A codependent relationship is one in which partners do not have an equal balance of power, where individual identities are meshed together and where both partners become dependent on this type of dynamic within the relationship. A codependent relationship develops when one or both partners have underlying relationship insecurities, and often is revealed over time.1
What Is Codependency?
“Codependency is often defined as a pattern of unhealthy dependence on another person,” explains Colleen Wenner, LMHC MCAP LPC, founder & director of New Heights Counseling. “This includes such traits as poor boundaries, people pleasing, and taking care of others at the expense of one’s own needs. In contrast, interdependence is the healthy balance of independence and interconnection. It involves having healthy relationships with both oneself and others.”
Wenner continues, “Codependent individuals rely heavily on others to define themselves and their worth. This reliance often leads to feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem. Those with codependent tendencies tend to avoid personal growth and independence because it makes them vulnerable to abandonment. They may become overly dependent on someone else to make them feel safe and secure, such as a spouse, family member, friend, therapist, or religious leader. On the other hand, a healthy interdependent relationship—one in which both partners are equally responsible for each other’s well-being just as much as their own—allows for mutual trust, support, and respect for each other’s differences.”9
What Is a Codependent Relationship?
In a codependent relationship, one partner does much of the emotional carrying of the relationship and is more prone to losing themself, while the other avoids taking more responsibility for the emotional work of the relationship. In healthy relationships, these partners are able to communicate, compromise and negotiate needs, and express their feelings. However, codependency can reveal unhealthy attachment styles, as well as leave one or both partners prone to unhealthy emotional coping mechanisms.2
Due to the volatile nature codependency can breed, it’s important to be aware that this relationship dynamic can lead to financial and emotional exploitation. It’s common for those in codependent relationships to bend to their partners’ demands to avoid a confrontation or conflict.
These relationships can look like the “caretaking” partner:5
- Trying to fix the problem on their own
- Owning more responsibility for the relationship
- Having a need to rescue their partner
- Excusing or ignoring problematic behaviors
- Compromising their own personal happiness
How Do Codependent Relationships Happen?
In a codependent relationship, opposing attachment styles are usually at play, in which one partner has an anxious attachment style while the other has an avoidant attachment style. Anxious attachment styles in adult romantic relationships embody characteristics such as having a lack of sense of self, needing approval, fears around abandonment and misinterpreting relationship issues and/or overcompensating for the relationship.
Avoidant attachment styles, on the other hand, embody characteristics such as minimization of self expression or emotion, lack of trust in others, uncomfortability with true intimacy, and a pattern of dismissive behaviors.3 In codependent relationships, both partners do not necessarily have one attachment style or the other. The codependent nature of the relationship functions in such a way that both partners can exhibit anxious and avoidant attachment style traits.4
15 Signs of a Codependent Relationship
Here are 15 indicators to be aware of if you feel you may be in a codependent relationship:<
1. There Is a Lack of Genuine & Honest Communication
“One of the biggest warning signs when it comes to codependent relationships is the lack of genuine conversations between the two partners. Codependent people often fear sharing their true feelings and thoughts because they worry that others might judge them or reject them. When one partner talks about his/her emotions, the other person in the relationship usually becomes uncomfortable and shuts down or gets defensive. It’s important to keep in mind that this kind of behavior is learned over the years and requires time to develop new behavioral patterns. If neither partner is able to communicate his/her needs and desires effectively, the relationship is surely in danger of difficult times ahead or worse yet ending. Real communication between the two is what sparks a healthy relationship.” – Colleen Wenner, LMHC MCAP LPC of New Heights Counseling9
2. You Need Approval From Your Partner
One partner may feel more of a need to get approval from the other partner. While making major decisions together is healthy, needing approval to attend to your own needs, hobbies and wants is a sign of unhealthy relationship dynamics. This becomes an issue when you no longer feel the freedom to live your own life, such as seeing friends and family or participating in activities that bring you joy.
3. Self-Care Becomes “Selfish”
“A sign of a codependent relationship is beginning to feel guilty or uncomfortable when taking time to take care of yourself. In healthy relationships, a couple can set time aside for each partner to enrich their other relationships and interests without their partner. In a codependent relationship, any time or activity without your partner may feel wrong. You may feel guilty about enjoying yourself without your partner or fear that your partner will feel abandoned if you do not include them in each activity of your day. On the other hand, your partner may indicate sadness, resentment, or distress when you try to take time to yourself, which can put pressure on you to prioritize your partner’s needs over your own.” – GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC at PsychPoint10
4. You Feel The Need to Save Them From Themselves
“Offering help and support is definitely a part of any relationship. That said, codependency may be at play when you find you are trying to help without the other person asking for or wanting that help.” – Kate O’Brien, LCAT, MT-BC11
5. You Have a Hard Time Making Your Own Decisions
Partners in codependent relationships are often unable to make their own decisions due to several factors, such as lack of certainty, anxiety, conflict avoidance, and fear. While some of these may be coming from places that are unrelated to the relationship (like if you’re dating someone who has anxiety already), all of them manifest in the relationship in ways that can paralyze a partner. When one partner isn’t able to execute life decisions on their own, it can perpetuate the cycle of having the more dominant partner make decisions for both people in the relationship.
