent with their children will expect their children to care emotionally for them in ways that are inappropriate during their formative years (and beyond) to the point where they experience something called “parentification.”
You may have also witnessed your caregivers being codependent with others, so you learn that this is the role you are required to play in your own life too.
Your ongoing need to help and “fix” others causes you to feel anxious and resentful when they don’t take your advice or their problems persist. Codependency, in this way, is characterized by taking on the problems of others as if they were your own.
So the need to fix others and make them feel better is so you can feel better too. Codependents typically have difficulty understanding emotional boundaries.
You put your own needs last
Because you are overly focused on the needs of others, you have lost touch with what your own needs are.
You may have been taught that your needs don’t matter. Perhaps you were raised by an emotionally unavailable parent or caregiver, which resulted in a disconnect from your own sense of worthiness.
Any time you expressed your feelings or what you needed as a child, it was dismissed and disregarded, so you soon learned to dismiss your feelings and disregard your own needs. This then resulted in a hypersensitivity to the needs of others.
You may have attracted emotionally unavailable partners into your life and relationships with people who make you feel responsible for their feelings.
Many people struggle with codependency and base their self-worth on the external validation they receive by helping others instead of validating themselves based on their self-worth.
You do not ask for help—because you are the help
If you struggle with codependent behaviors, you also have difficulty accepting help from others. You feel like a “doormat” and have difficulty saying “no” when people ask you for help or favors.
You cannot set healthy boundaries, which is crucial for attracting healthy balanced relationships. To set healthy boundaries, you have to know your needs, and when that is difficult for you, you become a people pleaser instead.
Since you are a “giver,” you wind up attracting a lot of “takers” in your life, leaving you feeling drained and exhausted.
Founder, BU Happiness College
You’ve lost sense of yourself
A great relationship contributes to your identity but doesn’t consume it. If someone is losing their sense of uniqueness and becoming lost in the relationship, it can be a big red flag that their relationship is codependent.
Having hobbies, interests, and passions separate from your partner and your relationship is a healthy way to avoid this.
You and your partner treat each other like therapists
Something we see all too often in unhealthy and codependent relationships is that the relationship has begun to resemble therapy. While it’s healthy to be emotionally available to each other and support each other emotionally, it’s also essential to have a space outside your relationship to process your emotions.
Whether it’s a close friendship or a more professional relationship with a counselor, coach, or therapist, it’s important not to rely solely on your partner to help you manage your emotions.
Your mood is heavily dictated by your partner’s mood
Repeat after me; “it is not my partner’s job to make me happy.”
Your happiness and your emotional well-being are solely your responsibility. While your partner can certainly contribute to your happiness, and you can contribute to theirs, at the end of the day, your emotions are yours to manage.
If you find that your day-to-day mood is dictated by how your partner feels at any given moment, then it’s worth spending some time working on your own emotional well-being toolkit.
Katina Tarver, MA
Life and Relationship Coach, ThePleasantRelationship
You have lost the connection
There was a time when they were your favorite. However, dynamics have changed wherein you feel like doing everything for them but don’t feel the same commitment.
You expecting support from them is normal, but things are not the same wherein, in actuality, they avoid helping you. You do the chores alone, shop alone, even in a time of crisis.
You feel the burden of the relationship
You are always on a spree to improve them. Instead, you don’t get “feel-good” vibes around them. When you are in a good mood, their presence spoils the ambiance.
Furthermore, whatever they do, you never find that satisfactory and vice versa. Indeed, a classic sign of codependency.
You suddenly have mixed feelings
When someone asks you how you feel about the relationship, you have mixed feelings—neither positive nor negative.
You focus so much on the person that you have forgotten to acknowledge your emotions. You have sidelined your likes and dislikes and focused only on the partner.
There is no personal space left
You are so much “involved” in the relationship that you have forgotten about your personal space. You have literally restructured your likes as per your partner’s needs.
You feel scared of being alone. Every time you buy anything, you need their validation. Your “liking” revolves around them, their validation, and likes.
Your preferences always take a backseat because you think it’s not warm-hearted
If you are compassionate, you know everything about the person before they even spill the beans. Their likes hold more importance, and if you dare to speak up, you feel it’s misconduct.
However, if you put forth any request, they tag you as “demanding.” Besides, you are also scared of sharing your preferences because you do not wish to disturb their mental well-being.
All these scenarios point towards codependency.
Healthy boundaries are not meant for your relationship
Whenever either of you decides to set healthy boundaries, the other one starts getting upset, which is a classic sign of a codependent relationship.
They do not wish any boundaries to spoil their relationship because there will be no caring for each other and no dependency either.
There will be no approval or validation, and the dependent partner will start speaking for themselves. They will give more preference to their likes, which might affect the other as they won’t be in the limelight anymore.
Relationship Expert | Managing Editor, Texas Divorce Laws
They constantly try to please others
It’s pretty normal to want to be liked by others, and we all want to see our loved ones happy, but there is a difference between these instincts and constantly trying to please others.
People-pleasers frequently believe they have no other option but to maintain other people’s happiness. Even when doing so significantly compromises their ability to satisfy their own needs and interests, they find it difficult to say no.
Neither partner typically has extremely high self-esteem
In a codependent relationship, neither partner typically has extremely high self-esteem. To feel motivated, one needs the other’s approval or, at the very least, to be helpful to the other.
