What are Codependent Relationships?
The term codependent simply means an unhealthy psychological relationship in which one person perpetuates another’s addiction or harmful behavior.
A codependent relationship has a degree of unhealthy toxicity, where one person doesn’t have self-sufficiency or autonomy. It is important to know the difference between depending on another person, which can be a positive and desirable trait, and codependency, which is harmful. One or both parties can be codependent. A codependent person will neglect other important areas of their life to please their partner. Their extreme dedication to this one person may cause damage to: relationships, career, and responsibilities
The following are some examples that illustrate the difference:
Dependent Vs Codependent Relationships
|Two people rely on each other for support and love. Both find value in the relationship.||The codependent person feels useless unless they are needed by and making drastic sacrifices for the enabler. The codependent is only happy when making too much sacrifice for their partner. They feel they must be needed by this other person to have any aim.|
|Both parties make their relationship a priority, but can find joy in outside interests, other friends, and hobbies.|
|The codependent person feels useless unless they are needed by and making drastic sacrifices for the enabler. The codependent is only happy when making too much sacrifice for their partner. They feel they must be needed by this other person to have any aim.|
|Both people can express their emotions and needs and find ways to make the relationship beneficial for both of them.|
|One person feels that their desires and needs are unimportant and will not express them. They may have difficulty recognizing their own feelings or needs at all.|
Warning Signs of Codependent Relationships
It can be difficult to differentiate between a person who is codependent and one who is just over attached or very obsessed with another person, yet there are some warning signs of a codependent relationship.
A person who is codependent will usually:
- Find no satisfaction or happiness in life outside of doing things for the other person
- Stay in the relationship even if they are aware that their partner does hurtful things
- Do anything to please and satisfy their enabler no matter what the expense to themselves
- Feel constant solicitude about their relationship due to their desire to always be making the other person happy
- Use all their time and energy to give their partner everything they ask for
- Feel guilty about thinking of themselves in the relationship and will not express any personal needs or desires
- Ignore their own morals or conscience to do what the other person wants
Other people may try to talk to the codependent about their concerns. But even if others suggest that the person is too dependent, a person in a codependent relationship will find it difficult to leave the relationship. The codependent person will feel extreme conflict about separating themselves from the enabler because their own identity is centered upon sacrificing themselves for the other person.
How a Codependent Relationship Develops
Damaged Parental Relationship
People who are codependent as adults often had problems with emotional childhood neglect and their parental relationship as a child or teenager. They may have been taught that their own needs were less important than their parents’ needs or not important at all. In these types of families, the child may be taught to focus on the parent’s needs and to never think of themselves. Needy parents may teach their children that children are selfish or greedy if they want anything for themselves. As a result, the child learns to ignore their own needs and thinks only of what they can do for others at all times. In these situations, one of the parents may have an addiction problem with alcohol or drugs or lack of maturity and emotional development, resulting in their own self-centered needs.
Abusive Family Dynamics
Children learn to repress their feelings as a defense mechanism against the pain of abuse. As an adult, this learned behavior results in caring only about another’s feelings and not acknowledging their own needs. Sometimes a person who is abused will seek out abusive relationships later because they are only familiar with this type of relationship. This often manifests in a codependent relationship.
Living With Mentally or Physically Ill Family Member
Codependency may also result from caring for a person who is chronically ill. Being in the role of caregiver, especially at a young age, may result in the young person neglecting their own needs and developing a habit of only helping others. Many people who live with an ill family member do not develop codependency. But, it can happen in these types of family environments, particularly if the parent or primary caretaker in the family displays the dysfunctional behaviors listed above.
Overcome Codependent Relationships
Identify Pattern in Your Life
Once you’ve got a handle on what codependency actually looks like, take a step back and try to identify any recurring patterns in your current and past relationships. Codependent people tend to rely on validation from others instead of self-validation. These tendencies toward self-sacrifice might help you feel closer to your partner. When you aren’t doing things for them, you might feel aimless, uncomfortable, or experience lower self-esteem.
Exercise Healthy Love
Not all unhealthy relationship is codependent, but all codependent relationship are definitely unhealthy. This doesn’t mean codependent relationships are doomed. It’s just going to take some work to get things back on track. One of the first steps in doing so is simply learning what a healthy, non-codependent relationship looks like.
A boundary is a limit you set for something you are not comfortable with. You might be so accustomed to making others comfortable that you have a hard time considering your own limits. It might take some practice before you can firmly and repeatedly honor your own boundaries
Provide Healthy Support
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help your partner, but there are ways to do so without sacrificing your own needs. Remember, you can show love for your partner by spending time with them and being there for them without trying to manage or direct their behavior. Partners should value each other for who they are, not what they do for each other.
Identify Your Own Needs
Codependent patterns often begin in childhood. It may have been a long time since you stopped to think about your own needs and desires. Ask yourself what you want from life, independently of anyone else’s desires. Do you want a relationship? Try journaling about whatever these questions bring up. Trying new activities can help. If you aren’t sure what you enjoy, try things that interest you. You might find you have a talent or skill you never knew about.
Codependent traits can become so entrenched in personality and behavior that you might have a hard time recognizing them on your own. Even when you do notice them, codependency can be tough to overcome solo.
If you’re working to overcome codependency, we recommend seeking help from a therapist who has experience working with recovery from this complicated issue, such as a family systems therapist.
References: Codependent Relationship
- Alexander J, Waldron H, Robbins M, & Neeb A (2013). Functional Family Therapy for Adolescent Behavior Problems: American Psychological Association. [Google Scholar]
- Baldwin SA, Christian S, Berkeljon A, & Shadish WR (2012). The effects of family therapies for adolescent delinquency and substance abuse: A meta-analysis. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38, 281–304. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
- Chorpita BF, & Daleiden EL (2009). Mapping evidence-based treatments for children and adolescents: Application of the distillation and matching model to 615 treatments from 322 randomized trials. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 77, 566–579. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
- Hervis OE, & Robbins M (2015). Brief Strategic Family Therapy Fidelity Rating Scale. Miami, FL: Family Therapy Training Institute of Miami. [Google Scholar]
- Hogue A, Liddle HA, & Rowe C (1996). Treatment adherence process research in family therapy: A rationale and some practical guidelines. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, and Training, 33, 332–345. [Google Scholar]
- Robbins M, Alexander J, & Turner C (2000). Disrupting defensive interactions in family therapy with delinquent adolescents. Journal of Family Psychology, 14, 688–701. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
- Tabachnick BG, & Fidell LS (2007). Using multivariate statistics. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. [Google Scholar]