Human relationships are complicated things. We all know that none of us are perfect. We all have our hang-ups and personality quirks that affect how we relate to other people. Our imperfections may be visible from a distance, but they become even more evident and impactful when we enter an intimate relationship with someone else. It is one thing to deal with a difficult co-worker for a few hours during the workweek, for example – it’s quite another thing to have that same dynamic in your romantic life.

When we enter relationships, particularly romantic ones, it is wise to be aware of who we are as we enter them, as well as who we are entering them with. We each have unique life histories and relational tools that either strengthen or weaken our capacities for forming fruitful relationships with others. One of several complications that may beset a relationship is the presence of codependent behavior.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is a relational dysfunction that distorts one’s sense of need for others, making someone ignore or subordinate their own needs to meet those of others. Being dependent on someone else for approval, for a sense of self-worth or identity, and consistently making substantial (and unreciprocated) sacrifices to satisfy the needs of a partner or loved one are all classic hallmarks of a codependent situation.

In a given relationship, there may be one partner that has codependent tendencies. It takes a degree of self-awareness to know whether you or your partner are codependent. When a couple is codependent, they become deeply invested in one another and struggle to function independently of each other.

In a codependent relationship, one partner may be more passive, while the other, more dominant personality in the relationship is controlling. Both, however, contribute to the situation. This is an unhealthy emotional dynamic that both parties may be completely unaware of.

What Causes Codependency?

Codependency often emerges out of circumstances rooted in a person’s home environment, even from when they were a child. Issues such as difficulty forming healthy attachment as a child, growing up with a chronically ill or mentally ill parent, or growing up with a parental figure with addiction issues are contributing factors to the development of codependency.

Having parental or other authority figures who place themselves first, and thus instill a sense of non-importance to the child and their needs can also contribute to codependent behavior developing in that child.

The learned behavior for the child here is that they come second, if at all. These situations often lead that child to subordinate their needs to meet those of others, and this mindset can persist into adulthood as they replicate those same relational patterns.

A person with a codependent personality has a poor sense of self and personal boundaries. They treat the needs of others as consistently more important than their own, which can lead to poor self-esteem and valuing the approval of others more than they value themselves. Because of their deeply vested interest in meeting the needs of others, codependent people can also be very controlling as they try to meet those needs.

5 Signs that You are in a Codependent Relationship

1. One partner constantly makes sacrifices

If you’re in a relationship, and one partner consistently makes sacrifices to meet the needs of the other partner without reciprocation, that’s a good sign that codependent behavior is at play.

In a healthy relationship, there is an interplay of give-and-take, and partners make sacrifices and compromises for one another. When those one-sided sacrifices form the pattern of the relationship, it signals an imbalance.

2. The mood is defined by one person

If the mood within the relationship is defined by one partner, that is probably a sign of a codependent situation. The atmosphere in a home or relationship ought to be created by the people in that space.

However, if one person’s mood dictates everyone else’s mood, and if the others sublimate their own feelings to that emotional turn, which may signal codependency. As people with emotional integrity and a sense of self, we ought to consider the feelings of others, but their feelings ought not to determine our own, and when the sense of personal boundaries is so weak that the feelings of others dictate how we feel, it points to codependency.

3. One partner needs constant approval

A codependent personality leaves a person vulnerable to the whims of others. A weakened sense of personal boundaries and the desire to please others and meet their needs means that a codependent personality craves the approval of the people with whom they are in relationship.

A codependent person struggles to say “no”. Getting the approval of others is something most people want to some degree. However, most emotionally healthy people do not tailor their lives to receive approval from others.

In a codependent relationship, one partner may have an obsessive need for approval from their partner. Predicating your life choices and decisions on whether they will receive approval may be another indicator of codependent behavior.

4. A degree of controlling behavior

A codependent person may simultaneously have low self-esteem and exhibit a degree of controlling behavior. While this seems contradictory at first, their controlling behavior may stem from their exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others, and the ensuing desire to be the caretaker.

This excessive caretaking, which they may understand as catering to the other person’s needs, comes across as controlling behavior. Controlling behavior is more apparent in codependent parent-child relationships but can also manifest itself between two adults in an intimate relationship.

5. Enabling behavior

This is when one partner eases any tensions that may arise in the relationship due to the problematic habits of the other partner. It can take the form of accepting excuses, coming to the rescue when the offending partner is in trouble, or being the one who fixes problems when they arise.

Whether it’s bailing someone out of jail every weekend, excusing drug and other substance abuse, physical abuse, or affairs, a codependent personality will participate in enabling and excusing unacceptable behavior. Such a situation opens people to being manipulated financially or emotionally, which is deeply problematic. A codependent relationship is one where there is low accountability for bad behavior.

So, You’re in a Codependent Relationship. What Can You Do?

If you find that you are in a codependent relationship, or that you have a codependent personality, what can you do?

One step to take might be to reach out and reconnect with family and friends you may have isolated yourself from. This is especially important in a situation where a couple have become so invested in themselves and become unable to function independently of one another.

This is usually followed by isolating themselves from other important relationships. To begin rectifying the damage caused by codependent behavior, re-establishing broken relationships is a good step.

Codependent behavior stems from poor emotional and mental health. There may be things in your past that have led to you developing a codependent personality, and these need to be addressed through psychotherapy. Therapy can help you take the necessary steps to either rebuild or build personal boundaries to establish a healthy sense of self.

Therapy may also point you to useful practices such as taking up things you previously loved and set aside due to your entanglement in the relationship. This can help you to reacquaint you with the things you love independently from your partner and give you room to nurture your own wants.

If you choose to stay in the relationship, couples therapy is helpful to pinpoint and reduce codependent behaviors that can undermine a relationship. Sometimes, the partners in a relationship are unaware of the dynamics at play in the relationship. The relationship is set to an unhealthy default, and unless those dynamics are exposed and disrupted, the patterns are likely to continue both in that relationship and in relationships with other people.

Codependency may be an unhealthy relational dynamic, but it is not an insurmountable one. With careful and deliberate consideration, the roots of codependent behavior can be unearthed and new ways of relating to yourself and others can be learned. It is possible to overcome codependent behavior and do relationships in healthy, life-giving ways.

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