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Codependency: Signs, Causes, and Help

Sacrificing your own needs for the other person in a codependent relationship can lead to dysfunctional or even abusive behavior. But there are ways to make changes and cultivate healthier relationships.

Stressed woman crying feeling depressed

What is codependency?

It’s natural to want the best for a loved one and to offer them support in their time of need. However, when taken to an extreme, the desire to care for another person can actually become harmful for both you and the other individual.

Codependency, also known as relationship addiction, takes place when one person believes it’s their job to “save” another person by attending to all of their needs. A codependent person builds their identity around this purpose and takes on a self-sacrificial role in the relationship.

Codependency is often used to describe a person who enables their partner’s addiction by covering up the addict’s problems or shielding them from consequences. However, it can take on many different forms, depending on the relationship. For example, if you’re codependent, you might take on excessive household responsibilities, fail to stand up for yourself, or end other friendships just to maintain your partner’s approval. This unhealthy dynamic isn’t limited to romantic relationships. You can also have a codependent relationship with a family member or friend.

Codependency can have consequences for both the codependent person as well as their loved one. The relationship has the potential to become one-sided or destructive. You might feel frustrated, resentful, or stressed out as you neglect your own needs and prioritize your partner’s. You might even find yourself tolerating physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. And when a relationship fails or goes through a rough patch, you may experience a loss of self-worth because your identity is so tied to your partner.

Your partner, on the other hand, might not seek help for issues you enable, such as substance abuse, gambling addiction, or an eating disorder. Instead, they become more dependent on you to take care of them. In other cases, a partner might label you as “clingy” or lash out at your attempts to control them. Because of this, people with codependent tendencies often have a hard time maintaining healthy, satisfying relationships.

Fortunately, codependent tendencies can be reined in and replaced with healthier patterns of behavior. By changing your thoughts and habits, you can enjoy more fulfilling relationships as well as a greater sense of self-worth.

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Signs of codependency

Mental health professionals haven’t developed a universal set of diagnostic criteria for codependency. However, there are some commonly accepted signs to consider.

Lack of satisfaction or purpose in life outside of the relationship. Your sense of identity is wrapped up in your partner’s, friend’s, or family member’s, so it’s difficult to maintain relationships or enjoy hobbies independently. You might forgo events with other people because your partner doesn’t want to attend.

Tendency to endure a partner’s harmful behavior. You brush off your partner’s tendency to insult or belittle you. When friends speak out about your partner’s abusive behavior, you defend them or shift the blame to yourself.

[Read: Domestic Violence and Abuse]

Idealization of partner. It’s common for people to admire their partner’s good qualities. However, if you’re codependent, you might put your loved one on a pedestal or fail to acknowledge the flaws that everyone has.

Enabling partner’s poor choices and behavior. If your partner has an addiction, for example, you might lie to other people about it, make excuses for your partner’s behavior, or bail them out of trouble. While rooted in good intentions, this simply prevents your loved one from facing the consequences of their actions and learning from their mistakes.

Controlling behavior. You might try to manipulate your partner into doing what you want, failing to realize the only person you can ever control is yourself. You might mistakenly believe that controlling the other person will somehow lead you to happiness.

Guilt when not attending to your partner’s needs and wants. You see it as your job to “fix” all of the other person’s problems. So, you experience guilt when you take time to focus on yourself or anything outside of the relationship.

Unwillingness to state needs, desires, and moral stances due to fear of conflict You might feel alone or neglected in the relationship but keep it to yourself because you don’t want to potentially upset your significant other. You might also stay silent when the other person does things you morally oppose, such as bullying.

Taking on undue blame. Rather than run the risk of an argument, you might just go along with whatever the other person in the relationship says. For example, if your partner forgot to load the dishwasher but blamed it on you, you might apologize to avoid conflict.

Taking on too much responsibility. You might clean up after your partner to earn their praise, even if it stresses you out or takes up a lot of your time. In terms of finances, you might pay all the bills even when you have similar income levels. By doing this, you stretch yourself thin while simultaneously enabling the other person.

Preoccupation with the other person’s thoughts or feelings. You might obsess over whether your partner is upset and, if so, how to fix their problems. Your mood might reflect your perception of their mood, since you disregard your own emotions.

Codependent vs. interdependent behavior
CodependentInterdependent
The codependent person has no hobbies and only does what their partner does.Each person maintains separate hobbies while also having shared interests together.
The codependent partner always does the household chores and takes the blame if they’re not completed.Both partners look for ways to contribute to the household.
The codependent person keeps their partner’s gambling addiction a secret and pays off their debts.Each partner encourages the other to address problems, such as addiction, without enabling the behavior.

