There are times when most of us miss the red flags in a relationship. We get stuck with unhealthy patterns and tend to normalize them until it gets to an unbearable point where we try to break free. One such negative relationship trait is codependency. It is a pattern where one partner controls, dominates, and maintains the relationship, while the other depends on them.
The concept first emerged in the 1940s and was associated with families with a history of substance abuse (1). However, later it expanded to include any such dysfunctional relationship. Keep reading to understand what a codependent relationship is, how to identify one, and what you can do to overcome the codependency.
In This Article
What Is A Codependent Relationship?
Codependency describes a dysfunctional relationship in which one partner is overly needy and depends on the other, who, in turn, needs to feel needed. In such a relationship, the codependent partner may have physical, emotional, and financial needs and plan their life around the dominant partner.
The concept of codependency was associated with the Alcoholic Anonymous’ communities in the USA during the 1940s. It was used for partners who indulge in substance abuse, and their lives were entwined with their partners or enablers (could be the spouse or any other family member). Later, during the 1980s, the term was used for other relationship models that may or may not involve substance abuse (1).
In a codependent relationship, the boundaries are not clearly defined, and often, the partners stick together for their personal gains. The reasons may include the stigma or shame of walking out of the relationship, financial investments, and kids (if there are any).
Codependency should not be confused with dependency in a relationship. Dependency is not as harmful as codependency.
Codependence Vs. Dependence: What Is The Difference?
Unlike codependent relationships, dependence is when both the partners consider themselves equal and rely on each other to maintain a healthy relationship. Here is a comparison of traits that differ in both relationships:
1. Value For Each Other
Dependence: Both partners depend on each other for love and support.
Codependence: One partner feels used and may even find joy in making extreme sacrifices. The other partner is satisfied getting everything without making any effort.
Dependence: Both partners keep the relationship on equal ground and prioritize each other’s preferences.
Codependence: The codependent partner has no identity, values, personality, or interests outside their codependent relationship.
Dependence: Both partners find ways to communicate and express their feelings, needs, wants, and emotions. They prefer to resolve conflicts through effective communication and listen to each other.
Codependence: There is no flow of proper communication between the partners as both do not recognize and prioritize their feelings. As long as their needs are met, both are fine.
Initially, it may be tough to recognize the traits of codependency. For example, you may feel like your partner is just clingy. However, it is much more than just clinginess. Here are a few signs to help you identify if you are in a codependent relationship.
Signs Of A Codependent Relationship
1. They Constantly Try To Please
Codependent partners find happiness and satisfaction in keeping their partners happy. They feel like they do not have any other choice than to please their partner. Therefore, they ignore their wants and needs and direct all their energies to keep their partners happy.
For instance, if a person is stuck in a relationship for their kids and is dependent on the other for financial aid, they will do whatever it takes to keep their partner happy.
2. Have Poor Self-Esteem
Both the partners in a codependent relationship lack self-esteem. One partner is completely dependent on the other, while the other needs them to have a sense of purpose. The dependent person (the enabler) tends to stick around even when they know the partner is hurtful and disrespectful and the relationship is not working.
3. You Are Anxious Of Being Left Behind
In a codependent relationship, you may always have an overwhelming sense of emptiness and desolation. Even if the partner leaves for a few hours, you are constantly worried that they might not return. You try to convince yourself that it is because you worry for them, while the truth is knowing the whereabouts of your partner makes you feel better.
4. You Try To “Fix” Your Partner
The enabler in a codependent relationship treats their partner (the dependent) as a project. They believe that they need to “fix” their behavior or improve something in them. As a result, they end up controlling them and guiding their partner’s activities.
5. You Cover Your Partner’s Wrongdoings
Your partner always ends up on the wrong side, and you always rescue them. If this the scenario, you are stuck in a codependent relationship. For instance, you always pay the parking fines for your partner or cover their issues related to substance abuse or anything that breaks the law.
In several situations, the dependent may also end up covering their partner’s habit of domestic violence.
6. Always Avoid Arguments
If your partner is unhappy with something and starts arguing, do you always keep quiet to avoid escalating the issue? Do you avoid defending yourself? Are you afraid that raising your voice may anger your partner, and they may abandon you? If yes, you are stuck in a codependent relationship.
7. Concerned About Others’ Opinion
In a codependent relationship, a partner may feel obliged to stay stuck in a relationship. There might be pressure from the family or friends and relatives. If you constantly feel the societal pressure and worry about what others might think if you walk out, you are stuck in a codependent relationship. You may even feel unworthy and blame yourself for the unhappy situation.
8. There Are No Boundaries
People in a codependent relationship share an intense and volatile bond with their partners. They are unable to differentiate their feelings and needs from their partner’s feelings and needs. This often leads to anxiety, frustration, and confusion.
9. You Are Unsure About Your Feelings
Have you ever had a difficult time answering a simple “how are you”? Do you find yourself rummaging your thoughts to find the appropriate expression? Does your state of well-being depend on how your partner is doing on that day? If yes, it is a sign of a codependent relationship. Codependent partners often substitute their feelings with their partner’s feelings.
10. Partners May Resort To Abuse
Emotional, physical, financial, or sexual – codependent relationships often involve different types of abuse. The dependent partner often tries to exploit their partner (enabler), who will not protest as they get the attention they want, even if it is negative.
If you are stuck in a codependent relationship, you might wonder where it came from. People do not develop such tendencies overnight. It often begins in childhood and stems from a dysfunctional past.
