What Does a Codependent Relationship Looks Like?
A codependent relationship is a type of dysfunctional relationship in which one person provides care while the other takes advantage. Codependent relationships are highly frequent among those who struggle with drug abuse.
A codependent relationship occurs when two persons have an imbalance of power and responsibility. There is a major power imbalance in a codependent relationship. Often, one person devotes significantly more time, energy, and concentration to the other person, who intentionally or subconsciously exploits the circumstance to maximize their wants and desires.
Codependent behavior is more common in romantic relationships but you can be codependent with anybody, including your boss, friends, coworkers, or family members.
“All relationships are built on the notion that if it works for you, it works for me,” explains Dr. Derrig, “but pushed to an extreme, it might be that individuals can’t function very well without the relationship, so the relationship becomes toxic.”
When power dynamics are reversed and one person’s wants and goals take precedence over another’s, it might first appear mutually beneficial (situationship). It feels good to know you’re being helpful, and it’s even better to know you’re contributing to someone else’s success and pleasure.
Unfortunately, it is possible to lose sight of your own ideals, duties, and needs, and therefore lose sight of who you are.
“You feel like you’re actually doing something helpful at first, but later on, you might become increasingly angry and miserable, or even lose control, since no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to save the other person,” Dr. Derrig adds. “In reality, it frequently makes things 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, no persecutors here, and 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.
1. 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”. “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 to pick them up from the bar.”
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.”
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.”
8. 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.
9. 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.
“Setting the boundaries is likely to be painful for both people.” “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.
- Check-in with yourself and re-examine your value system.
- Create a timeline of your relationships. People who are codependent tend to show patterns of behavior throughout several relationships over time. You might try to see if you’re repeating patterns of behavior in former relationships by journaling about them and reviewing some of the things that worked and didn’t work. You can separate the things you can work on and how they’ve made you feel in the past by identifying these patterns — and that information may help you better manage your current and future relationships.
- Set healthy boundaries. We know this process is painful, but it doesn’t make it any less necessary. “I believe a codependent relationship may improve if both people are willing to put in the effort.” This sometimes necessitates both individuals to be mindful of what they’re doing and, once again, check in with themselves while respecting 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 immediately.
- 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.”