Causes of codependency

Relationship addiction can often be traced back to past experiences. Past family dynamics have a lasting effect on all of us, even if those effects go unnoticed. Similarly, the relationship you had with your parent or caregiver during infancy can also influence your behavior as an adult.

Your present-day sense of self—the way in which you view yourself in relation to others—is another factor that may contribute to codependency.

Dysfunctional family dynamics

You might be able to tie your codependent habits back to your family dynamics. Certain household dynamics are more likely to negatively affect emotional development.

Households where self-sacrifice is the norm. Imagine a situation in which a family member suffers from a chronic mental health problem, physical illness, or addiction. The other family members sacrifice their personal needs to care for the ill person or shield the addict from the consequences of their behavior. If you grew up in this type of household, you might be used to putting excessive emphasis on the needs of others while neglecting your sense of self.

Households where emotional repression and non-confrontation are the norm. If you grew up in a family where abusive behavior occurred that was never acknowledged or confronted, it could lead you to develop a habit of ignoring problems and keeping your emotional needs to yourself. You might be conditioned to staying silent even when you’re mistreated or disagree with another person.

The role of attachment style

Your attachment style is shaped by the connection established as an infant with your primary caregiver. An insecure attachment can set you up for codependency issues later in life.

If your parent or caregiver tended to fluctuate between being responsive to your needs and being unavailable, you might have developed a sense of insecurity around relationships. This is known as an ambivalent (or anxious-preoccupied) attachment style.

People with this attachment style tend to:

  • Desire closeness but feel anxious about their partner’s reliability.
  • Become fixated on another person.
  • Overreact to perceived threats to the relationship.
  • Crave lots of attention from their partner in order to feel reassured.
  • Have a hard time maintaining boundaries because they feel anxious when away from their partner.

People with this insecure attachment style may try to ease their anxiety by tending to their partner’s every need and constantly seeking approval. They may also seek to control their partner via manipulative tactics.

Developing a secure attachment style

An ambivalent attachment is just one type of insecure attachment style formed during infancy, and it can have a negative effect on your relationships as an adult. However, you don’t have to feel trapped in unhealthy patterns of behavior or thinking. Your brain is capable of change at any age and you can take steps to develop a secure attachment style by:

  • Strengthening your nonverbal communication skills.
  • Increasing your emotional intelligence.
  • Addressing childhood trauma.
  • Seeking relationships with people who have secure attachment styles.

To learn more, see: How Attachment Styles Affect Adult Relationships.

Difficulties with sense of self or self-esteem

Low self-esteem, in general, can lead to codependent habits. If you feel as if you’re unworthy of love, you might go to great lengths to gain approval or to feel wanted. For example, you might take on a caretaker role and put too much focus on the needs of others.

Some codependent people report difficulty developing a sense of self. Instead, they modify themselves to feel liked and accepted by those around them. That feeling of acceptance builds their self-esteem but at the cost of a stable sense of self. For example, they may say they like movies, music, or hobbies that their friends like, just to feel accepted.

Changing unhealthy behavior in a codependent relationship

In a codependent relationship, both people can fall into behavioral patterns that reinforce a one-sided dynamic. Essentially, one person is always being selfless, while the other grows accustomed to being coddled.

It’s possible to adjust this dynamic by changing your codependent behavior. The road to a more independent lifestyle involves:

  • Knowing the difference between controlling and supporting your partner.
  • Separating your interests and goals from those of your partner.
  • Focusing on and asserting your needs.
  • Identifying and challenging negative thoughts.
  • Building your self-esteem.

You might find that one or a combination of these strategies works best for you. Remember to be patient with yourself, as change often takes time.

Tip 1: Support instead of control

In healthy relationships, two people support each other. This might involve listening when a friend is feeling down or taking up additional household responsibilities when a significant other is sick.

However, problems can appear when you aim to direct or manage rather than support. For example, you might try to make decisions for a friend or clean up after your partner even when they can handle the responsibility themselves.

During your interactions, make a habit of asking yourself, “Am I trying to support or manage?” Even if you think you know what’s best for the other person, recognize that you can’t control others. In many cases, letting a friend or partner do things for themselves will give them space to grow and help build a healthier relationship between you.

[Read: Tips for Building a Healthy Relationship]

Tip 2: Separate your desires from your partner’s

It’s common for two friends or romantic partners to share common goals and interests. Maybe you both want children or to move to a different state together. However, if you make a habit of pretending to want something or enjoy something just to appease the other person, you’ll likely feel unfulfilled

Make a list of you and your partner’s shared goals and activities. For example, it might include running 5Ks together or relocating to a new city. Now ask yourself, “Do I get enjoyment out of pursuing this goal or participating in this activity? What do I actually desire?”