6. You Feel Like You Can’t Say No
“This may be an internal or an external pressure, but if you find you feel like you can’t say no, that’s a sign of codependency. Whether it’s a sense of guilt, or an unwritten expectation, there is room to say no in a healthy relationship. Additionally, if you feel resentment for always saying yes, this can be connected to codependence.” – Kate O’Brien, LCAT, MT-BC11
7. You Have Abandonment Issues
A partner can sometimes have a fear of being alone and find that being needed in the relationship is fulfilling. However, a fear of being alone is a poor reason to be in any relationship, as many times, codependency can become emotionally and physically abusive if one partner is trying to control the relationship while the other takes a back seat in their relationship’s direction. Having abandonment issues can lead to an unhealthy cycle of ups and downs in the relationship, leaving you feeling unstable with your partner.6
8. You Have Trouble Being Alone
“If you cannot bear to be away from your partner for even a short period of time, it may be a sign that you are codependent. This is because codependents rely on their partner for validation and self-worth. They also tend to put their partner’s needs above their own, which can lead to feelings of resentment. If you find yourself always needing someone else to be around, it’s time to take a step back and assess your relationship.” – Megan Harrison, LMFT12
9. You Feel Lost When You’re Not With the Other Person
“Missing someone when they are not there can be totally normal. You may also prefer to be with that person, rather than being alone. That said, if it’s coming from a place of feeling ungrounded, lost, or uncertain of yourself when you’re not with that person, it may be a sign of codependency.” – Kate O’Brien, LCAT, MT-BC11
10. You Have Low Self-Esteem
Having low self-esteem can make someone feel like they should be with anyone who wants them. Due to the negative inner monologue of those with low self-esteem, many do wind up with partners at some point in their relationship history who don’t honor their needs. Those with low self-esteem in codependent relationships often face issues with their partner, as they don’t often feel empowered to use their own voice or stand up for themselves, especially if they are the more submissive partner.
11. You Often Cancel Plans With Others to Be With Them
“When you find that you are putting other plans aside, or outright canceling your plans to be with one person, that can be a sign of codependency. There may be times when emergency things come up, and it is necessary to cancel plans, but if you are doing it again and again, this is something to take note of.” – Kate O’Brien, LCAT, MT-BC11
12. You Can’t Set Boundaries
“People in codependent relationships have difficulty setting appropriate boundaries to focus on their own wellness. Instead, they are so preoccupied with how their partner is feeling and what their partner is doing that they do not focus on their own needs, desires, emotions, or behaviors.” – Frederica Boso, LMHC
13. You Feel Trapped in the Relationship
A clear sign that you may be in a codependent relationship is feeling stuck. Healthy relationships add to our world. In unhealthy relationships, such as codependent relationships, it’s common for one partner to feel trapped due to the overwhelming need to appease their partner at their own expense. When someone is stuck in this type of dynamic, it’s challenging to voice their needs and concerns as it can cause a major problem for the other partner. Feeling trapped coupled with any of the other indicators are often concurrent experiences.
14. You Feel Anxious When You Don’t Hear From Them
“If you can’t imagine going an hour without talking to them or if you feel lost without them by your side, then you may be too dependent on them. This is because you are relying on the other person for your emotional needs. Codependent relationships are often one-sided, with one person taking on the role of caretaker. This can lead to feelings of resentment and insecurity.” – Megan Harrison, LMFT12
15. You Have a History of Codependent or Abusive Relationships
Having a history of abuse in relationships can leave someone more prone to being in a codependent relationship due to the trauma incurred during the previous relationship. In healthy relationships, these issues are discussed and handled with care and love. In codependent relationships, this history can often feel like it’s repeating due to the demanding nature of codependent partners. Codependent relationships can trigger prior trauma and abuse and lead one partner to cope in ways as if they are being abused again. Even if the codependent relationship isn’t abusive, it may become abusive with time.7
Can a Codependent Relationship Be Saved?
Harrison states, “Yes, a codependent relationship can be saved. The first step is to realize that you are in a codependent relationship. This can be difficult to do because codependents often feel like they need to take care of their partner and they may feel guilty about wanting more independence. However, it is important to realize that being in a codependent relationship is not healthy for either person involved.
Once you have realized that you are in a codependent relationship, you can start to work on creating more boundaries. This means setting limits on what you are willing to do for your partner and communicating your needs more assertively. It is also important to start taking care of yourself more and doing things that make you happy outside of the relationship.”
Guarino encourages, “A codependent relationship can be saved, but it often requires help from a mental health professional. Seeking couples counseling if you’re struggling with codependency is a great first step to learning how to create a healthier relationship dynamic for your partner and yourself.”
When & How to Get Help With Codependency Issues
The right time to get help with codependency issues is when it’s identified by one or both partners as an issue in the relationship. It can be challenging to talk about with your partner, so it’s important to consider individual or couples therapy, depending on what your issues are.8
According to Boso, “working with a therapist will help you explore your relationship patterns and examine how, possibly, your early childhood experiences in a dysfunctional family may have played a role in these relationship patterns. There are also codependency support groups that may be helpful to engage in. Support groups provide camaraderie, resources, and give people who struggle with codependency a safe space to share their thoughts and feelings and practice healthy boundaries.”
The best way to find a therapist for codependency is by searching an online directory like Choosing Therapy to find a therapist. All licensed therapists can be equipped to help people struggling with mental health issues. Reading reviews and looking at clinician bios to understand their scope of practice can give you an idea of whether their experience suits your situation. Many therapists offer a phone consultation and online therapy visits, both of which allow people an opportunity to get help during the pandemic.
Another way to locate a therapist is by referral, which can come from a trusted loved one or a physician. Healthcare providers often have access to a network of other providers who can be helpful. Going through your physician or specialist is also a great way to keep them in the loop about any treatment options.
Final Thoughts on Codependent Relationships
What you’re dealing with may be unique to you, but you’re not alone. There are many ways to address and overcome your current challenges. Talking to a therapist or reaching out to a trusted friend or family member can make a big difference in how you feel. It can take time but remember to have patience with yourself because you are going through major transformations.