Friendships, like other close relationships, can be codependent. I was recently asked what the difference is between a close friendship and a codependent friendship. It’s a good question, because to me, there’s a big difference between the closeness of a healthy friendship and the closeness of the unhealthy codependent friendship.
Let me start with six things characterize healthy intimate (close) relationships, including close friendships:
1. Behavioral interdependence. Partners’ daily lives are intertwined and what’s going on in one partner’s life affects the other’s life, and vice versa. While there is a high level of self/other integration and their lives significantly overlap, both partners also retain unique identities, activities, and independent relationships.
2. Need fulfillment. In close relationships, partners fulfill one another’s needs such as the need for sharing fears/worries, the need for nurturing, the need for assistance, and the need to matter to someone.
3. A high level of trust. Both partners can trust the other to be reliable. They can count on each other to do as promised and to have each other’s backs. They trust each other to be there for emotional support, and that the other person can be trusted with emotional information (for example, one partner won’t use what they know about the other’s emotional issues to manipulate them).
4. Emotional attachment. When partners deeply care about one another, have affection for one another, miss one another, and have a deep, shared bond, there is an emotional attachment.
5. Long-term equity. Over the course of the relationship, things are balanced as far as giving and receiving love, support, and care. In the long run, no one person consistently benefits at the expense of the other.
6. High levels of reciprocal self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is basically sharing personal information about yourself. The closer the relationship, the greater the level of self-disclosure (in “lower-level” relationships, self-disclosure is more superficial). High levels of reciprocal self-disclosure mean that over time, both partners share a wide variety of things about themselves, as well as sharing deeply personal things.
Codependent friendships are close relationships that violate some of the essential features of healthy close relationships. Unlike healthy friendships, codependent friendships are highly imbalanced. One person takes the role of “giver” and the other of “taker.” The intimacy is derived from a dynamic where one friend is regularly distressed or in crisis and the other friend listens and rescues. More than interdependent, the friends are “enmeshed,” with unclear personal boundaries. Often, the giving friend enables the taker friend. Their loving support and problem-solving make it easy for the taker to avoid responsibility and/or the hard work of personal change.
Codependent friendships often work well, at least temporarily. Being the giver friend can satisfy many needs, such as the need to feel competent and close to others, and the need to feel like a “good” person. Meanwhile, the taker friend’s needs are also met, such as their need for assistance and their need to feel cared for. Intimacy and emotional attachment are fueled when one friend helps with the other’s very personal problems and challenges.
In time, however, the imbalance of the codependent friendship usually leads to problems. While the giver friend is often an empathic person more comfortable with giving than receiving, they may start wondering if the taker friend really cares about them or is just using them. They may feel hurt and resentful that the taker is not there for them when they need it, or feels entitled or oblivious to their sacrifices for the friendship. They may become frustrated that despite all their efforts to fix the problems of their friend, nothing changes. They may get burned out from the demands of the friendship and suffer from compassion fatigue. Other friends and loved ones may point out that they’re too enmeshed with their needy friend and that they’re sacrificing themselves and their other relationships. The taker friend may feel disrespected or angry if the giver friend becomes too intrusive or controlling in their efforts to help.
Some codependent friendships transition to healthier friendships. Taker friends may get professional help, make life changes, or experience the personal growth needed for a more balanced friendship. Giver friends can foster more balanced relationships by setting healthy boundaries on their giving and making an effort to let their friend listen and support them.
But transformation isn’t always possible. Either friend may be uninterested in a more balanced friendship because the codependent relationship meets important needs. They may end the relationship if the other tries to change the friendship’s rules. Or, the relationship may not last because once the giver-taker dynamic changes, there is little in common to sustain the friendship.
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