Yes, You Can Heal Codependency Issues While You’re in a Relationship

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Once the “honeymoon” phase of a romantic relationship starts to wane, many couples begin to settle into a deeper love that grows stronger roots over time. This often creates a healthy bond, but there are times when increased closeness and reliance on a partner can become a problem. That happens in a codependent relationship—an unbalanced relationship where one or both partners spend lots of effort catering to, or even enabling the needs of, the other partner in order to stay together.

I experienced some major codependency issues in a previous partnership of my own. It initially seemed cute (and normal) that my partner and I needed to spend all our time together and do everything in tandem. But over time, we realized how unhealthy it had become. We anxiously struggled through our respective workdays, eager to see each other back at home. Both of us experienced some jealousy and even stress when we spent time separately, with others.

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Once my former partner and I recognized that we had become codependent, we began taking steps to make our connection healthier. Rather than break up and confront our codependent tendencies alone, we chose to work together and face them as a team. Identifying where and how we had become codependent was certainly the first and most crucial step. While our relationship ultimately ended later on—we had differing visions for our future—I am grateful for the healing I was able to experience during the period of time when we faced codependency together.

What are the signs of codependency in a relationship?

Codependency in relationships is a unique beast; the issue can sneak in subtly and quickly become hard to surmount. “Codependency is a complex pattern of behavior where one person in a relationship enables or supports the unhealthy behaviors or needs of another person,” says licensed psychologist David Tzall, PsyD. “It is important to remember that codependency exists on a spectrum, and not all signs or symptoms may be present in every individual.” 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.

“Codependency is a complex pattern of behavior where one person in a relationship enables or supports the unhealthy behaviors or needs of another person.” —David Tzall, PsyD, licensed psychologist

As Dr. Tzall mentioned, the key to identifying codependency in your relationship—and beginning to confront it—is to understand the symptoms of the behavior itself. According to licensed professional counselor and CEO of Onyx Therapy Group, LaNail R. Plummer, EdD, LPC, you can start by examining whether you and your partner are interdependent (meaning you rely on each other for support) versus codependent.

The difference between interdependence and codependency usually becomes clear when you take a step back and analyze the major behaviors within your relationship. Can you and your partner spend more than a few hours apart, or do you start to break down 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? Choosing the latter option in response to each of these questions can hint at codependency.

The ways in which you might rely on your partner “become unhealthy when they are used to manipulate others and feel oppressive,” Dr. Plummer adds. Some examples include one partner becoming overly submissive to the other, engaging in people-pleasing behaviors, or prioritizing the relationship over everything else in life.

Dr. Plummer notes that while every couple is different, most frequently there is one partner who displays these behaviors while the other enables them. For example, someone who coddles their partner when they display too much emotional dependence—rather than encouraging them to self-soothe or process things independently—may be guilty of the enabling. Although it may seem easier to just give in and allow your partner to indulge in codependent behaviors if you're the enabler, this can make the problem significantly harder to deal with in the long term.

Additionally, one or both codependent partners often avoid setting boundaries and usually shirk their own needs as a way to keep the peace. “A codependent partner may constantly sacrifice or ignore their own needs, desires, and values in favor of their partner’s,” says clinical psychologist Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, PsyD. “A codependent partner may agree with everything the other says or does, or deny or repress their own feelings if they are in conflict with what their partner feels.”

Why is codependency a bad thing?

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 several major drawbacks to letting it happen.

Within codependency, “individual interests and identity may become secondary, as the codependent partner's life revolves around the needs and desires of their partner,” says Dr. Tzall. “Poor communication patterns often emerge, [and] emotional manipulation may also be present, with codependent individuals using tactics like guilt-tripping or playing the victim to maintain control and gain attention from their partner.” It’s safe to say this isn’t a dynamic anyone would intentionally want to have.

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.” This is especially true if the codependent partner tries to guilt-trip their S.O. when they want to spend time with friends, or expects them to manage their emotional dysregulation rather than seek help from a professional.

How can I overcome codependency in my relationship?

Healing codependency in a relationship can be particularly challenging because, in most cases, both partners (whether intentionally or not) may play into the pattern. That being said, it's certainly possible to remedy codependent behavior together with a partner once both of you have recognized the problem.

When you are the partner creating codependency, Dr. Witmer explains that the first step to unraveling the issue is to openly communicate. “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.”

In my former codependent relationship, my partner and I had a sit-down conversation about what our relationship had become, and what we needed to do to heal it. He expressed a need for more regular physical alone time, like watching TV or reading in a separate room to decompress after work. While I initially felt hurt by this revelation, I dug deep to confront where that was coming from (in this case, my fear of abandonment and anxious attachment style). I was afraid that if I loosened my metaphorical grip on my partner, he would slip away and move on to another connection or chapter of life without me. But I learned that spending time alone was healthy and even necessary for any relationship.

“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.” —Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, PsyD, clinical psychologist

If you can, seeking assistance from a licensed couples therapist to facilitate these conversations is ideal. “This will inevitably involve openness and honesty about the codependent dynamic,” says Dr. Witmer. “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 as well.” Having your conversations mediated by a therapist can ensure that they are both productive and done with emotional safety in mind.

The experts also say that focusing on yourself and what you need is an important step to heal codependent tendencies. “Healing from codependency is a gradual and transformative process that requires self-awareness and self care,” says Dr. Tzall. “Engage in activities that nurture your physical, emotional, and mental well-being, and practice setting and maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationships.” In my case, once I started to prioritize my needs and desires, I was able to see the areas in which I relied too heavily on my partner for happiness and stability.

Fostering other relationships in your life can help, too. When my ex and I were in the thick of our codependency, we rarely—if ever—spent time with our friends or family. When we did, it was basically always together, and we weren’t fully present with the other people in our lives because we were so focused on each other. Once we worked to start changing these behaviors, reconnecting with the others in our lives was infinitely helpful. It allowed us to discover the areas where we were relying on each other too much, and how unfair it was for each of us to put all that pressure and expectation on the other to meet all of our emotional needs.

Ultimately, whether you or your partner—or both—are struggling with codependent behavior, the onus to change and heal has to be intentionally accepted. “Developing skills to self-soothe is important, as is learning to set and enforce boundaries,” says Francis. She says books or workbooks specific to codependency (like the popular book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller) often help people begin to work through it, as well as joining support or therapy groups dedicated to supporting 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.

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