Codependency in relationships is an unhealthy balance of power that can lead to disastrous endings. In a codependent relationship, one partner is exhausting all of their time, energy, and focus on the other person. As a result, the other person, or enabler, takes advantage of the situation to ensure the fulfillment of their wants and needs. The enabler’s behavior is not always conscious but is unhealthy.
Codependency is also known as “relationship addiction.” Codependents maintain relationships that are one-sided and emotionally destructive. In part because they will do anything not to be and feel alone. Codependency is a psychological construct and it exists regardless of whether you’re in a relationship or not.
Codependency Vs. Dependency
It’s normal to have some level of dependency in a healthy relationship because going through life without companionship or social support is not an ideal experience for anyone. So what does healthy dependence look like in a relationship?
- You support others but not at the expense of your own feelings and needs.
- You express your wants and needs.
- You say no and let others know without fear of rejection.
- You feel safe and comfortable honestly expressing the real you.
A dependent person is someone you can rely on and who can rely on you. There is an equal exchange and respect in a dependent relationship. Neither person is taking advantage of the other to satisfy an unhealthy need.
What is Dependent Personality Disorder?
Dependent personality disorder (DPD) is one of ten personality disorders that often co-occur with codependence. It’s a much deeper need to care for others to fulfill their insufferable need for validation and reassurance. Because symptoms of this disorder present similarly to codependency, it’s essential to seek medical advice if you suspect you have DPD. Do not self-diagnose.
What are the Causes of Codependency in Relationships?
There are various causes of codependency in relationships. However, childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma are typical underlying reasons. Many codependent homes have substance abuse, domestic violence, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse as commonalities. For that reason, children who grow up in a dysfunctional family often evolve in maintaining dysfunctional relationships into adulthood.
In addition, growing up in a home and being in a caretaking role for someone with a chronic illness or a personality disorder can cause codependency. A codependent person can be involved in codependent relationships including with their boss, family member, or child. It’s not an exclusive trait to intimate relationships.
Addiction and Codependency in Relationships
Substance use and abuse are common themes in codependent relationships. As a result, codependents often enable a loved one’s drug addiction or alcohol abuse. In this dynamic, the enabler may supply drugs and alcohol. Or even give them a place to live, so they aren’t in the actual situation of homelessness. Or desperately sick enough that they seek recovery treatment services.
This circular behavior keeps the codependent bound to the relationship and the drug addict or alcoholic from receiving necessary rehabilitation. As a result, the codependent person often becomes anxious and depressed because no matter how hard they enable, they cannot save their loved one from their addictions.
Disastrous Signs of Codependency in Relationships
There is a multitude of signs and symptoms of codependency in relationships. However, it often manifests differently in different people due to personality types and life experiences.
If you’re uncertain, get an outside perspective from a close friend or family member. Ask them if they’ve noticed changes in you since you’ve involved yourself in the relationship. Your loved ones will likely have insight because they know you the best. Here are some common characteristics of codependence.
1. You Have Ruminating Thoughts That Your Partner is Going to Leave You
Do you feel anxious all of the time that you’re apart? Are you obsessing over situations you’ve created in your mind about your partner leaving you? Codependents often obsessively fear their partner is cheating or leaving. If you incessantly question if your partner is going to leave you that is a red flag for codependency in relationships. That sounds like an underlying trust issue which is typical of codependent people.
2. You Think You Can Control, Fix, or Save Your Partner
Codependents need to be needed and, for that reason, are prone to helping even when not solicited for it. In addition, they fixate on their partner’s character flaws and believe they can fix them. Dysfunctional families create a need to control, correct, and rescue your partner to validate your self-worth.
However, people do not change unless they’re ready and willing to change for themselves. Taking care of fixing their needs distracts you from focusing on what changes you may need to make on your own.
3. Your Identity is Wrapped up Entirely in Your Partner
A codependent can completely abandon their sense of self and dive right into their partner’s identity. For example, they withdraw from interests and hobbies and from spending time with family and loved ones. What once were passions have faded into memories as the codependent adopt’s their partner’s personality. You may only want to spend time with your partner and may have been called needy or clingy before.
4. You Feel Angry, Victimized, and Powerless
Codependent people often have suppressed anger that they do not manage effectively. Due to a lack of control in childhood, codependents try to control everything, including their partner’s thoughts and behaviors. In addition, other symptoms of codependency, including denial, lack of boundaries, poor communication, and dependency, contribute to anger.
When codependents fail to control their partner, they feel angry, unappreciated, and victimized (1). A codependent has unrealistic expectations of their partner and gets angry and resent when the partner cannot fulfill their expectations. There may be one constant you fight about in a codependent relationship that can revolve around an expectation not being met.
5. You Fear Rejection or Criticism
Many codependents grew up in dysfunctional homes and experienced emotional abuse and neglect. As a result, many are harshly criticized, called derogatory names, yelled at, and ignored. So, codependents tend to be highly defensive to receiving any criticism.
According to psychotherapist Sharon Martin, this causes codependents’ fear of not being good enough. In addition, fear of vulnerability, failure, conflict, criticism, and rejection. She elaborates that “codependents are often in relationships with people who activate these fears by being rejecting, critical, controlling, or defensive” (2.)
6. You’re Obsessed With What Your Partner is Doing
Codependents have trust issues and tend to obsess about where their partner is and what they are doing. Do you stress out when your partner doesn’t respond immediately to a text message? Do you imagine awful scenarios if they don’t answer their phone? If you are panicking during more significant periods apart or are constantly reaching for your phone to see if they’ve responded, you’ve likely become overly reliant on your partner for your assurance and satisfaction (3).
