Are you in a codependent relationship? 10 signs and how to fix it

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Are you in a codependent relationship?Anhelina Lisna

If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you’ll know that they often require walking a delicate line between meeting your partner’s needs while also advocating for your own. Finding this balance can be incredibly rewarding, and is typically what makes relationships worthwhile in the long run.

Sometimes, though, the dynamic between you and your partner’s needs can become off kilter in the relationship, which can manifest itself in an issue called codependence.

Codependent relationships exist in a variety of different partnerships (between siblings, parents, coworkers, friends), but when we’re talking romantic relationships, it's often on another level.

'In a codependent relationship, you tend to rely on the other person for happiness and approval,' says Dale Atkins, PhD, co-author of The Kindness Advantage, and New York-based psychologist. 'You become so wrapped up in them, you lose yourself. Your needs are determined by your partner.'

Generally speaking, codependence means that there’s an imbalance in the relationship, where one person tends to be giving much more than the other, explains Janet Brito, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist in Honolulu. You can also look at codependence like this: It’s one partner’s actions being characterised by taking or demanding a lot from their S.O.

It’s definitely a dysfunctional place to be in. 'One person is doing the loving and caring in the relationship, and the other is taking, taking, taking and not giving back,' says Atkins.

If this is starting to sound familiar to you, read ahead for a deep dive into what a codependent relationship really looks like.

What is codependency?

Technically, codependency means that someone is so intricately woven into you that you cannot honour your own feelings and needs, Skyler explains. It’s when you are essentially sacrificing yourself to play a part in the bigger system of your relationship, Skyler says. It typically results in the provider-heavy person harbouring feelings of resentment, emptiness, and sadness, Brito adds.

That said, codependent relationships are a nuanced issue, and the word is used a bit too loosely on the internet and social media. In short, codependency is not to be confused with interdependence, explains Jenni Skyler, PhD, a certified sex therapist, sexologist, and director of The Intimacy Institute.

Interdependence is when you maintain autonomy over your feelings, choices, and behaviours, but you also offer and receive healthy support from your romantic partner and a whole network of people. 'Humans are a social species,' Skyler explains. 'Interdependence is key to our survival,' she notes. Basically, we need other people to stay alive. Needing others doesn’t mean you’re codependent, per se.

So, what exactly is a codependent relationship?

As mentioned, a codependent relationship can manifest itself in a variety of ways. While codependence looks different in every relationship, you might feel like you’re becoming an (unnecessary) provider if you’re often picking up after your partner’s toxic habits, Skyler says.

These bad behaviours can range from something as small as not picking up after themselves or being unable to make a decision on their own, to ones that are more menacing like causing trouble when they drink too much or being irresponsible with money. Regardless, as their caretaker, they will depend on you to pick up the pieces for them and guide them in the right direction, Brito explains.

Conversely, if you are the dependent person in the relationship, you might find yourself feeling lost and helpless without your partner—consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps they are your only source of companionship or friendship, and they’re the one you go to when there’s any kind of inconvenience in your life.

How do codependent relationships happen?

Usually, codependent relationships don't just happen out of nowhere and often are a projection of past relationships you've had, especially with family members.

'Codependency usually develops from parent-child relations that influence the child to put their parents' or family's needs before their own, says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University.

Sometimes, people who are more inclined to slide into a codependent relationship have had a toxic relationship with a parent or family member. This doesn't necessarily mean that one party had an intention of controlling the other person, but it can happen especially if a parent has been ill, has struggled with substance abuse, or has been emotionally unstable, explains Hafeez.

Codependency can also happen when a person is a such a devoted caregiver for someone else that they neglect their own needs. While caregiving can inherently be a beautiful, unselfish act, it can turn unhealthy. 'It is imperative to understand that a relationship wrapped in the need for another person, and the need to be needed, is not healthy,' Hafeez says.

People might also have personality traits that make them more inclined to develop a codependent relationship with another person. For example, if you are always apologising, leading every text and email with 'sorry!,' even for mundane things, it could be a sign of a codependent trait, says Hafeez. 'This can signal a need to know that people are not mad at you,' she says.

Along with that, if you have trouble expressing exactly what you want in a relationship (this can be something as simple as where you want to pick up dinner, or a bigger decision like where you want to move with your partner), it can be problematic in the long run. Codependent relationships thrive on one person 'going along with' the other person's wishes and adapting to that person's, and that will can weigh on you over time, says Hafeez.

Some specific symptoms of a codependent relationship:

1. You take too much responsibility for your partner.

Of course, in any relationship, you want to care for your partner. But taking on too much responsibility for their well-being is another sign of codependency. 'In order to feel in control and ‘okay,’ you look to manage and take care of your partner’s behaviour,' says Jane Greer, PhD, author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship, and New York-based relationship expert. One example is that when your partner's drinking, you’ll always be the one reminding them not to drink (if it creates problems for them) or cleaning up any issues they may get themselves into, Greer says.

2. You gravitate toward people who need you.

You may tend to date people who need help. It’s all in an effort to take responsibility for people and rescue them, notes Atkins. This is why codependent people are often attracted to those who have addictions, like drinking or gambling. You may also put yourself in peril to help them, via taking on gambling debt, dipping into your savings to support them, or getting into a car with them when you know they’re a reckless driver.

3. You never get your way.

Let’s say you feel like staying in, but your partner wants to go out and hit the bars. In a healthy relationship, you might reach a compromise—you'll stay in tonight, but make plans to go out tomorrow. In a codependent relationship, your partner might cut you down ('God, you're so boring, this is why you have no friends'), causing you to cave ('Fine, we'll go out, it doesn't matter anyway'). While it seems like a minor problem, it may be one of the many examples of how your needs aren’t acknowledged or valued.

