Many people are confused by the word “codependency.” When they hear it, they think it simply means that a person is “clingy” or needy. But in fact, codependency is considered a specific and harmful mental and behavioral trait, one that frequently has a generational pattern within families. It is also referred to as “relationship addiction.”
Changing the dynamics of a codependent relationship can be extremely challenging. But with the right resources and support system, it is possible for partners to change their behavior and transform the relationship into one that is healthier and respects and honors both partners’ needs.
The first step to making any sort of change, however, is recognizing the problem.
What is codependence?
Codependency is a psychological phenomenon first recognized by studying family members of people who were alcoholics. In essence, a codependent relationship is a bidirectional cycle of dysfunctional need: One partner (the codependent person) has an unhealthy need to be needed, and the other (the enabler) exploits this need by excessively relying on their partner.
Not to be confused with healthy interdependency (in which two partners mutually bond with and rely on each other in a safe and appropriate way), codependent relationships feature an unhealthy and imbalanced dynamic. Specifically, the codependent person’s self-worth and self-esteem are explicitly based on the degree to which they are needed by their partner. Meanwhile, their partner enables the codependent person’s behavior by getting great satisfaction out of having their needs constantly fulfilled and met.
Intimate partners are not the only ones who can be in a codependent relationship. This common and dysfunctional relationship can also occur between parents and children, other family members, or even friends and roommates.
People learn codependent behaviors by modeling other family members or loved ones who demonstrate it in their own relationships. This fact alone—that codependency is a learned behavior—may be one of the most promising things to know about it. Because it means that with the right help and enough discipline, codependency can be unlearned, too.
Five warning signs of a codependent relationship:
Could you be in a codependent relationship with your partner or someone else in your life? If you or the other person exhibit one or more of the following behaviors or beliefs, it may be possible:
- A codependent person has little or no interests outside of their relationship; they lack or neglect any personal interests or values. They derive their pleasure and main identity out of their role in the codependent relationship. Thinking about or expressing their own desires and needs often leads to strong feelings of guilt. They may repress or have difficulty understanding their feelings at all.
- A codependent person often remains in a relationship even if their partner does hurtful things, or exhibits psychological or physical abuse.
- A codependent person makes drastic sacrifices to please their partner, often at the expense of their own time, energy, and well-being. They often ignore their own values and conscience in order to meet their partner’s needs. The partner, meanwhile, enables this behavior by accepting it or even demanding it.
- A codependent person is extremely preoccupied with and worried about making their partner feel happy. They may constantly “walk on eggshells” to avoid triggering their partner’s bad mood or feel extreme anxiety about their relationship and how to maintain it.
- In many cases, one or both partners in a codependent relationship are currently dealing with or have a history of addiction, abuse, mental illness, or family trauma. Codependency is a learned adaptation to compensate for, deny, mitigate, and/or cope with these stressful life events.