In a healthy relationship between two people, there are three components that are balanced in harmony with one another: me, you, and us. Mountainside Family Wellness Clinician, Gabrielle Wynschenk says, “At the center of many problematic relationships is an imbalance where one of those components is taking up too much space. In a codependent relationship, the ‘us’ often overpowers the ‘me’.” In other words, when you constantly put another person’s wants and needs before your own, you end up losing yourself in the relationship and resentment builds. Codependency is considered an addictive behavior but there are ways to overcome this and potentially salvage the relationship.
What Is Codependency?
In a codependent relationship, people often fall into one of two roles: the caretaker (also called the giver or enabler) or the taker.
The caretaker in the codependent relationship prioritizes the thoughts, feelings, and needs of the other person over their own. As a result, they often lack the ability to take care of themselves — emotionally and physically — and spend most of their time taking care of the other person in fear of losing them.
On the flip side, the taker in the relationship often takes advantage of the other person, whether intentionally or unintentionally. They might use malicious tactics such as gaslighting to gain power over the other individual. In many cases, the taker’s needs overshadow those of the caretaker, so much so that the other person in the relationship may completely lose their sense of self.
Essentially, codependency is marked by one individual constantly sacrificing their well-being to support or enable the other person’s often destructive behavior. Though codependency is often discussed in the context of romantic relationships, this type of dynamic can also form between family members, friends, or coworkers.
The Root of Codependency
Often, codependent behavior can stem from childhood, especially if you had a difficult relationship with a parent or if you have been previously exposed to addiction. If your parent demanded extra attention from you as a child or dismissed your emotions, you may have been conditioned to think that your feelings and needs do not matter as much as those of others. You may have also picked up cues from a codependent parent who repeatedly sacrificed their own happiness to take care of others.
While your childhood experiences do play a role in your behavior today, codependency can occur due to several other reasons: your need to take care of your loved one, your need for control, low self-worth, denial of your loved one’s addiction, lack of trust, anger, or fear.
“Typically, codependent relationships are rooted in anxious attachment style which is when someone has difficulty feeling secure in their relationship. They are constantly trying to do things to please their loved ones because they believe they are ‘not enough’ or ‘don’t deserve’ the other person,” Wynschenk says.
Signs of Codependency
Codependency can deeply impact your mental health and create unbalanced, toxic relationships with people all around you. Wynschenk shares the top most common codependency signs:
- Putting the needs of your partner over your own personal needs
- Constantly trying to maintain the relationship over your own personal needs
- Looking to your partner for all your emotional soothing rather than self-soothing
- Always seeking reassurance, asking questions like “Do you love me?” and “Can you promise you won’t leave me?”
- Pulling back from individual friendships if they are not a mutual friend
- Struggling to say “no”
- Feeling like it’s your job or purpose to “fix” your partner and ensure they feel “ok” at all times no matter what it takes
- Spending less time with your own family
- Doing activities and things you don’t enjoy just to please your partner
- Lacking the ability to make decisions on your own, doubting yourself because the relationship has taken a toll on your confidence.
- Neglecting to set aside time for self-care because you are too preoccupied with caring for your loved one.
- Silencing yourself in fear your partner will not approve of your perspective
- Enabling your loved one to continue to practice unhealthy behaviors, such as drug abuse, excessive drinking, and poor eating habits.
- Gradually spending all your time with your loved one, disconnecting from other aspects of your life.
Codependency and Addiction
Not all codependent relationships have addiction involved, but it is the case for many. In romantic relationships, when one partner is addicted, the other sober person likely wants their partner to get better more than anything. So, the sober person might slowly start to control their significant other by lying to friends and family to cover up their partner’s erratic behavior or make decisions for them. Pretty soon, those small actions turn into a wave of total control as the sober one diminishes the addict’s ability to act independently. People who thrive on being needed by someone will reach a point where they are spending all their time and energy on caring for the person struggling with addiction and ignoring their own needs. This is why some consider codependency to be an addiction in itself.
As much as they think they are “helping” the addicted partner by making excuses or loaning them money, the sober person ends up enabling their partner and shielding them from facing consequences. This ultimately perpetuates their addiction.
Side Effects of Codependency
Healthy relationships require effort from both parties. If your life revolves around your loved one and their addiction, you may have trouble functioning independently and become trapped within the cycle of codependency. Focusing all your attention on your partner can make it difficult for you to feel comfortable alone, and your worldview can become narrow. Your mental health will likely suffer as you try to keep your partner satisfied, only growing more emotionally attached.
Codependency ultimately hurts both you and the object of your attention. If expectations in the relationship are not discussed early, the dynamic can become unbalanced, and you both may develop a skewed understanding of interpersonal relationships. When these boundaries are not addressed or respected, you may begin to feel overexerted and underappreciated, while your loved one can become complacent or entitled, making them more likely to have unrealistic expectations for their other personal and professional relationships.
How to Heal from Codependent Relationships
Because two people in a codependent relationship are attached to each other, codependency can be considered an addiction in itself – one that requires its own recovery process. There are 12 Step programs such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) designed for people struggling with codependency or a loved one’s addiction. These programs will provide you with a sense of community and allow you to experience the company of other people facing similar obstacles. By listening to their stories, you may become more motivated to stop sacrificing your own happiness and start developing your own identity. Know that it is important for you to have your own interests, spend time with family and friends, and set aside time for yourself to do things you enjoy.
Pursuing therapy is a great way for you to speak with an outsider and work through troubling thoughts. It is also important that you have an honest conversation with your loved one about their behavior, how their addiction is affecting you, and your anxieties. Encourage them to seek professional help for their substance abuse. And remember, whether they seek treatment or not, you need to establish firm boundaries to protect your own well-being.
If codependency is taking a toll on your mental health, you should reevaluate the relationship and determine whether it is worth maintaining. There are certainly ways to overcome codependency, but some relationships may be more difficult to reconcile than others. When there is little to no chance that the relationship can ever become healthy or balanced, it may be best to walk away.