A codependent relationship is when one partner needs the other partner, who in turn, needs to be needed. This circular relationship is the basis of what experts refer to when they describe the “cycle” of codependency.
There is much more to this term than everyday clinginess. Codependent relationships are far more extreme than this. A person who is codependent will plan their entire life around pleasing the other person, or the enabler.
The codependent’s self-esteem and self-worth will come only from sacrificing themselves for their partner, who is only too glad to receive their sacrifices.
Fast facts on codependency:
- Codependent relationships can be between friends, romantic partners, or family members.
- Often, the relationship includes emotional or physical abuse.
- Friends and family members of a codependent person may recognize that something is wrong.
- Like any mental or emotional health issue, treatment requires time and effort, as well as the help of a clinician.
It is important to know the difference between depending on another person — which can be a positive and desirable trait — and codependency, which is harmful.
The following are some examples that illustrate the difference:
Dependent: Two people rely on each other for support and love. Both find value in the relationship.
Codependent: The codependent person feels worthless unless they are needed by — and making drastic sacrifices for — the enabler. The enabler gets satisfaction from getting their every need met by the other person.
The codependent is only happy when making extreme sacrifices for their partner. They feel they must be needed by this other person to have any purpose.
Dependent: Both parties make their relationship a priority, but can find joy in outside interests, other friends, and hobbies.
Codependent: The codependent has no personal identity, interests, or values outside of their codependent relationship.
Dependent: Both people can express their emotions and needs and find ways to make the relationship beneficial for both of them.
Codependent: One person feels that their desires and needs are unimportant and will not express them. They may have difficulty recognizing their own feelings or needs at all.
One or both parties can be codependent. A codependent person will neglect other important areas of their life to please their partner. Their extreme dedication to this one person may cause damage to:
- other relationships
- their career
- their everyday responsibilities
The enabler’s role is also dysfunctional. A person who relies upon a codependent does not learn how to have an equal, two-sided relationship and often comes to rely upon another person’s sacrifices and neediness.
It can be hard to distinguish between a person who is codependent and one who is just clingy or very enamored with another person. But, a person who is codependent will usually:
- Find no satisfaction or happiness in life outside of doing things for the other person.
- Stay in the relationship even if they are aware that their partner does hurtful things.
- Do anything to please and satisfy their enabler no matter what the expense to themselves.
- Feel constant anxiety about their relationship due to their desire to always be making the other person happy.
- Use all their time and energy to give their partner everything they ask for.
- Feel guilty about thinking of themselves in the relationship and will not express any personal needs or desires.
- Ignore their own morals or conscience to do what the other person wants.
Other people may try to talk to the codependent about their concerns. But even if others suggest that the person is too dependent, a person in a codependent relationship will find it difficult to leave the relationship.
The codependent person will feel extreme conflict about separating themselves from the enabler because their own identity is centered upon sacrificing themselves for the other person.
Codependency is a learned behavior that usually stems from past behavioral patterns and emotional difficulties. It was once thought to be a result of living with an alcoholic parent.
Experts now say codependency can result from a range of situations.
Damaging parental relationships
People who are codependent as adults often had problems with their parental relationship as a child or teenager.
They may have been taught that their own needs were less important than their parents’ needs, or not important at all.
In these types of families, the child may be taught to focus on the parent’s needs and to never think of themselves.
Needy parents may teach their children that children are selfish or greedy if they want anything for themselves.
As a result, the child learns to ignore their own needs and thinks only of what they can do for others at all times.
In these situations, one of the parents may have:
- an addiction problem with alcohol or drugs
- a lack of maturity and emotional development, resulting in their own self-centered needs
These situations cause gaps in emotional development in the child, leading them to seek out codependent relationships later.
Living with a mentally or physically ill family member
Codependency may also result from caring for a person who is chronically ill. Being in the role of caregiver, especially at a young age, may result in the young person neglecting their own needs and developing a habit of only helping others.
A person’s self-worth may form around being needed by another person and receiving nothing in return.
Many people who live with an ill family member do not develop codependency. But, it can happen in these types of family environments, particularly if the parent or primary caretaker in the family displays the dysfunctional behaviors listed above.
Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse can cause psychological problems that last years or even an entire lifetime. One of the many issues that can arise from past abuse is codependency.
A child or teenager who is abused will learn to repress their feelings as a defense mechanism against the pain of abuse. As an adult, this learned behavior results in caring only about another’s feelings and not acknowledging their own needs.
Sometimes a person who is abused will seek out abusive relationships later because they are only familiar with this type of relationship. This often manifests in codependent relationships.
A few things can help toward forming a positive, balanced relationship:
- People in codependent relationships may need to take small steps toward some separation in the relationship. They may need to find a hobby or activity they enjoy outside of the relationship.
- A codependent person should try to spend time with supportive family members or friends.
- The enabler must decide that they are not helping their codependent partner by allowing them to make extreme sacrifices.
Individual or group therapy is very helpful for people who are in codependent relationships. An expert can help them find ways to acknowledge and express their feelings that may have been buried since childhood.
People who were abused will need to recognize past abuse and start to feel their own needs and emotions again.
Finally, both parties in a codependent relationship must learn to acknowledge specific patterns of behavior, such as “needing to be needed” and expecting the other person to center their life around them.
These steps are not easy to do but are well worth the effort to help both parties discover how to be in a balanced, two-sided relationship.