Unhealthy relationships don’t just happen overnight – they build up over time. While no relationship is always going to be 50/50, if you’re experiencing a significant imbalance with someone in your life, it may be a sign of codependency. Here, we cover how to identify the signs of a codependent relationship, and how to change negative patterns for good.
Once a term used to describe and understand addictive behaviours, codependency is now more widely used by therapists to describe imbalanced relationships, where one person enables another’s unhealthy or even self-destructive tendencies – whether addiction-related or not.
A codependent relationship is one in which one or both people are experiencing poor mental health, struggling with immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement – and where the relationship dynamic is only making things worse
Recognising different types of codependent relationships
Codependent relationships don’t just occur between intimate partners – they can also happen between friends, romantic partners, or family members.
One or both parties can be codependent, neglecting other areas of their life to please the other. Their extreme dedication to this person may cause damage to other important relationships such as friendships, education or career opportunities, or even everyday responsibilities.
A person who feels codependent or relies on someone with these traits can struggle with how to have an equal, two-sided relationship. They often come to rely on another person’s sacrifices and neediness, rather than encouraging them to thrive in their own right. This is not about being clingy, which we might all be at times. It’s more about extreme dependence – emotional, social or even physical.
A person who is codependent might plan their entire life around pleasing the other person. In what has been called the cycle of codependency, one partner needs the other partner, who in turn, needs to be needed.
This can stunt the individual’s or couple’s growth and leave little room for independent thought or action. It may be that one person can’t make a move like give up drugs or achieve personal success, for example studying or working, if their partner is not doing the same.
Terms such as codependency help us name and define problematic behaviours, but it’s a term that has also become loaded with judgement.
People who may realise they are in a codependent relationship can feel as though it’s something to be ashamed of, which could stop them from getting help. But the truth is, it can happen to anyone, although there are a few risk factors you should be aware of.
What can put people at risk of developing codependency?
Research suggests that those susceptible to codependency have likely grown up with childhood trauma, parents with mental health issues, and in an environment where they witnessed similar experiences and behaviours.
If you have a parent or caregiver that was very unwell, needy or demanding, you might have learnt to be in service of others from a young age, suppressing your own needs along the way.
Being in an intimate relationship with someone with a major psychological problem or behaviour can also strongly shape your own. For example, living with an addict can mean you get drawn into monitoring their use.
In fights you can be blamed for their intoxication, encouraged to buy them drugs or to pick up the pieces when their behaviour leaves them at risk. Speaking up for yourself is difficult when you might even be accused of leading their behaviour – “you made me so upset I had to have a drink!”
After a while, you can feel like the only one holding it altogether, the only one who might make this work, or if you leave, the only one who will make it fail.
This is a huge responsibility, and risky for your own life goals and mental health. This is compounded if others disapprove of your efforts or the relationship. You can feel very alone, judged and stuck.
Signs of codependency to look out for
If you’re concerned you or someone you know might be displaying some unhealthy, codependent behaviours, here are a few warning signs to look out for:
- Feeling responsible for other people – their feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, or well-being.
- Having trouble communicating honestly. Saying “yes” when you mean “no”. Having a hard time saying no, because you fear if you stop giving and going along you might be rejected.
- Having poor boundaries, doing things like over-offering, over-working for others, or sacrificing your needs for others – and then resenting it.
- Finding no satisfaction or happiness in life outside of doing things for the other person.
- Staying in the relationship even if you’re aware that the other person does hurtful things.
- Feeling constant anxiety about your relationship and doing whatever it takes to get it back on stable footing.
- Using too much time and energy giving your partner everything they ask for, but often getting little in return.
- Feeling guilty for thinking of your own personal needs in the relationship, and being reluctant to express them.
- Ignoring your own morals or conscience to do what the other person wants. This could include things like stealing, or giving in sexually in ways you don’t want to.
- Rejecting feedback from others about the negatives they observe, even if you know in your heart there’s truth in what they are saying.
- Finding it almost impossible to imagine separating or standing up for yourself.
- Fixating on your own mistakes, out of proportion to what has actually happened or the role you might have played.
- Feeling angry, resentful and indignant that you don’t get your needs met or get to feel happier, but also secretly wondering if you deserve it anyway.
How to change codependent behaviours
- Be kind to yourself. Value what you have to offer, and try recognise you deserve those things as well. Spend time with people who value you and are kind to you.
- Work on yourself. If you were free from this preoccupation, how would life be different? Let yourself want other things. Take up hobbies or get fit. Have you developed some of your own bad habits that could do with changing? Get to work on those.
- Face your fears. Do you have a fear of being alone? That no one else will want you? Is your partner or friend making use of this to keep you in place? Develop strategies for each one of these fears. Wrestle them to the ground.
- Value supports. Turn your attention to friends and family who can be honest with you, and support you in the change process. Spend more time with them.
- Get help. Reflecting on your own happiness and self-esteem will take assistance from a neutral professional. They can help you really look at what has been happening, free from judgment.
Unhealthy relationships don’t just happen overnight – they build up over time. Those looking on can think it’s obvious that you should leave the relationship immediately. However, it’s often easier said than done.
Your heart might be on the line, you might have been together a long time and share history, or you might feel like you‘re betraying or abandoning them. Challenging negative patterns can also take time and careful reflection.
But if you’re ready to make a change – seek out the professional support you need. Your life is yours to be lived, and you deserve better.
If you need to learn new skills to communicate better with your partner about what’s happening in your relationship, there are plenty of resources available to help you. Relationships Australia NSW offers Couples Communication group programs online throughout the year to help you learn the skills to talk through issues with your partner more effectively. Find out more about upcoming courses here. A version of this article originally appeared on Body + Soul, and has been republished here with permission.