At first, codependency might not seem like an issue. In fact, you might think it’s cute (and normal) to spend all your time with your partner and do everything in tandem. But over time, you may begin to notice feelings of anxiety creeping up when you’re apart, and perhaps even jealousy and stress when you know your partner is spending time with someone else.
“People have a misconception that codependency in relationships is just relying on your partner, but it’s actually relying on them for emotional stability or a sense of security.” —Willow McGinty, LMHC, therapist
According to therapist Willow McGinty, LMHC, lead clinician at Thriveworks, “people have a misconception that codependency in relationships is just relying on your partner, but it’s actually relying on them for emotional stability or a sense of security—which can be perilous because it puts a lot of weight in the [other person’s] hands.” This can greatly damage both partners’ self-esteem and sense of personal autonomy.
But you don’t have to break up with a partner if you’ve fallen into the toxic pattern of codependency; a codependent relationship can be saved and healed with active effort on the part of both partners. Read on for expert intel from psychologists and therapists that can help you break the destructive hold of codependency in a relationship.
- Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist, life fulfillment expert, and author of Date Smart, Joy From Fear, and Aging Joyfully
- David Tzall, PsyD, licensed psychologist based in NYC
- Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, relationship psychotherapist and owner of Evolve Counseling
- Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Therapy Group of NYC
- LaNail R. Plummer, EdD, LPC, licensed professional counselor and CEO of Onyx Therapy Group
- Shadeen Francis, LMFT, CST, Philadelphia-based licensed psychotherapist
- Willow McGinty, LMHC, lead clinician at Thriveworks
The two sides of a codependent relationship
“Codependency is a complex pattern of behavior where one person in a relationship typically enables or supports the unhealthy behaviors or needs of another person,” says licensed psychologist David Tzall, PsyD.
For example, one partner would typically display behaviors such as becoming overly submissive to the other, engaging in people-pleasing, or prioritizing the relationship over everything else in life. And the other person would enable their partner by coddling them—rather than encouraging them to self-soothe or process things independently. (Although it may seem easier to just give in and allow your partner to indulge in codependency if you're the enabler, this can make the problem significantly harder to deal with in the long term.)
“One person wants to feel loved and valued, and that's why they support the other person, while the other person simply wants to carry on their negative or irresponsible behavior,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Date Smart.
Signs of codependency in relationships
It’s great for you to love spending time with your partner, and they should be a primary member of your support system, but codependency issues begin when one person becomes your everything.
A couple in this situation typically experiences what psychologists call enmeshment, “which refers to the dynamic taking place for both individuals in a relationship [whose lives are entirely intertwined], whereas codependency itself can be one-sided,” relationship and intimacy coach Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC, previously told Well+Good.
According to McGinty, the key signs that you may be codependent on your partner are:
- People-pleasing behavior
- Ambivalence about what you want
- Anxiety when you’re away from your partner
- Regular reliance on your partner for praise, instructions, or acknowledgement
- Pervasively low self-worth
On the other hand, a few examples of codependency in a partner include a tendency to check in for your opinion or guidance at every turn; and extreme sadness or upset whenever you’re gone for even short periods of time, or when you create any plan without them, says McGinty.
Additionally, one or both codependent partners will typically do whatever necessary to keep the peace in the relationship, including “sacrificing or ignoring their own needs, desires, and values in favor of their partner’s,” says clinical psychologist Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, PsyD.
Interdependence vs. codependency in relationships
“Interdependence is when we’re capable of being on our own, but we love merging,” says Dr. Manly. “Codependency is more like a messy jumble of yarn, so those two lines don’t ever separate or move together smoothly.” Meaning, a person who is codependent on their partner is relying on them to the extent that they can’t function healthily alone.
The ways in which you might rely on your partner “become unhealthy when they are used to manipulate others and feel oppressive,” says therapist LaNail R. Plummer, EdD, LPC, CEO of Onyx Therapy Group.
Dr. Plummer suggests asking yourself these questions if you’re wondering whether you’re interdependent or codependent:
- Can you and your partner spend more than a few hours apart, or do you start to break down or feel anxious when you have significant alone time?
- Are you able to have several close friendships outside of your partner, or do you feel the need to involve them in every single connection?
- Are you able to face adversity by yourself, or do you constantly rely on your partner to solve your problems and manage your emotions?
- When you need to make an important decision, like about your career or health, do you take your partner’s advice or perspective into consideration, or do you base all your decisions on their absolute word?
- Can you complete basic activities of your daily life on your own, or do you require input or directions from your partner to complete them?
Choosing the latter option in response to each of these questions can hint at codependency.
The negative effects of codependency on a relationship and the people in it
While the idea of becoming codependent with a partner might not seem sinister at first—especially when doing everything together and creating a sort of “love bubble” is often romanticized in the media—there are real consequences to letting it happen.
Within codependency, “individual interests and identity may become secondary, as the codependent person's life revolves around the needs and desires of their partner,” says Dr. Tzall. That’s to say, being in a codependent relationship means you won’t be able to be your own autonomous person, as your intimate bond will subsume or define your identity.
“Individual interests and identity may become secondary, as the codependent person's life revolves around the needs and desires of their partner.” —David Tzall, PsyD, licensed psychologist
If only one significant other is subjecting their partner to codependent behaviors, the affected person is likely to feel the weight of it in a really tough way. Certified relationship and sex therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT, CST, shares that the partner in this situation “may feel smothered or pressured to meet their partner's needs, or feel guilty if they can't ‘fix’ this person's problems or soothe them when they are in an emotional crisis.”
