Codependency in a relationship is an unhealthy relationship dynamic and a phrase first coined in articles that discussed substance abuse. In those relationships, one partner’s addiction often controlled the dynamic, creating a lopsided situation.
Outside of the substance abuse definition, codependency refers most often to a relationship in which one partner sacrifices his or her needs for the sake of the other. This partner is most often giving, while the other partner usually takes. Codependent relationships aren’t all romantic and can occur between friends or family members as well.
Codependency is often defined as manipulative, compulsive behaviors that are characterized by poor boundaries, a lack of self-esteem, and obsessive control. Some say it’s an addiction to a person and it’s sometimes called relationship addiction.
Many believe it’s a learned behavior, passed down through a family full of codependent relationships. The behavior is learned as a way to survive in a family with a lot of emotional turbulence. It’s not a genetic trait.
What Exactly is Codependency in a Relationship?
In a healthy relationship, both partners support one another and while there may be times when things are lopsided, they return to a balanced state once the crisis is over. Examples of this include experiencing a job loss, the loss of a loved one, or health issues. In those cases, one partner will put forth the extra effort to support the other, but there may be another time when the roles are reversed.
People in healthy relationships don’t keep score of who did what for whom. There’s no, “I stayed home with the kids while you went out with your friends last week. You owe me.”
Codependency in a relationship occurs when one partner is the constant caregiver.
Jack and Kate are in a codependent relationship. Kate is almost always the one working to support herself and her husband. She did this for many years while he made various attempts to find a career, always failing. Now retired and in their seventies, their relationship continues to be lopsided.
Kate did everything for Jack until Kate became ill with cancer. She was hospitalized and required emergency surgery, but Jack remained at home, unrealistically afraid of getting sick if he went to the hospital to be with her. When Kate returned home a few days after surgery, Jack still expected her to fill her role as his caregiver, barely helping her recover.
In relationships where substance abuse is a problem, the caregiver partner will make excuses for the other, calling them in sick at work, providing them a place to live, or even giving them money to support their addiction.
What Causes Codependency?
There is no recipe for codependency, although some people who enter codependent relationships often have a history of codependency or a dysfunctional relationship in their past. Sometimes childhood trauma leads to anxiety and insecurity about relationships.
Codependency in a relationship sometimes occurs when one partner who feels a need to rescue someone finds someone who feels they need to be rescued.
Mike and Joanne met online and then dated offline for some time. Joanne had a difficult childhood which included sexual abuse by a family member. As an adult, Joanne is divorced and has a son with Autism. Mike’s childhood wasn’t as tragic, however, he was raised in a relationship where his mother was very overbearing and tyrannical. To top it off, he wasn’t her favorite child. That crown went to his older brother, whom Mike felt could do no wrong.
So, when Mike met Joanne, it was kismet. Every woman from his past, from high school into his thirties, needed to be rescued. Of course, every relationship failed, but he wasn’t making that connection.
A year or so into their relationship, Mike proposed. Another year passed and Mike and Joanne were still engaged but living together in a home Mike could barely afford, but that Joanne wanted because she had never owned a home before. After a few months, Mike began having doubts about the marriage, so Joanne threatened suicide and Mike acquiesced.
Still married several years later, the couple is as unhappy as they were before they married, neither willing to admit that their relationship dynamic is unhealthy.
How do You Know if You’re in a Codependent Relationship?
As you read previously, codependent relationships occur not just in romantic relationships but in any relationship. Your relationship with your BFF could be codependent. The relationship your mother has with you or one of your siblings could be codependent. How do you know? What are the signs of codependency in a relationship?
You Want to Rescue Them
It’s healthy to want to help someone when they’re suffering. It’s human nature to form bonds and care for others. But this need to rescue is excessive and there is an underlying fear that if you don’t rescue them, something terrible will happen.
Beth has rescued her children since they were young children. Now, even though they’ve got kids of their own, Beth still rescues her sons, especially Matt, who comes every night for dinner. Matt has an unhealthy codependent relationship with his mother. They talk every morning promptly at 9:00 and if he calls a minute late, she’s in a panic. Her happiness or lack thereof sometimes depends on whether he’s having a difficult day. Every evening, he comes for dinner, reciting every minute detail of his day back to her as if checking in. The minute something seems to be going wrong, Beth is there to rescue Matt. Matt’s older sister wonders what will happen to Matt when their mother dies because she has no plans to continue in her mother’s place.
