Relationships require a delicate balance of honoring and bringing two people’s needs and desires into one unit. Typically, in a healthy connection, you are speaking up for what you need in the relationship, in addition to supporting and respecting the needs of your partner—and vice versa. But sometimes that balance can swing too far offside when you start neglecting your own needs in favor of your partner’s. This is where codependency comes into play.
“The term codependent means too much emotional attachment, dependency, and reliance on someone to a point where the relationship feels stuck and confined,” says Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, a certified psychiatrist. “The codependent relationship loses its breathing space, as if there is a complete loss of personal space and freedom.”
Codependent relationships are seen in all types of relationships, including family, friends, and co-workers, but when it comes to romantic relationships, codependency can be intense.
“In this type of relationship, the partner or sometimes both are excessively reliant on each other. One partner is the caretaker and the dependent partner feels like someone who cannot sustain and survive on their own,” Gonzalez-Berrios says. “In severe cases, the dependent partner can start taking advantage of the caretaker partner and the relationship becomes abusive, emotionally draining, and full of anxieties and insecurities.”
At times, “the bonding apparently seems very touchy and romantic, but it is devoid of trust and laden with manipulative emotional responses from both ends.”
So why does this happen? According to Tammy Nelson, a sex and relationship therapist and the author of Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement, the level of people-pleasing in a codependent relationship is a reflection of low self-esteem and lack of a positive self-image.
“This prevents communication and leads to an oversensitive relationship,” she says. “The codependent will caretake the partner above and beyond their own needs, which sets up a dependent relationship, ignoring their own self-care and need for integrity and increasing the potential for gaslighting.”
If this sounds familiar to you, here are some other signs about codependent relationships and what you can do about it.
Where does codependency come from?
“Codependency can feel like people-pleasing and be a sign of low self-esteem. It is most often seen in those who grew up in dysfunctional families where pleasing a parent was a way to survive, and giving up their own healthy emotional development was the only choice they had to deal with a parent’s addiction or narcissism or abuse,” Nelson says. “Symptoms of codependency include the need to fix other people, the inability to set clear boundaries, the perpetual sacrificing of one’s own needs for your partners, and feeling resentful that your desires are never taken into account.”
Signs of codependency
Taking care of your partner isn’t always unhealthy. But if you’re self-sacrificing what you need with little given in return by your partner, Gonzalez-Berrios says, then chances are you’re in a codependent relationship.
“The relationship feels empty and draining. The caretaker is feeling overwhelmed and never gets the love and approval for what they do for their ‘taker’ partner,” Gonzalez-Berrios says. “The caretaker partner tries to satisfy and please their ‘taker’ partner at all costs. In a codependent relationship, the caretaker partner feels the constant anxiousness to please their partner and feels guilty when they think about their own needs.”
Another telltale sign of a codependent relationship is if you’re seeking your sense of worth from your partner.
“Both partners possess a negative self-image and fail to validate their emotions without the approval of each other,” Gonzalez-Berrios says. “The codependent partner is dependent on the caretaker for their sense of worth and well-being. The ‘taker’ partner is needy and emotionally dependent on the other partner.” As a result, the ‘taker’ partner is “never filled up emotionally. They seek attention to the point of abusing the other partner.”
Other signs include:
- The taker partner compares their love life with others and always feels like the relationship is missing something vital.
- None of the partners tries to break the cycle of abuse because they are insecure, fearful of operating as separated humans.
- In codependency, the taker partner feels jealous if they see their partner spending time with someone else.
- On the flip side, the taker partner is happy to be needed and tries to please the other person perfectly.
- Both partners usually have a history of poor attachment style in early childhood. This has made them feel less worthy of themselves and have poor self-esteem.
- The relationship is full of irritation and repressed anger from both ends, yet appears fine.
What to do if you’re in a codependent relationship
While acknowledging you’re in a codependent relationship isn’t easy, the sooner you recognize the signs, the sooner you can get the help you need and start to change your patterns.
“To heal from codependency in a relationship, it is important to cultivate healthy selfishness,” Nelson says. “Being able to care for yourself first means having the capacity for self-care in order to be present for yourself, your partner, and your family.”
Eating well, resting, exercising, spending time with friends, focusing on jobs and hobbies, finding time for yoga and meditation, listening to your own music, and walking in nature are all examples that focus on putting your own needs first, according to Nelson. “This kind of self-love allows you to love others more fully and more realistically,” she says.
Additionally, Nelson recommends being honest with your partner about what you feel. “Remember, codependency comes from adversity in childhood, so you may have taken on too much responsibility for other people’s feelings and neglected your own,” she says. “Now, as an adult, you can speak up.”
For all your good intentions, Gonzalez-Berrios understands it can be difficult to break the pattern. “Codependency is an emotional spiral because both partners are meeting each other’s needs in specific ways. It is tough to break the negativity that lies deep within the relationship.”
“The codependent partner has to realize that having a different opinion, likes, and preferences from their partner is not wrong,” she says. “Both partners should focus on self-care and self-love. They need to understand that love is unconditional and not needy. One can only love others in a healthy way if they are themselves secure and loving from within.”
Which means that therapy might be an option for both parties to learn appropriate coping skills and couples therapy to help develop and set healthy boundaries.