Codependency refers to a mental, emotional, physical, and/or spiritual reliance on a partner, friend, or family member.
There is much more to this term than everyday clinginess. Codependent relationships are far more extreme than this. A person who is codependent will plan their entire life around pleasing the other person, or the enabler.
In its simplest terms, a codependent relationship is when one partner needs the other partner, who in turn, needs to be needed. This circular relationship is the basis of what experts refer to when they describe the “cycle” of codependency.
The codependent’s self-esteem and self-worth will come only from sacrificing themselves for their partner, who is only too glad to receive their sacrifices.
Signs of Codependency
As outlined above, codependency refers to an imbalanced relationship pattern where one person assumes responsibility for meeting another person’s needs to the exclusion of acknowledging their own needs or feelings.
Codependent relationships are thus constructed around an inequity of power that promotes the needs of the taker, leaving the giver to keep on giving often at the sacrifice of themselves. According to Dr. Mayfield, signs of codependency might include some, but not necessarily all, the following:
- A sense of “walking on eggshells” to avoid conflict with the other person.
- Feeling the need to check in with the other person and/or ask permission to do daily tasks.
- Often being the one who apologizes—even if you have done nothing wrong.
- Feeling sorry for the other person even when they hurt you.
- Regularly trying to change or rescue troubled, addicted, or under-functioning people whose problems go beyond one person’s ability to fix them.
- Doing anything for the other person, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
- Putting the other person on a pedestal despite the fact that they don’t merit this position.
- A need for other people to like you in order to feel good about yourself.
- Struggling to find any time for yourself, especially if your free time consistently goes to the other person.
- Feeling as if you’ve lost a sense of yourself or within the relationship.
How does a codependent relationship develop?
People who are codependent as adults often had problems with 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
- a lack of maturity and emotional development, resulting in their own self-centered needs
Living with a 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.
A person’s self-worth may form around being needed by another person and receiving nothing in return.
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.
Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse can cause psychological problems that last years or even an entire lifetime. One of the many issues that can arise from past abuse is codependency.
A child or teenager who is abused will 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 codependent relationships.
Why Codependency Is an Unhealthy Dynamic
While everyone has loved ones and feels responsible for those loved ones, it can be unhealthy when someone’s identity is contingent upon someone else.
“Codependency does not refer to all caring behavior or feelings — but only those that are excessive to an unhealthy degree. Responsibility for relationships with others needs to coexist with responsibility to self,” says Dr. Exelbert.
“This dynamic has also been referred to as a ‘relationship addiction’ because people with codependency often form relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive, and/or abusive.”
Even if “the giver” doesn’t feel this way immediately — they likely enjoy giving their love and being relied upon — it can develop to very unhealthy degrees as the relationship progresses.
Another inherent issue is that it becomes difficult for “the giver” to extricate themselves from the relationship since they might feel the other person relies on them so much — even if they know in their gut it is the right thing to do. Conversely, “the taker” will feel so reliant on the other that they can have difficulty leaving a toxic relationship, as well.
8 Signs You’re in a Codependent Relationship
Codependent personalities usually follow a pattern of behaviors that are consistent, problematic, and directly interfere with the individual’s emotional health and ability to find fulfillment in a relationship. Signs of codependency include excessive caretaking, controlling, and preoccupation with people and things outside ourselves.
Signs of codependency include:
- Difficulty making decisions in a relationship
- Difficulty identifying your feelings
- Difficulty communicating in a relationship
- Valuing the approval of others more than valuing yourself
- Lacking trust in yourself and having poor self-esteem
- Having fears of abandonment or an obsessive need for approval
- Having an unhealthy dependence on relationships, even at your own cost
- Having an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
How to Reduce Codependent Tendencies
The first step in reducing codependent tendencies is to focus on self-awareness. This can be done on your own, of course, but Dr. Mayfield also stresses the importance of therapy to help you really unravel your codependent tendencies.
He adds, “Many who struggle with codependency don’t seek help until their life begins to fall apart. My advice is to be proactive and seek help.”
Once you’re on that journey, try your best to do the following:
- Become president of your own fan club. “Learn to speak lovingly and positively to yourself, and resist the impulse to self-criticize,” says. Dr. Exelbert.
- Take small steps towards some separation in the relationship. Seek activities outside of the relationship and invest in new friendships. Focus on figuring out the things that make you who you are, and then expand upon them.
- When tempted to think or worry about someone else, actively turn your attention inward. This takes practice, so be kind to yourself along the way.
- “Stand up for yourself if someone criticizes, undermines, or tries to control you,” says Dr. Exelbert. By working on building your own sense of self-esteem, you’ll find more strength in yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to say “no” to someone when you don’t really want to do something.
- If one-on-one therapy doesn’t appeal to you, consider trying a support group or group psychotherapy, suggests Dr. Exelbert.
A Word From Family First Counseling Center
Codependency is a nuanced behavior that comes in many forms and levels of intensity. It often leads to an unhealthy relationship dynamic that progressively gets worse over time as the codependent person loses a sense of themselves. Self-awareness and active redirection from the behavior is key in reducing codependent tendencies; be kind to yourself as you work through years of learned behavior and if needed seek advice from a professional counselor.