Many people come to discover that the same unhealthy relationship patterns repeat again and again. If you have experienced a number of painful relationships that fall short of what you expected or hoped for, despite your best efforts or intentions, then consider codependency as a possible cause. It’s important to be aware that codependency is not just restricted to intimate relationships. It can happen within families, and between friends and coworkers.
The difference in intimate relationships is that the codependency can be incorrectly interpreted as feeling like love, attention, and adoration.
Codependency is a dysfunctional dynamic whereby one or two people have behaviours and personality traits that worsen when in relationship with each other. Generally this occurs where one person depends on the other for their sense of identity or worth. This may have been learnt from caretakers or parents, but only comes to light once a person is in adult relationships and problems keep surfacing.
7 Signs of Codependency
- Needing approval from someone else in order to feel good about yourself or to feel fulfilled
- One person sacrifices themselves and their needs for the other
- Cannot say ‘no’. This is an indication of low self-worth, self-respect and self esteem
- Poor balance of equality – one person gives and gives and the other is the taker
- Avoidance of confrontation, and keeping quiet to avoid arguments to avoid perceived criticism or judgement
- Feeling like physical, mental and emotional health is starting to suffer in order to support the other’s needs (there may be a sense that something is wrong but you can’t put your finger on it)
- The stress of being in a codependent relationship creates anxiety from either attempting to change the other person, or from attempting to conform to the version of you they want
Compare this with a health relationship:
- Respect for each other, which has developed from a respect of yourself
- Able to spend time apart happily and encourage each other to spend time with other people
- Cooperation, communication and mutual respect
- Building each other up, no manipulation or deception
- Making decisions together and seeking solutions to problems, rather than seeing the other as THE problem
The 7 Causes of Codependency
1. Poor boundaries
A personal boundary is an invisible line that delineates where you end and another person begins. A healthy sense of boundaries ensures you know what’s good for you: your body, your possessions, your feelings, values, thoughts, beliefs and needs.
It is not selfish to have healthy boundaries: it is necessary. Many people grow up in families where the boundaries are blurred and this causes something called enmeshment. An example of this is where the parents place their educational expectations on a child, rather than letting the child find their own path. Another example is where the child interprets that they are to blame for their parent’s unhappiness, and so feel a sense of responsibility to keep that parent happy.
When a person with poor boundaries then enters a relationship without a strong sense of self or identity, which is very common as people enter relationships in their teens and 20s, this can lead to codependency.
2. Low self-esteem
Someone with low self-esteem will often compare themselves to others, then not feel that they are good enough. The feeling of shame is a common feeling for people with low self-esteem. Some people are good at hiding that they feel less-than by acting full of self-confidence, often in an arrogant type of way, but this belies feelings of insecurities around inadequacy, and even deeper fears about not being lovable.
3. Being a ‘fixer’/caretaker
There are people who feel fulfilled when they are needed and perceive that someone has a problem that they believe needs to be fixed. This includes parts of your personality or behaviour they feel needs to be changed. If personal boundaries are blurred, these people will give so much of themselves that they put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own.
This can lead to feelings of being rejected if the other person doesn’t want their help or doesn’t agree with the advice being given. This is especially so if the relationship involves some kind of addiction.
4. Need to control
Feeling in control brings a sense of security and safety to the codependent. As humans we all need to feel some control over our environment and our lives in order to feel safe and to ensure some level of certainty. Codependents, however, feel a need to control others’ behaviour in intimate relationships in order to feel okay about themselves.
This can go two ways: the codependent is bossy and tells you what you can and can’t do; or they are the people pleaser/fixer/caretaker in order to get approval, love, or something else they want from the relationship. Both are manipulative and violate someone else’s boundary.
5. People pleasing
Saying yes to everyone is not an altruistic act. In reality we cannot do or be everything to everyone. In order to retain a sense of personal power we need to be able to learn healthy discernment in regard to what we say yes to and what we need to say no to.
Codependents have difficulty saying no, for fear of being judged, criticised, ‘rocking the boat’ and losing approval from their partner. This causes them a great amount of anxiety as it is tied into their sense of self-worth by giving and sacrificing their needs and wishes. Resentment can also frequently surface as they feel unable to stand their ground.
6. Not able to spend time apart or not happy unless together
Ok, so this is perfectly normal in the first flush of a new relationship! But as the honeymoon period wears off, in a healthy dynamic two people start to spend more time apart – with their friends, hobbies and interests, etc. Codependents are unhappy when they are not with the person they rely on to fill their needs; their happiness is dependent upon their partner being around. Another sign is that they feel they are not able to go to social events by themselves.
7. Poor emotional health
Feeling drained or often tired is an indication that emotional health is suffering. Being in a codependent relationship is both stressful and anxiety-provoking. There is a lot of fear created if a codependent constantly worries about being judged, criticized or rejected.
Likewise the feeling of being trapped or feelings of ‘carrying’ the other person in the relationship. Severe emotional overwhelm or fatigue leads to feeling numb, which is the body’s way of coping with the stress.
How to change a codependent relationship
If you recognize that you may be in a codependent relationship, and you want to make changes, try starting to introduce some small boundaries, such as saying no to something your partner usually expects you to say yes to. Don’t be surprised if this brings up resistance or negative comments from your partner. Co-dependent relationship dynamics often suit the one who perceives they have more power, and any change to this may feel like a threat.
Seek connections with other people, such as spending more time with family or friends whose company you enjoy, or places where you feel revived and refreshed.
Seek out counselling support to help you get to know yourself, and your relationship patterns, better. Learning to set boundaries is a skill, and therefore needs to be learned. A therapist can help you build your boundary setting skills in a healthy way.
It may be difficult to acknowledge but there is always an unhealthy pay-off for both parties of codependent relationships, so it’s important to recognise what your contribution is, if you want things to change.
If you are concerned about your relationship, or wish to explore unhealthy relationship patterns in the privacy and safety of professional counselling, click on the link below to receive your free 20 minute consultation to discuss your concerns (this is initial consultation only and does not constitute a counselling session).