Navigating relationships can be difficult — after all, there are so many different types of relationships and kinds of love — and what works for one couple may not work for another. Ideally, relationships work best when the needs of all partners are met in a balanced way. However, if the scales are tipped a bit too far in one direction, you might find yourself caught up in a codependent relationship.
Clinical psychologist Coda Derrig, PhD, defines what a codependent relationship is, how it can be harmful to all parties and signs you should watch out for.
What is a codependent relationship?
In a codependent relationship, there tends to be a severe imbalance of power. Often, one person may be giving much more time, energy and focus to the other person, who consciously or unconsciously takes advantage of the situation in order to maximize their needs and desires. Typically, you’ll find codependent behavior most commonly in relationships in which someone has a substance use disorder, but you can have a codependent relationship with anyone, including your boss, friends, colleagues or family members.
“All relationships are based on a philosophy that if it works for you, it works for me,” says Dr. Derrig, “But taken to an extreme, it can be that without the relationship, people can’t function very well, so the relationship becomes unhealthy.”
When power dynamics are flipped, and one person’s needs and desires take precedent over another’s, it can feel mutually beneficial at first. It’s nice knowing you’re being supportive and it feels positive knowing you’re contributing to someone else’s success and happiness. Unfortunately, you can lose sight of your own values, responsibilities and needs, ultimately losing sight of who you are.
“You feel like you’re really contributing something positive, especially at the beginning, but later on, you can become increasingly resentful and unhappy or even lose control because no matter how hard your efforts are, you can never succeed in saving the other person,” says Dr. Derrig. “In fact, it often just makes it worse and worse.”
Signs of a codependent relationship
Codependent relationships are so symbiotic that it can be hard to identify when it’s happening.
“There are no victims here. There are no persecutors here. There are no saviors here,” says Dr. Derrig. “If we can let go of those concepts, then you’re getting at the root cause of what’s happening with both parties.”
Luckily, there are some notable signs to watch out for, and many of them involve various forms of self-sacrifice and neglect.
You feel like you need to save them from themselves
In a codependent relationship, a partner often takes on the role of a caretaker: Maybe they’re quick to anger, in active addiction or have a hard time paying bills. As the caretaker, you step in to pick up the pieces, trying to guide them along the way to better and more positive solutions. At first, this behavior is redeemable — of course you would do anything to see your partner succeed — but it’s on the other person to make real and lasting change, so you can only do so much. Ultimately, this becomes a one-sided relationship.
“There’s an excessive sense of responsibility for the other person’s behavior and emotions,” says Dr. Derrig. “The partner may even play into that, suggesting, for example, that it’s your fault they drank last night or it’s your fault they got in trouble because you didn’t come pick them up from the bar.”
You want to change who they are
No one is perfect, but there’s a difference between having a small hang-up over the way someone makes their bed versus fundamental differences in character and beliefs. Maybe you’re a homebody, but your partner digs the club life: If you’re staying home and hope to eventually convince them to do the same, or if you’re forcing yourself to go out when you don’t want to in the hopes that your small act of kindness might convince them to give up a life of partying, you may be practicing codependent behaviors.
The truth is, you can’t change other people if they’re unwilling to make that change themselves. “You’re two people that need each other like peanut butter and jelly, except it’s a sandwich neither one wants to eat,” says Dr. Derrig.
Taking time out for self-care makes you feel selfish
It’s hard to tear yourself away, even for a little bit of peace. If you find it difficult to be motivated to do the things you’d normally love doing when your partner isn’t around, this is a sign you may be codependent.
Does it feel wrong to be without them? Does it feel off to do things you used to love doing before you met them? Can you spend just a couple of hours outside of your comfort zone without relying on their presence for self-care? “Feeling excessive guilt for doing anything for yourself is another major characteristic,” says Dr. Derrig.
It’s difficult to explain how you’re feeling about your relationship
When asked about how things are going with your relationship, is it hard to define what’s positive or negative? Do you have mixed feelings about … well, all of it?
This might be because you’re so focused on the other person in your relationship that you’re not spending much time processing your own feelings and emotions. In doing this, you might be avoiding your own problems or feelings and replacing them with the high that comes from simply satisfying your partner, and this is a double-edged sword.
“A lot of times, a person who’s codependent might not be completely aware of how it’s affecting their self-esteem,” says Dr. Derrig. “It’s because of the fact that the person is not focused on themselves.”
You feel anxious when you don’t hear from them
Do you stress out over whether or not someone has their read receipts on? Do you check your phone every couple of minutes to see if they’ve reached out to you? If you find yourself panicking or thinking up worst-case scenarios during large gaps of time you’re not together, and you’re constantly reaching for your phone or reaching out to them, it’s probably because you’ve become so reliant on your partner for satisfaction.