In this way, codependency in relationships is “often part and parcel of an abusive dynamic,” says Dr. Manly. Indeed, codependent individuals may use manipulative tactics such as guilt-tripping an S.O. who tries to spend time apart or playing the victim to maintain control over or gain attention from their partner, adds Dr. Tzall.
How to overcome codependency in relationships
1. Engage in open communication with your partner about your dynamic
The first step to learning how to stop being codependent is to openly communicate about your feelings and needs, says Dr. Witmer. “The couple will have to recognize that their relationship may require more work than other relationships, and it’s important to be on the same page about how they plan to share that relational work together.”
To do this, McGinty recommends being totally transparent by outlining the dynamic and defining what needs to change. You might say something like, “I recognize some codependency in our relationship and that I’ve been codependent on you. If we want to continue the relationship, we each need to develop our own sense of agency,” she says. This may also require one or both people in the relationship to learn how to stop enabling their partner’s dependency by both pointing it out when it occurs and avoiding any kind of positive reinforcement for such behavior.
2. Focus on your own needs
Part of figuring out how to fix a codependent relationship involves tuning into yourself and what you need and want, says Dr. Tzall. That means enriching your independent life outside of your relationship. “Engage in activities [by yourself or with friends] that nurture your physical, emotional, and mental well-being,” he suggests.
By prioritizing your needs and desires, you’ll be better able to identify the ways in which you’ve relied too heavily on your partner for happiness and stability.
3. Set (or strengthen) boundaries around your time and energy
“Codependency thrives amid blurred and enmeshed boundaries,” says Dr. Manly. By setting and enforcing boundaries, you and your partner will both be able to increase your own independence—and shift your relationship from codependency toward interdependence.
For example, one boundary you might set is that you are going to spend a couple hours alone at home without your partner each week. Another might be that you don’t ask or receive input from your partner about what foods you’re going to eat or what clothes you’re going to wear so that you’re required to make those decisions yourself.
4. Build or fortify other connections
Widening your world beyond your relationship and fostering other connections in your life can go a long way toward helping you regain autonomy. In particular, spending time with friends can help you learn how to get some of your emotional needs met by people who aren’t your partner and improve your relationship with yourself by increasing your self-esteem.
5. Get outside help
Francis says books or workbooks specific to codependency in relationships (like the popular book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller) may help you work through it, as well as joining support or therapy groups dedicated to helping people in codependent relationships. “It's important to remember that change takes time, and it's okay to ask for help along the way,” she says.
If you can, seek help from a licensed couples therapist. “This will inevitably involve openness and honesty about the codependent dynamic,” says Dr. Witmer.
Having your conversations mediated by a professional can ensure that they are both productive and done with emotional safety in mind. “We know there can’t be change without some loss and grief, so making space for challenging feelings within oneself and the relationship will be important in the healing process, too,” adds Dr. Witmer, and that’s easier to do with the support of a professional.
If you are experiencing or at risk of experiencing any kind of domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance.
Frequently Asked Questions About Codependency in Relationships
Why am I codependent in relationships?
You may have an insecure attachment style, or struggle to form secure emotional attachments with others, says Dr. Manly. Your attachment style is informed by your upbringing and the relationships you had in childhood to your caregivers, she explains; if you grew up with inconsistent care or in an otherwise unsupportive environment, you might go on to develop an insecure attachment style and have difficulties forming healthy romantic relationships in adulthood.
Having people-pleasing tendencies or low self-worth could also put you at risk for being codependent in relationships, says McGinty. And the same thing goes if you have parents or siblings in codependent relationships (or who’ve been in such relationships previously), which can lead you into a codependent relationship yourself because “you’re simply carrying on what feels familiar,” says Dr. Manly.
What does a codependent person need in a relationship?
According to McGinty, someone who is the more dependent or submissive partner in a codependent dynamic is typically looking for “unconditional positive regard,” or for their partner to show them unquestioning trust, loyalty, and love—regardless of their actions. “When we look for that in or from another person and we’re not taught the skills to build self-worth ourselves, it can be really problematic,” she says, “given that the role of other people is not just to repeatedly affirm and confirm the good in you.” (If the partner does offer such unending validation and support, they’re likely enabling the codependent behaviors.)
Rather than seeking unconditional positive regard, learning to seek a partner’s support as well as their constructive criticism and feedback will foster a healthier relationship dynamic that allows both people to grow, says McGinty.
Am I clingy or codependent?
While they may result in similar behaviors, being clingy and being codependent aren’t quite the same thing.
Being clingy is more about wanting to be near someone because you’re infatuated with them or perhaps in the honeymoon stage of a relationship, says McGinty; in this case, you’re fully capable of going about your day without your partner, but you just would rather not. On the other hand, being codependent reflects an inability to get through your day without your partner or to function well without their input.
What are some signs of an unhealthy relationship?
Codependency can occur alongside other signs of an unhealthy relationship, such as trust issues, hostile communication, isolation, manipulation, disrespect, and not being able to wholly be who you are or feeling like you’re walking on eggshells around your partner.
- Harris, Michelle A, and Ulrich Orth. “The link between self-esteem and social relationships: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies.” Journal of personality and social psychology vol. 119,6 (2020): 1459-1477. doi:10.1037/pspp0000265
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