One Partner Enables the Other’s Behaviors
As in the case of Jack and Kate above, one partner is often hard-working and responsible while the other can be irresponsible and a slacker. The enabled partner never sees consequences for his actions because the enabler is always covering.
Intimacy and Trust are Difficult
Usually, when you’re prone to codependency in a relationship, you find intimacy and trust to be a challenge. Being open and communicating effectively is challenging because of those two issues.
Codependency in a Relationship | Sacrifice
One partner in a codependent relationship sacrifices to keep the other happy. These sacrifices include money, time, energy, values, goals, and sometimes friendship and health. The enabler spends all his or her time making sure the enabled partner is happy. Almost everything they do together is something the enabled partner wants to do, rarely what the enabler wants.
You Walk on Eggshells
Your life is consumed by making sure you don’t make the other person unhappy. You feel as if you’re constantly walking on eggshells around them. You don’t express your opinions, feelings, or desires and you always say yes to whatever he wants for fear of suffering the repercussions if you don’t.
In the instance of Mike and Joanne above, Mike fears that Joanne will have an emotional breakdown or attempt suicide if he leaves or doesn’t do everything he can to keep her happy.
Codependency in a Relationship | You Both Have Past Family Trauma
Few relationships have one mentally healthy person and one who’s unhealthy. If this occurs, it’s often because something changed after they got together.
A confident man or woman won’t enter a relationship with someone who lacks confidence, at least not for long. Therefore, when codependency in a relationship exists, it’s often because both individuals have past family trauma, a history of addiction, abuse, or mental illness.
It’s often easy to look back into the past of both people and see a path of unhealthy relationships in their wake. If you grew up in this environment, you may not even recognize it as unhealthy because it was your normal growing up.
The Enabler Feels Like a Martyr
While the giver often feels as if he or she is behaving how they want to, they’re often secretly resentful that they spend all their time caring for someone and nobody takes time to care for them. It’s a contradiction within themselves – a desire to be the caregiver while wanting secretly to be taken care of also.
The Relationship Continues, Even When the Problem is Obvious
The giver in a codependent relationship will be hurt by the other person, either financially, physically, or emotionally. Often, it’s all three. Even though they recognize this hurt, they remain in the relationship.
The Problems You Want to Fix are Usually Too Big for You
Many of the problems in a codependent relationship aren’t fixable by the giving partner. Addiction, for example, is a problem that requires professional intervention. A history of physical or sexual abuse can’t be fixed by someone without a mental health background either. While you may want to fix this person’s life, the truth is that the problems are bigger than you can manage, but that doesn’t stop you from trying.
Codependency in a Relationship | You Don’t Take Care of Yourself
When you’re the giver in a codependent relationship, you often spend all your time taking care of the other person. Self-care, if it ever happens, makes you feel guilty. You don’t take time to enjoy a hobby, spend time with friends or even rest appropriately.
You Feel Resentful
Even though this behavior feels normal to you, you may feel resentful or taken advantage of. This is a valid feeling because to some extent, it’s true. However, if you’re the one giving, you must take responsibility for your actions.
You Stay Because It’s Safe and Easy
Rather than face the idea of being alone, rejected, abandoned, or criticized, you stay in the relationship. Chances are good that you felt those emotions in childhood, and you don’t want to feel them again. To avoid that, you stay in the relationship.
How to Change the Codependent Relationship Dynamic
Much like any other problem, recognizing that you’re in a codependent relationship is the first step toward moving forward in a healthier dynamic.
With time and work, it is possible to change codependency in a relationship into a healthier situation, but both parties must be willing to make positive changes.
Of course, the trick to this is that you can only change yourself. You can’t change someone else or force them to change. Changing your relationship dynamic begins when you change yourself.
Improve Your Self-Worth
When you have low self-worth, you don’t see your true value to others. You engage in a lot of negative self-talk and are overly critical of yourself. Your focus is on your past mistakes instead of your accomplishments. You often blame yourself when things go wrong and tend to think other people are better than you. You don’t believe you deserve good people or things in your life.
Focus on Your Accomplishments
A great way to discover your value in life is to focus on your accomplishments. A great movie example of someone with low self-worth is It’s a Wonderful Life. In the movie, George Bailey constantly sacrifices his desires for others. He never pursues the life he wants because he’s too busy sacrificing for his family.