In cases where your desires differ—whether it’s about favorite TV shows, hobbies, or future goals and aspirations—you might have to find a compromise. Know that compromising is healthier than always agreeing to things you don’t want. Maybe you can both spend a little time indulging each other’s interests, or maybe you can agree to pursue certain goals and hobbies independently.

Tip 3: Focus on yourself

Some codependent people feel guilty when they want to take some “me time.” Maybe you think you’re being selfish for visiting your friends or taking a rest day instead of attending to your partner. If this is the case, it can help to rethink your understanding of “selfishness.” In moderation, it can actually be healthy.

With that in mind, plan to reserve time and energy for your wants and needs.

  • Take time to relax, especially after accomplishing a difficult task.
  • Engage in things you want to do, even if it’s a solo activity such as reading a book.
  • Practice saying “no” to requests that could leave you feeling overwhelmed.

Learning to assert yourself

Focusing on your own needs means that you’ll have to learn to assert yourself. Being assertive involves being direct and honest. This isn’t the same as aggression, which involves making demands of others or infringing on their rights.

To be assertive, start by recognizing the other person’s position. Then, let the person know your position. Don’t leave space for misinterpretations.

Some examples of assertiveness:

  • “I know you want me to pay your parking fine, but I believe it’s your responsibility.”
  • “I know you’d prefer me to stay longer, but I’m tired and need to leave.”
  • “I know you’re used to me cooking dinner, but I’d like to take a break tonight.”

If being assertive doesn’t come naturally for you, practice asserting yourself in small matters. This allows you to gain more confidence in voicing your needs, wants, and opinions.

Tip 4: Challenge negative thoughts

Does your codependency stem from anxious thoughts? Maybe you’re worried that your romantic partner will leave if you don’t maintain control. Or perhaps you need constant reassurances to feel secure. Learning to handle your own anxieties can be beneficial in building a healthy, interdependent relationship.

Identify anxious thoughts

Anxious thoughts, or cognitive distortions, can come in many forms. Some examples include:

All-or-nothing thinking. This is the tendency to oversimplify things and overlook the middle ground. “If my husband isn’t happy today, I’m a terrible wife.”

Mistaking personal feelings for truth. “I feel guilty for not washing the dishes. My partner probably thinks I’m lazy.”

Expecting the worst-case scenario. “If I tell her I disagree, she’ll get mad and never talk to me again.”

Self-blaming for factors outside of your control. “It’s my fault he ended up driving drunk tonight.”

Using “should” statements to set imaginary rules. “I should be there to manage his finances.”

Filtering out positives. “He’s happy with this relationship now, but he’ll leave when someone else comes along.”

Labeling yourself based on shortcomings. “I didn’t want to exercise with her today, so I’m lazy and boring.”

Practice identifying these types of thoughts when they arise. Then, take a moment to challenge them.

Challenge these anxious thoughts

Ask yourself:

  • Is there evidence to support this thought? Or am I making assumptions?
  • What are the chances that my fears will come true?
  • Is there a more likely outcome or more likely explanation?
  • Am I overlooking positive factors?
  • Is worrying about this useful?
  • Is the situation even within my control?

In many cases, you might find that your fears aren’t backed by evidence or that you’re worried about things you can’t control.

Replace negative thoughts

Don’t stop at challenging the negative thoughts. Try to replace those thoughts with neutral or positive statements.

Adjusting negative thoughts
Negative thoughtNeutral or positive thought
“If I disagree with my partner, they’ll get mad.”“If I disagree with my partner, they’ll better understand my perspective.”
“I’m a bad person if I don’t pay for my friend’s DUI fine.”“If I don’t pay for my friend’s DUI fine, that’s okay. It’s their responsibility.”
“If my partner seems upset, I’ve done something wrong.”“There are many reasons why my partner might be upset. It’s not necessarily related to me or within my control.”

Tip 5: Build your self-esteem

High self-esteem can make you more resilient to social pain, such as the hurt that comes with rejection. Research also shows that people with high self-esteem may experience reduced levels of anxiety and depression. So, by building self-esteem, you can better manage the anxiety underlying your codependent behavior. You’ll also feel more empowered to handle the inevitable ups and downs of relationships.

Build positive social relationships. The quality of your social life can influence your level of self-esteem and vice versa. High self-esteem helps you cultivate satisfying relationships, and satisfying relationships help improve your self-esteem. Aim to extend your social interactions beyond the person you’re overly focused on. Spend time with friends and family members, or get out and meet new people. After an interaction, ask yourself how you feel. Drained? Anxious? If you don’t feel good after being around someone, spend less time with them. Look for friends and family members who make you laugh and feel comfortable.

