Do you find it hard to say no to people even if it is inconvenient for you? Do you neglect your own needs and have difficulty setting realistic personal boundaries? Do you spend too much time and effort trying to please your partner? If you said yes to any of these, you might need help with codependency.
Here’s what you need to know about it and how to stop being codependent.
What is codependency?
“Codependency is a pattern of behavior in which one person in a relationship becomes overly reliant on the other,” says Joni Ogle, CSAT, a licensed clinical social worker and the CEO of The Heights Treatment.
Codependent relationships are characterized by extreme power imbalances — one person providing all their time and energy into helping the other person while receiving little to nothing in return. Not all relationships that become codependent start out that way. Typically, it’s one person giving some help to the other, feeling like they’re providing a little additional support. Yet, over time, as the situation remains stagnant but the call or feeling of need to keep caring for the other person continues, this power shift becomes more pronounced.
“This kind of dynamic can create a lot of emotional and psychological turmoil for both people in the relationship. One partner may become overly controlling or demanding of the other, while the other partner may become increasingly dependent and feel guilty when they don’t meet the expectations of their partner,” adds Steve Carleton, CACIII, a licensed clinical social worker and the executive clinical director at Gallus Detox.
How do you know if you have codependent tendencies?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, these are the signs you have codependent tendencies.
- You feel selfish if you spend time on yourself: Trying to do things that made you feel good before you entered a codependent relationship can feel off or not as calming as they once did. You may feel off or as if you’re doing the wrong thing by spending this time apart from them.
- You’re not comfortable asking for things you want and need: In codependent relationships, there tends to be one person who is getting all their needs and desires met while the other person bites their tongue. This can be compounded by hearing things such as, “You’re being demanding,” anytime you ask for something.
- You struggle with alone time: It can feel challenging to spend time on your own after a period of acting codependent. Your focus might shift toward them, or you may struggle to sit with thoughts you’ve ignored.
- You don’t feel like your shared space is yours: If you’re in a codependent relationship with a live-in significant other, you may notice it’s more aligned with their tastes and preferences. When they’re not there, you may feel like your home is unfamiliar instead of one that reflects you.
- You will cancel plans to be with them: The other person is your number one priority. They come before relationships with any friends or family in your life. It’s easy to isolate yourself from loved ones when you’re putting all your focus into spending time with and supporting this person.
- You’re not sure how you actually feel about the relationship: Odds are you haven’t spent much time thinking about yourself or what you’re getting out of the relationship. So, you may be caught off guard when a person asks you about it or may be surprised to find your response more negative than expected.
- You hope to change the other person: Do you spend a lot of your time thinking about the way you wish the other person was? Do you take time to do the things they like in hopes that they’ll start doing something you like? The deep desire to have someone change is a sign of codependency.
- You notice their behavior gets worse if you try to enact boundaries: One of the ways to leave or minimize a codependent relationship? Boundaries. But they’re easier said than done, as setting them might cause the other person to resent you or exhibit worse behavior.
“Codependency can have serious consequences in any kind of relationship — romantic or otherwise — as it’s driven by an unhealthy need for control and validation,” says Carleton. “Over time, this kind of behavior can lead to feelings of resentment and hopelessness in both partners, which could ultimately lead to the breakdown of the relationship.
How are codependence and mental health connected?
Codependence is not classified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the standard diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders. Instead, codependent behavior is considered a relational pattern or a type of maladaptive coping mechanism that can develop in response to certain circumstances or environments.
Codependence is typically characterized by a dysfunctional reliance on another person for emotional and psychological needs, often to the point of neglecting one's own needs and well-being. It may involve an excessive focus on pleasing others, difficulty setting healthy boundaries, a lack of self-identity or self-worth, and a pattern of seeking approval and validation from others. Codependent relationships can often involve enabling unhealthy behavior and may be associated with issues such as substance use, relationship addiction, or trauma.