As the movie advances, George becomes distraught when he faces a crisis in his business. He wishes he’d never been born at all and his guardian angel, Clarence, grants his wish. George gets to see what the lives of his loved ones would be like if he’d never been born. He discovers all the accomplishments and positive impacts he’s had in their lives.
Take some time to examine your accomplishments, and don’t try to say you don’t have any. Think back through your life. You probably took difficult classes, but you got through. You may have been on sports teams or fostered a talent like music or art. Some people are great at volunteering, which always makes a positive impact on others.
Your accomplishments don’t need to be grand to matter. Things you did that had a positive impact on someone else are accomplishments, but so are overcoming challenges and reaching goals.
Make your list and allow it to sit. Other things will come to you, and you can add them. Seeing these accomplishments will help you understand that you do have value and you are worthy of having great people and things in your life.
Consider Your Own Needs
It’s great to want to help people, but not at the expense of your own needs. We all have some basic needs that go unmet in codependent relationships. This includes proper diet, getting enough rest, taking time for self-care, and having boundaries that protect your values.
The takers in codependent relationships are often great boundary crashers, leaving you with a pile of rubble instead of healthy boundaries to protect yourself.
What needs do you have that are going unmet? This can be difficult to think about because you’re accustomed to setting aside those needs, but deep down, you know what they are.
For some, it’s a need to have time to yourself, quiet time just to breathe and exist without pressures or commitments. For others, it’s spending time on a hobby or reading. While a boundary crasher might want you to think you’re being selfish by tending to your own needs, it simply isn’t true.
Be Kind to Yourself
It’s time to end the stream of negativity that’s running through your head. This is a slow process because changing your thought processes doesn’t happen overnight. You didn’t develop those negative thoughts quickly and they won’t go away quickly.
Consider seeking professional help if you feel you can’t do this on your own. There’s no shame in it whatsoever.
To change your thought patterns, first, begin noticing all those negative things you say to yourself. They might seem harmless, but they aren’t. As you hear them, write them down and then follow up with a positive statement that reflects what is most likely the truth.
I’m so stupid becomes I can do anything if I try. In the future, as you hear those negative thoughts, you can replace them with positive ones. It takes continuous effort, but the outcome is well worth it!
Replace Negative Relationships with Positive
Sometimes, you need to do a little housecleaning in your relationships. We tend to draw people to us who are most like us so there’s a great possibility that you have some negative people in your life right now.
Look at your closest relationships and the individuals in them. Is this person a positive person who is supportive of you and tries to pull you up, or is this person someone who helps bring you down?
If the person is someone in your family, it’s often tricky to completely extricate them from your life, but in that case, try to limit your exposure to them and begin setting and enforcing boundaries.
Speaking of boundaries, now that you’re beginning to understand and improve your self-worth, it’s time to protect it with boundaries. Nobody, including you, can treat you like crap any longer. You aren’t going to allow anyone to take advantage of you or treat you as if you’re less worthy.
To determine where you need boundaries, first examine when you’ve felt taken advantage of. For example, if someone in your family always comes to you asking for money, you can set a boundary. In this rebuilding of you, you’re hopefully working on securing your financial situation, so lending or giving money to someone would go against that value or goal.
When that family member asks again for money, you either need to limit it to an amount that won’t hurt you financially or decline the request altogether. If you do loan someone money, even if it’s family, always create a written document to state their intention to repay, how, and when.
That’s a boundary. People who have pushed past your boundaries before will resist and try to get you to cave in, but you must stand firm, regardless of what they say. Always remember in a situation like this that they’ve gotten themselves into whatever financial mess they’re in. It’s not your job to get them out. Just like it’s not your job to get someone out of any mess they create.
Learn to Say “No”
People with low self-worth are often “yes” people. They will say yes to any request because they fear that if they don’t, they’ll lose the relationship.
Saying no after a lifetime of being a “yes” woman isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start anyway. If someone doesn’t want to be around you because you stood your ground for your own reasons, whatever they are, that’s on them. You can’t control the behavior of other people. You can only control your own.
People who are accustomed to taking advantage of you in the past will try to convince you to change your mind. The question to ask yourself is what you’re saying “No” to if you say “Yes” to their request. Additionally, if you say “No” and then change it to a “Yes”, you’ll have a hard time saying “No” to that person in the future.