7. You’re Always Searching for Reassurance
Codependent people constantly seek reassurance because they have an insatiable desire to feel needed and appreciated. Do you ask your partner to validate thoughts or feelings over and over? Do you continuously bombard them with questions about if their feelings for you are real? Do they constantly need to tell you how much they love you? There are all warning signs of codependency in relationships.
8. You Experience Dysfunctional Communication
A codependent person may have difficulty communicating because they suppressed feelings as a child. So expressing their thoughts, needs, and feelings is foreign, and they often don’t know what you think, need, or feel. On the contrary, sometimes they are aware but refuse to own their truth for fear of upsetting their partner (4).
9. You Fixate on Your Mistakes
Codependents require their partner’s approval to feel good about themselves. They must be appreciated and feel in control. So if they make a mistake or can’t live up to their demand for perfection, they become worried, stressed, and anxious about criticism and abandonment. They may have difficulty making decisions for fear of making mistakes. Do you find yourself fixating on things that don’t go perfectly?
10. You Have Weak Boundaries
Do you have weak personal boundaries or no boundaries at all? That is typical in a codependent relationship. Again, due to fear of conflict, rejection, criticism, and abandonment. Many codependents do so much to help others that they do nothing to care for themselves. Naturally, this causes resentment and suppressed anger. That wouldn’t happen with healthy boundaries. So setting healthy boundaries and enforcing them is essential for overcoming codependency.
11. You’re Dishonest
Codependent people go to extreme lengths to keep others happy because it’s the only time they can relax. Codependency Coach Hailey Magee explains this best,
Dishonesty comes naturally to us in the form of people-pleasing (lying about who we are, what we want, and how we feel) or direct untruths, such as omitting information that might make our partners uncomfortable or displeased. The thought of speaking our truth fills us with fear. Because we’ve developed our sense of self around pleasing others, we worry that being honest would lead to rejection or abandonment.Hailey Magee
She elaborates that codependents greatly avoid truth-telling because they’ve catastrophized the consequences. Does any of that resonate with you? Then, you may be in a codependent relationship.
12. You Have Difficulty Knowing or Expressing Your Emotions
Codependents have difficulty communicating their thoughts and feelings. As a result, their needs go unheard and unmet. Often they do not know their needs, thoughts, and feelings because they’ve intensely tuned in to their partners, neglecting to maintain their own. Additionally, this reflects a history of being punished or forbidden from expressing their feelings and emotions.
13. You Have Low Self-Esteem
Usually, neither person in a codependent relationship has healthy self-esteem. The codependent’s self-esteem is low due to needing the approval of their partner. In addition, the enabler may experience low self-esteem because they depend on someone else to care for their needs. These needs can be emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, mental, or material. Finally, they may experience shame or guilt around being in this codependent cycle leading to poor mental health.
14. You Need to Ask Permission
Sometimes in a codependent relationship, the control has progressed to a need to ask permission. For example, in a healthy relationship, you inform your partner of plans to see family and friends. However, in many codependent relationships, the codependent is required to ask permission. Sometimes that looks like constantly updating a partner on your whereabouts, who you’re with, and when you’re coming home.
15. You Cannot Be Alone
Do you have a difficult time being alone? Do you spend all of your time with your partner? Or only see your family and friends when your partner isn’t available to spend time? These are all tells of codependency in relationships. Typically a codependent person has a difficult time being alone in their thoughts. So they fill their time avoiding that reality by never being alone.
Can a Codependent Relationship Be Saved?
The good news is that some codependent relationships can grow to become healthy with a bit of help and guidance. Codependency is a learned behavior so it can be unlearned. First, however, both parties must be on board with fixing the problem.
Recognizing your tendencies is the first step. Then, individual, group, or couples therapy has helped to unravel the codependency in relationships. Speaking to a therapist is the first step in determining which therapy setting you will best benefit from. Many people experience success from couples counseling.
An additional codependent trait is problems with intimacy. Sometimes it’s difficult for the codependent to express what they want and need for sexual fulfillment. That can lead to suppressed anger and resentment despite the reality that they’ve never communicated their desires. People in an intimate codependent relationship may benefit from seeing a sex therapist.
Some people overcome codependency on their own with articles and books; however, professional help may be your most successful avenue in a relationship dynamic.
If you are in an abusive relationship, it’s vital that you find a way to leave that relationship. That is not codependency and is a dangerous threat to your safety. Abuse can be physical, verbal, or sexual, and none of it is acceptable.
Codependency in Relationships Summary
Codependency in relationships is an unhealthy dynamic in which one person takes and the other gives. There are various warning signs of codependency in relationships, including a lack of boundaries and the inability to say no. Additionally, a codependent person entirely caters to their partner’s needs, even at the expense of caring for their own.
Fortunately, codependency can be unlearned with proper help because codependency is a learned behavior. However, seeking help from a clinical psychologist or relationship expert may be necessary for two people to overcome codependency as a team.
In addition, if substance use is in the relationship, the addict or alcoholic may require additional substance abuse treatment. Drug addiction and alcoholism are severe substance abuse disorders. Without that treatment, a person will unlikely overcome their codependent traits and behaviors.
Domestic abuse and violence are not codependency; if you’re in a relationship where those abusive behavior patterns occur, please find a way to leave that relationship. Visit the national hotline for domestic violence to establish your exit plan now. Abusive relationships are never okay you must get away from your abuser.
To better understand and learn how to stop controlling others and start caring for your emotional needs check out, Codependent No More., by Melody Beattie. Also, grab the workbook to really dive deep into overcoming codependency in relationships. Thank you for sharing to help others find hope and healing.
Elizabeth Ervin is the owner of Sober Healing. She is a freelance writer passionate about opioid recovery and has celebrated breaking free since 09-27-2013. She advocates for mental health awareness and encourages others to embrace healing, recovery, and spirituality.