While codependence is not considered a mental disorder itself, it may co-occur with other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or personality disorders. Additionally, codependence may be related to early life experiences, such as growing up in a dysfunctional family environment or experiencing trauma, which can contribute to the development of codependent patterns of behavior.
It's important to note that while codependence is not considered a mental illness, it can still have a significant impact on a codependent individual's mental health and well-being.
Does codependence only occur in romantic relationships?
Codependence can certainly occur outside of a romantic relationship. While codependent behavior is often associated with romantic relationships, it can also manifest in relationships with family members, friends, colleagues, or even in caregiving roles.
For example, in a codependent relationship with a family member, such as a parent and child, a codependent person may exhibit excessive caretaking behavior, prioritizing the needs of the other person above their own, and struggling to establish healthy boundaries. In a codependent friendship, one person may constantly seek validation and approval from their friend, relying heavily on their friend for their emotional well-being and self-worth. In a codependent work relationship, an employee may feel overly responsible for the success or well-being of their colleague, sacrificing their own needs and boundaries in the process.
Codependence can also manifest in other caregiving or helping roles, such as with caregivers who may become overly enmeshed with the person they are caring for, neglecting their own self-care and well-being.
It's essential to recognize that codependent relationships are not healthy and can have negative impacts on the individuals involved. Seeking support from a qualified mental health professional can be beneficial in addressing codependency and developing healthier relationship patterns.
How to stop being codependent
Now that you have an idea of what codependency looks like, the question is, can a codependent relationship be fixed? With the proper determination and tips, it’s entirely possible to stop being codependent. Here are the steps mental health professionals recommend taking if you want to end your codependency.
Check-in with yourself
Checking in with yourself is the first step towards determining if you’re codependent and, if so, how you want to go about changing it. This inward look must occur both at the beginning and as you continue to disengage from codependency. It allows you to figure out what your needs, wants, and boundaries are and how to not forgo them, says Kate O’Brien, MT-BC, a psychotherapist.
Work on your own self-esteem and confidence
It’s common for a codependent person to lack self-esteem or confidence outside of positive affirmations from the other person. “Instead of relying on the approval or validation of your partner, focus on building your own sense of worth and confidence through self-care and reflection,” says Carleton. “When you’re fully secure in your own identity, you won’t have to rely so heavily on your partner for validation or emotional fulfillment. You already know you’re enough.” Part of building yourself up as an individual is doing things that make you happy and going after your personal goals.
Focus on your needs
Spend time deciding what you want to do and then go for it. “Having separate hobbies and interests can help both partners feel more independent, which will ultimately lead to healthier relationships overall. Spending time apart is not an indication of a failing relationship — when done correctly, it can actually lead to a stronger bond and a more meaningful connection,” says Carleton.
This will help grow your confidence and self-esteem, adds Ogle. Try doing things with friends or family members as well.
Engage in honest conversation
It can feel intimidating to start a conversation with the other person about the power imbalances in your relationship. Yet, taking this step is critical if you want to maintain any relationship with them. As Carleton says, “This will help both of you understand the unhealthy dynamic at play and work together to move away from codependent behavior.”
Boundaries have gone out the window in a codependent relationship. Resetting or creating new, healthy boundaries is a massive step towards ensuring you’re getting the respect you deserve and your needs are being met. They also help tell the other person what a healthy relationship looks like to you and vice versa, says Ogle.
Take responsibility for your feelings
In a codependent relationship, it’s easy to base all of your feelings and emotions on the other person’s actions. Instead, “work on learning how to take responsibility for your own feelings rather than expecting your partner to meet them,” says Ogle. “Practice identifying your feelings and expressing them in healthy ways.”
At the end of the day, it takes time and persistence to stop being a codependent partner. “It can take practice to learn that people will love you, even if you aren’t always taking care of them,” says O’Brien. “It can take practice to even attune to what your likes are and who you are without others. It can take practice to integrate that while you can make suggestions to others, ultimately, it is up to them to decide how they will live their own lives.”
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