Someone who wants to push you past your comfort zone or value and limits doesn’t have your best interest in mind, they have their own in mind.
Get to Know Yourself
What do you like to do? What do you like to eat? Where would you like to live? Have you ever considered these questions without considering someone else’s opinion?
If you could spend your time doing something you truly enjoyed, what would that be? Often when you’re in a codependent relationship, you don’t know the answers to these questions because your whole life has been focused on someone else’s wants and needs.
Now it’s time to learn about you, your wants and needs, and then spend time pursuing those things.
It’s time to put some physical and emotional distance between you and others. This isn’t about abandoning someone or ending your relationship, it’s just about putting some space in there so you can complete these other steps.
Disengaging or detaching yourself isn’t selfish, just like self-care isn’t, but it is necessary to improve your situation. What it does is allow you the space to get to know yourself and become the person you truly want to be. When you disengage, you stop:
- Participating in arguments
- Involving yourself in a situation that feels uncomfortable or unsafe
- Putting the feelings, opinions, and needs of others ahead of yours
- Trying to fix other peoples’ problems, listening instead without action
- Nagging and criticizing others
- Saying “Yes” all the time
- Allowing people to crash your boundaries
- Being reactive, instead of remaining calm and evaluating the situation to determine what your proper reaction should be
Accept Responsibility for What’s Yours Only
It becomes a bad habit to accept responsibility for your partner’s bad choices and to try to fix them, but to recover from codependency in relationships, you must stop.
Additionally, you must own your responsibility for where you are in your own life. Yes, things from your childhood got you here, but now that you recognize the problem, it’s time to take charge of the situation and own your part.
You can make your situation better for you. If you’re with someone who is a spendthrift, don’t allow him access to your money. If you’re sharing in the expenses, pay your half yourself. Most companies have online systems now, which makes it easy. Yes, you still might experience the electricity being shut off if he doesn’t pay his half, but you also have the option to stay with a friend or relative and not suffer the consequences of his actions.
Don’t allow the words of others to continue to make you believe that you can’t take care of your own needs. You’re an adult with free will to make choices and so is your partner, friend, or family member. Stop accepting responsibility for their choices and start owning your own.
End the Victim Mentality
It’s easy to blame others for everything wrong in our lives. You’re in a codependent relationship now because of something someone did or didn’t do in your childhood. How you deal with it is up to you. It goes back to accepting responsibility but takes it one step further.
Being a victim means never owning your role in anything. Life happens to you. You’re not an actor but a recipient.
Instead, become a student of life who is always growing and learning. Set aside the desire to shirk responsibility and start owning your life. You are the only one who can truly make changes in your life. You’re responsible for becoming the next version of yourself, whatever that is. Set your mind in a new direction where there’s no more blaming, just becoming the best version of yourself you can be.
With ditching the victim mentality comes the freedom to become whomever you want to be. You can chart your new course, set your own goals, and determine your values, then live your life to become the person who follows the course, achieves goals, and adheres to those values.
Codependency in a Relationship Doesn’t Need to be Permanent
Now that you’re aware of what codependency in a relationship looks like, you can move toward being proactive, instead of reactive in your life. You can take the steps to move away from that type of relationship, either with or without the other person in the codependency.
Chances are good that if you have a codependent romantic relationship, you have other codependent relationships as well, probably within your family, but they could be hiding in your friendships too.
Work toward taking those steps and nature will take care of the rest. As others see you making positive changes, one of two things will happen. Either they’ll ask to join you and learn how you’re making all those great changes, or they’ll resist and fall away. Either is acceptable if you remember that you can only control and change yourself. Whatever someone else chooses to do is on them.
Today you start taking care of you. If you don’t begin to take care of yourself, you won’t be 100% there to take care of those other important people in your life! Self-care isn’t the same as selfish. Self-care is essential for every single person, male or female, parent or not, laborer or white collar. None of that matters.
This self-love kit for women takes you through six types of self-care, providing you with essential steps toward including each type of self-care into your life.
Each type of self-care has specific steps and benefits to your overall well-being. You’ll gradually ease in to including each type of self-care in your life.
Inside the book is a link to download a free workbook and journal, featuring helpful worksheets to help you proceed through the self-care journey, as well as journal pages like yearly, monthly, weekly and daily calendars, trackers and other helpful pages. Your journey to feeling less overwhelm and more power in your life begins today!