Due to having to rely on another person to take care of their material requirements and wanting approval from that person, the other person suffers from poor self-esteem. The dependent person frequently exerts control out of a fundamental fear that the other person might depart.
They frequently struggle with limits and boundaries
People in a codependent relationship usually struggle to understand, respect, and uphold boundaries.
Setting limits simply entails respecting the other person’s autonomy and entitlement to their own sentiments. It also entails realizing that you are not accountable for the other person’s happiness.
People in codependent relationships frequently struggle when one partner doesn’t respect their partner’s limits and the other partner doesn’t insist on them.
As a result, one is in charge and manipulative, and the other is submissive and unable to stand up for themselves. One of the most crucial skills couples must acquire in couple counseling is how to set and uphold limits.
CEO and Founder, Unsilenced Voices
You are shielding your partner from the natural consequences of their actions
If you frequently find yourself:
- Apologizing on behalf of your partner
- Smoothing over rifts they’ve caused
- Bailing them out of legal or financial troubles
- Generally, “cleaning up messes”
You’re probably emotionally codependent with that person.
You feel invisible or nonexistent without your partner
If your partner goes away for several hours or days and you feel completely empty without them, you’re probably dependent upon them to fulfill your identity rather than being a whole person on your own.
You are holding the other person responsible for your actions
If you insist that you:
- “only yell because they make you so angry“
- “only drink because they nag you“
- “cannot X if they don’t Y”
Then you are holding another person responsible for your actions, which is codependence.
They’re losing touch with other sources of social support
It’s normal in the early “honeymoon” stage of a relationship to spend more time together than with family or friends—for a while.
But if it’s been several months, and you consistently only spend time with each other, excluding friends or family members, you’re probably becoming insular and codependent.
Keep in mind that a classic behavior of domestic abusers is isolating their partners from other social relationships.
You allow your boundaries to be crossed or violated
These could be boundaries around:
- Sexual preferences
- Time/space for your own needs and goals
- Personal privacy around phones or computers or your physical space
If you feel unable to say no and stick to it, or you can’t have anything of your own, or your desires don’t matter to your partner, you’re almost certainly codependent.
CEO, Epiphany Wellness
Codependents are people who have a hard time setting boundaries and getting their needs met. They are often attracted to people they can help or rescue and may not even realize they’re doing it.
The signs of a codependent relationship include:
You want to be needed by them
You feel like your partner is needy, but you don’t want to let go of them because you want to be needed by them.
You do everything for them
You feel like the only way for your partner to be happy is if you do everything for them and make sure everything goes according to plan—even when that plan doesn’t align with your own needs or desires.
Instead of having faith in their intentions, you have faith in their actions instead
It’s difficult for you to trust other people because you’ve been hurt so many times in the past by people who didn’t keep their promises. So now, instead of having faith in others’ abilities or intentions, you have faith in their actions instead.
If they don’t follow through on their actions, then they’re not worthy of being trusted any more than anyone else would be at this point (which is none at all).
Frequently Asked Questions
What if my partner refuses to acknowledge the codependency?
It can be difficult if your partner is unwilling to acknowledge the codependency, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work on your own healing and growth. Here are some things you can do in this situation:
Continue to seek therapy for yourself: A therapist can help you see through your own codependent behavior and find ways to take care of yourself.
Set boundaries: Clearly communicate your needs and desires to your partner and set limits on what you’re willing to tolerate.
Seek support from friends and family: Lean on your support network for emotional support and counseling.
Consider your options: If your partner isn’t willing to work on the relationship, you may need to consider ending the relationship for your own well-being.
How can I tell the difference between healthy and codependent relationships?
In a healthy relationship, both partners maintain their own sense of self and independence while supporting each other emotionally and physically. Here are some characteristics you should look for in a healthy relationship:
• Each partner has their own interests, hobbies, and friendships outside of the relationship.
• Both partners communicate openly and honestly with each other.
• Each partner takes responsibility for their own feelings and behavior.
• Both partners respect each other’s boundaries.
• Each partner supports the goals and aspirations of the other.
• Both partners feel comfortable communicating their needs and desires to the other.
Can codependency develop in any type of relationship?
Yes, codependency can develop in any type of relationship, including romantic, familial, and platonic relationships. It’s important to recognize codependent behaviors in all types of relationships in order to maintain healthy boundaries and emotional well-being.
Is it possible to prevent codependent behaviors from developing in a relationship?
While it’s not always possible to prevent codependent behaviors from developing in a relationship, there are some things you can do to maintain healthy boundaries and emotional independence. Here are some tips:
Take time for yourself: Make sure you maintain your own interests, hobbies, and friendships outside of the relationship.
Communicate openly and honestly with your partner: Let your partner know your needs and wants, and listen to their needs, too.
Set and enforce boundaries: Communicate your boundaries clearly and stick to them.
Build a sense of self: Reconnect with your own values, beliefs, and goals and work toward them.
Seek support: Lean on friends, family, or a therapist for emotional support and guidance.
How long does it take to recover from a codependent relationship?
The recovery time from a codependent relationship can vary depending on the severity of the codependency and the person’s willingness to work on themselves. It can take anywhere from a few months to several years to fully recover from a codependent relationship.
It’s important to be patient and compassionate with yourself during the recovery process and to seek the help of a licensed therapist when needed.
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