You have trouble being alone
How often do you spend time alone versus spending time with your partner? Can you sit by yourself comfortably or at rest without feeling like you need to reach out? Sometimes, it doesn’t feel good to sit with your own thoughts because it’s easier to pour your focus into another person and avoid the things that bother you than to focus on all the things you need to do (or should do) to improve your current situation.
You routinely cancel plans to spend time with your partner
This is closely related to self-care. Maybe you carve out too much space for your partner so that you’ve reached out less and less to other loved ones and friends out of fear that if you’re busy, you’ll miss your opportunity to maintain a connection with your partner. Or maybe you’ve gotten too good at canceling plans at the last minute because you’re prioritizing your partner over other relationships.
“When we become increasingly enmeshed in our relationship, we’re no longer connecting with others outside of the relationship,” says Dr. Derrig. “Don’t let the codependent relationship become all there is.”
Your space doesn’t feel like it’s yours
Maybe you’ve redecorated or redesigned some of your spaces to better fit your partner’s tastes, or maybe your inner sanctum at home feels less like a sanctuary and more of an unfamiliar space when your partner isn’t there. If you’re feeling overly anxious or waves of sadness rush in when you return home alone or your partner leaves that space, you may need to find small ways to reclaim your environment by organizing things how you like them and finding some comfort.
You feel like maybe you ask for too much
Are you hesitant to speak up for what you need because you’re afraid of the outcome? Have you been told that you’re too demanding even when you make the smallest requests? Are your attempts at fixing problems shut down before they even begin? Communication is paramount in a relationship, but if you’re feeling guilty for addressing specific issues or you’re feeling unsure of whether you’re right or wrong for feeling the way you feel, your partner may be gaslighting you.
Their behavior escalates when you try to set healthy boundaries
If you’ve attempted to communicate and resolve some issues by setting up healthy boundaries and your partner’s behavior escalates or grows worse in spite of your attempts, this is a surefire sign that their needs take precedent over your own. This behavior could lead to severe feelings of resentment or regret, creating a perpetual unending pattern of distress for both people.
“Setting the boundaries is likely to be painful for both people,” says Dr. Derrig. “Sometimes, a person will escalate the issue in an effort to pull you back in.”
Can a codependent relationship be saved?
Oomph, OK, that’s a lot. And maybe you’re realizing some things now that have been bubbling under the surface for a while. But it’s important to remember that there are healthy ways you can work with your partner to bring balance back to your relationship. Ultimately, this takes effort from all parties to make this happen. If you’re not sure where to begin, here are some pointers:
- Get a trusted outside perspective. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to get so caught up in your emotions and feel a little lost. Turn to your family or friends for advice and ask them what they’ve noticed about any changes in your behavior or signs the dynamic of your relationship might be a bit skewed. “Other people can typically see this pretty clearly,” notes Dr. Derrig. “They can usually identify when you’re taking on too much or doing too much for this other person.”
- Check in with yourself and re-examine your value system. Your core values are a system of beliefs that drive everything you do. For example, if you value honesty, that’s going to be a quality characteristic that you’re going to emphasize in nearly every aspect of your life and virtually every relationship. Make a list of your core values — the qualities you hold dear — and ask yourself, “Where have I made sacrifices? What am I taking responsibility for here? How am I feeling about myself? How am I feeling about my career?”
- Create a timeline of your relationships. Often, people who are codependent will exhibit patterns of behavior across different relationships over time. By journaling about your past relationships and revisiting some of the things that worked and didn’t work, you can try and determine if you’re repeating patterns of behavior in past relationships. By identifying these patterns, you can isolate the things you can work on and how they’ve made you feel in the past — and that knowledge can help you better navigate your present and future relationships.
- Set those healthy boundaries. We’ve identified that this process is difficult, but it doesn’t make it any less important. “I think a codependent relationship could become healthier if both parties are willing to do the work,” says Dr. Derrig. “If both people are relatively healthy, they might be able to reshuffle the dynamic mutually.” This means, both parties have to be open to communicating and listening to one another, while also taking responsibility for their own actions. Sometimes, this requires both parties to be intentional about what they’re doing and, again, checking in with themselves while honoring the other person’s boundaries.
Signs you should leave
If your relationship ever becomes dangerous or abusive — either physically or verbally — you should seek immediate help and find a way to end the relationship.
Otherwise, only you can decide how much you’re willing to put up with before you walk away.
“It’s partly a question of your own individual values,” says Dr. Derrig. “After you’ve done a lot of work around your self-image, you might think carefully about how important it is to be supported and cared for in your relationship. How little are you willing to accept? I think knowing yourself helps find a wise response to that question.”