Codependency is a multidimensional psychosocial problem. It is interlinked with issues like a lack of a clear sense of self, relational, emotional, and occupational imbalances, parental abandonment, and control issues during childhood (1). An investigation found that individuals with high codependency tendencies reported having family issues, parental mental health problems, and personal psychological issues like compulsivity (2). Let’s understand the causes in detail.
The Causes Behind Codependency: How It Starts
Children often pick behavioral traits from their parents, and their childhood experiences shape their habits. Here are a few reasons that may be linked to codependency tendencies:
Overprotective Or Underprotective Parents
A child develops healthy relationships depending on their relationship with the parents and other family members.
- Overprotective parents try to shield their children from everything. As a result, the child does not develop the confidence to be independent and is scared of trying new things.
- Overprotective parenting stops the child from learning basic life skills. For instance, if the parents keep coddling their kids, they may never learn simple things like washing clothes, cooking, or taking care of themselves. This may make their life tough later when they move out or stay in a college dorm.
- Underprotective parents do not provide a healthy support system during the developmental stages. As a result, the child feels alone and unsafe. When they grow up, they can become resistant to support or guidance from others.
- Children who grow up in households with substance abuse issues may also develop codependent tendencies later in life. The parent-child relationship is reversed, and the child becomes the primary caregiver. As a result, they grow up neglecting their needs and prioritizing others.
Children who grow up in dysfunctional family settings may often seek emotional fulfillment in keeping others satisfied. Codependent tendencies developed during childhood may manifest themselves in different ways once the child becomes an adult. These include:
- Blurred Sense Of Boundaries: They may give in easily. As a result, it is easier for others to manipulate them. They may also emotionally shut people out. There is no in-between.
- Develop Trust Issues: They may always question people’s motives and have difficulty bonding. This may lead to loneliness during adulthood.
- Become Self-Critical: Codependent people can be self-critical and always feel like they are unworthy of everything.
- Control Issues: Children who grow up in overprotective families may develop control issues. They tend to cling to things (or persons) they can control. This may eventually strain the relationship.
Understanding codependency is the first step to overcoming it. If you relate to any of the signs discussed above, here are a few ways to overcome codependency.
Tips To Overcome Codependency
1. Acknowledge It
Admitting the issue is the first step to resolution. Once you acknowledge the imbalances in your relationship, you realize that your actions are causing the power imbalance. You understand that you cannot control others’ thoughts, actions, and emotions.
2. Consider Your Needs
Overcoming codependency is all about rebalancing your life. Instead of prioritizing your partner’s needs, consider your own and prioritize them. This does not mean you have to neglect their needs or stop caring for them. It implies that taking care of yourself is as much crucial as caring for others. If you do not do it, you may end up feeling drained, frustrated, and resentful.
3. Start Communicating
Do not let yourself being controlled and mistreated. Instead, be assertive and voice your feelings. Stand up for yourself and let your partner know your dissatisfaction over how they treat you. Learn to say no and take ownership of your actions and choices. This will make you feel empowered.
4. Set Boundaries
Boundaries in a relationship allow you to be yourself, have your feelings, make your decisions. They are a form of self-care where you value your emotions and needs. They keep you from overextending yourself and be responsible for others feeling. Boundaries are crucial for your emotional and physical safety.
5. Redeem Your Self-Esteem
Find out the positives in you and feed on them. Develop your sense of self. In a codependent relationship, redeeming your self-esteem is shifting the focus to yourself. This may lead to much-needed self-discovery. Find out what you love to do, your favorite movies, activities, cuisines, and try them. Ask your partner to join you in this quest. If possible, consult a therapist to help you in this journey.
6. Do Not Be Afraid Of Change
The toughest part in your journey of overcoming codependency is to overcome the fear of changing your partner’s perception of you. You may feel that your loved ones may not like you, and you will disappoint your partner.
Do not worry. If your partner loves you, they will be happy to see you grow and heal. However, you have to be patient as it is not easy to let go of your older habits overnight. Take baby steps and focus on improving one aspect at a time.
7. Go For Counseling
Consulting a therapist can help you change the old patterns in your relationship. They can help you rediscover your worth and boost your self-esteem. You can visit a therapist with your partner. Couple counseling can help develop new relationship dynamics.
8. Check Out Peer Support Groups
You heal faster when you learn from people who have been there and realize that you are not alone. You can learn from their experiences and share your concerns with them. They act as your support system, and you will also find solace in like-minded people who understand and empathize with your problem.
Codependency can hurt. A codependent person often does not want to risk their super-caring image by complaining or saying “it hurts.” While codependency can strain the relationship, there are a few positive attributes to it.
The Positive Aspects Of Codependency
1. They Are Generous
Codependent people are extremely generous and giving. They cannot see anyone suffer and can go to any lengths to keep you happy and care for you. This trait is beneficial for anyone who needs constant support.
2. They Are Perceptive
Since codependent people have had a difficult childhood, they learn to develop a coping mechanism to stay safe from neglect and abuse. As a result, they can easily read people’s emotions and behavior. They can sense when you are upset or tensed.
3. They Will Stick With You
A codependent person will not leave your side at the slightest hint of trouble. Instead, they will support you and help you overcome it. They feel it a necessity to rescue you.
Although there are a few positive aspects of codependency, this cannot negate the pain and trauma it brings.
Codependency is a never-ending circle where one person depends on the other while the other needs to feel needed. Such relationships focus on the inequity of power and are an addiction. Like any other addiction issue, this can be emotionally destructive. Self-awareness is the first step to break the cycle and be kind to yourself. Also, do not forget to reach out and seek help.
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- The Lived Experience of Codependency: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis
- Codependency: An Empirical Study from a Systemic Perspective