[Read: Making Good Friends]

Practice healthy diet and sleep habits. You’ll feel your best when you’re well-rested and have a
healthy diet
. On the other hand, lack of sleep and too much junk food can weigh down your physical and mental well-being.

Exercise more often. Physical activity can help raise your self-esteem. You don’t necessarily need to head to the gym and start lifting weights. Just start by engaging in activities that you genuinely enjoy and feel confident in. Go for a bike ride around the neighborhood, increasing your time and distance with each session. Enjoy a swim, go bowling, or take longer walks with your dog.

Note your strengths. Write out a list of positive things about yourself. The list can include anything from activities you excel at to personality traits that other people have complimented you on. Review the list when you’re feeling stuck in a rut or being hard on yourself. The list can also help you identify areas in which you want to invest more time and energy to help boost your self-confidence. If one of your strengths is ice skating, for example, spend more time at the rink or teach others how to ice skate .

Set reasonable goals for yourself. Long-term goals can give you a sense of purpose outside of the codependent relationship. Maybe you want to start a nonprofit, write a novel, or try for promotion at work. Short-term goals can also provide you with a sense of direction. You might want to save up for a new car or reach a certain fitness level.

Manage your expectations. No matter what goals you set, make sure they’re feasible. While you want to challenge yourself, it may be unreasonable to set a goal of becoming an award-winning writer or the CEO of a company overnight. Achieving tough goals, though—or even coming close—can help to boost your confidence and self-esteem.

Don’t focus too much on comparisons. It’s tempting to compare your life, your looks, and your achievements with those of your peers. This is especially true on social media, where most people are trying to present a picture-perfect view of their life and gain approval. Remind yourself that other people have insecurities and flaws, even if you don’t notice them.

Recovering from codependency issues involves more than simply “being less clingy.” To experience real change, you’ll need to reexamine the relationship you have with yourself. Once you place a higher value on yourself and feel more confident, you can enjoy build healthier relationships that reinforce your sense of well-being.

Dealing with someone who’s codependent

If you’re in a relationship with someone who’s codependent, you might feel overwhelmed by their constant attention. It may feel as if you’re always under a spotlight. Or maybe you feel like their controlling behavior is limiting your sense of independence.

These strategies can help to nudge the relationship into a healthier direction:

Consider your influence. Is it possible that you’re enabling your partner’s codependent behavior? Perhaps you’re leaving messes around the house for them to clean up or allowing their controlling behavior to go unchallenged. Resolve to address your own habits that may be encouraging your partner to be codependent.

Talk things out. Have an honest conversation about your concerns and desire for change in your relationship. When you talk to your partner about their codependent habits, they may get defensive. While you can’t control their reaction, you can use a few strategies to help get your message across:

  • Don’t start the conversation while your partner is distracted or already stressed out. Doing so will increase the risk of misunderstandings or emotional responses.
  • Watch your nonverbal cues. Actions such as rolling your eyes or tapping your foot can make your partner defensive and undermine your message.
  • Use “I” statements, such as, “I feel frustrated and constrained when you plan out my day.” This is less accusatory than saying something like, “You always try to control me.”
  • Be an active listener. A codependent partner might be hesitant to stop you from dominating the conversation, but that doesn’t mean you should. Ask questions. Don’t interrupt. Pause and reflect on what your partner has to say.

[Read: Effective Communication]

Set boundaries. Be clear about what kind of behavior you consider controlling, coddling, or overwhelming. Do you want your partner to stop trying to manage your finances? Do you want them to spend more time and energy on their own hobbies? Even after you set boundaries, your partner may continue to cross them on occasion. Firmly remind them of the boundaries, rather than let things slide.

Take a break. If a friend or partner consistently crosses your boundaries, consider reducing the amount of time you spend together. This might give the other person time to refocus on their own wants and needs. If you take a complete break from interacting, recognize that it doesn’t have to permanent.

Consider couples therapy. A therapist can work with both you and your partner to address how your habits affect each other. The therapist might draw your attention to ways in which you enable your partner and how you can both break that cycle. You’ll also learn healthy ways to support each other.

Encourage their sense of independence. You might be used to your codependent partner constantly attending to your needs. However, if they decide to embrace their own hobbies or spend more time with friends, be careful not to undermine their attempts at growth. Instead, encourage them to do the things they love to do.

Be patient and recognize that it might take time for a codependent person to change their habits. They might need to try multiple strategies to build their confidence and see their own self-worth. Make an effort to support, but not control, them on their journey.

Authors: Sheldon Reid.

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    Get more help

    10 Signs You’re in a Codependent Relationship – Know the signs of codependent relationships, so you can create healthier ones. (Psychology Today)

    Co-Dependents Anonymous – Worldwide resources for people with codependence issues. (CoDA.org)

    Last updated: August 29, 2022