4. They’ve told you you’re a 'nag'.

If you feel like you always have to keep close tabs on your partner and tell them what not to do, you may be codependent, says Greer. Try taking a step back and letting them make their own decisions. How does that feel? Impossible because you know they’ll mess up?

5. You'd describe your partner as 'immature.'

If your partner is resisting being a responsible adult and you’re taking care of them—paying the bills while they avoid getting a job, for instance—your relationship may be codependent. The key tip-off: If you bring up the problem (why aren’t you sending out more resumes?), you get barked at, says Atkins. You may also find yourself making excuses for his or her behaviour to your friends.

6. You only fight about one thing.

While this sounds like it’d be a good thing—you’re in relative harmony except for when 'xyz' comes up—it’s another sign of codependency. You may find yourself saying things like 'he/she/our relationship is perfect except for when they…' If you’re always angry at certain behaviours and your arguments centre around one fight or issue in particular (and tend to blow up), it may be time to reevaluate your relationship and what it’s doing for you, says Greer.

7. You do things for them they should do on their own.

'This is one of the easiest ways to fall into a codependent relationship,' says Hafeez. It goes back to the idea of needing to feel needed, which often stems from relationships in your childhood. While it can be sweet to treat your partner with breakfast in bed one morning, it's important not to make a habit out of doing simple things, like waking the person up or cleaning up their messes, on a continual basis. 'Treating your partner like a child creates a toxic codependent relationship,' Hafeez adds.

8. You talk about your partner's issues more than your own.

When your world begins to revolve around your partner's unhappiness at work, family drama, or financial troubles, it's unhealthy for you. 'Your life is almost like a reflection of theirs, so their problems, worries, and anxieties are your primary importance,' says Hafeez. If you and your partner's conversations always center on what's going on with them, and never on anything you're dealing with, you could be in a codependent relationship.

Likewise, if you find yourself only telling your friends about your partner (and not just when the two of you are going through a rough patch—that's totally normal, and even healthy, to discuss with friends, Hafeez says) and not updating them on your own life, it's likely that there's some codependency going on. 'It might be a sign that you feel like you don't exist away from your partner,' Hafeez says.

9. You struggle to identify your own emotions.

If you find yourself checking in with your partner to gauge exactly how you feel about a situation, it can signal a codependent relationship. It's great to be on the same page as your partner emotionally, but this can go too far. 'Because your feelings and thoughts are so unified with little to no boundaries, it can be challenging to identify where yours end and theirs begins,' says Hafeez.

It's a problem if you're giving so much of yourself that you forget to check in on your own feelings. This can often continue for a long time before you realise that you aren't in touch with your own emotions.

10. You check in with your partner before doing anything.

Communication is key when making important life decisions, but some choices (like your career, for example) are meant for you alone. Of course, certain things will have an effect on the relationship, but other things won't, so you're free to fly solo. 'You're giving someone a lot of power by continually checking with your partner before you do anything,' says Hafeez. 'Someone who is checking in at all times, asking if things are okay, is someone who doubts their power in the relationship,' she adds. Your relationship is likely codependent if you can't seem to shake that habit.

How to stop being codependent:

The sooner you notice the signs of a codependent relationship, the easier it will be to work through them, says Hafeez. And if you recognise that *you're* the codependent partner, you'll need to do some work on yourself. Hafeez recommends:

  • Doing some activities by yourself, like going to the park or to the cinema

  • Thinking about all the things that bring you joy, independent of your partner

  • Prioritising self-care

  • Reflecting on any trauma you've experienced

  • Speaking with a therapist

As a couple, you can work through codependency, but it will take a lot of communication and honesty from both parties about what's been going on in the relationship. 'Establish boundaries with the other person, and don't be guided by guilt,' says Hafeez. If communicating about this topic is challenging, attending therapy together may help. There's also a 12-step group called Codependents Anonymous, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, which can help people break out of their codependent habits, Hafeez points out.

If you do want to try addressing the issue yourself first though, try this. Initiate a candid conversation about your observations—not accusations. You don't want to push them even further away because they're not living up to your standards or you're trying to guilt them into being closer to you.

To do that, you can try phrasing it this way: I've noticed I'm usually the one to reach out and make plans for us. I'm just wondering if that's because I'm more interested in planning activities, or if it's because you're just someone who appreciates when the other person initiates. This gives you a chance to learn why they're behaving the way they do, and they'll be more likely to tell you the truth when they don't feel attacked.

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If their answer is that they just really enjoy the ease and comfort of having you initiate and plan dates, you can say something like: That's great to know! I'd love it if you could be active in making plans for us, too. It would be really enjoyable for me to see what you come up with. But if their answer confirms what you were worried about—that they're completely reliant on you for a social life—you get to decide if that's good enough for you.

If the codependent relationship has gone on for too long though, it may be beyond repairing. It'll be more complicated if you have a family together, because the decision will affect your children, but it depends on you and your partner's willingness to build a healthier relationship. 'If you don't have children together, you should leave when there is no cooperation or commitment from the other person to change,' says Hafeez.

Changing goes both ways, even if you're the one that's codependent. 'Your partner needs to be prepared to work through this with you and address how their past may have fed into this dynamic,' Hafeez adds.

You can't force someone to take a step forward, but you can decide to take a step back. It's completely your choice and it may depend on how strong of a connection you feel with this person, but at the end of the day, it's very difficult to feel stable in a codependent relationship. The power is yours to make the next move.

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