Codependency is a bit of a buzzword—a term we hear mentioned frequently but may not quite understand. Perhaps you think you know: It’s when two partners can’t function without each other, right? Not quite—and it’s not the same as relationship anxiety.
Understanding codependent behaviors starts with examining how they can emerge and develop (which doesn’t happen overnight). Then, you can learn how to better recognize them. From there, healthier relationship dynamics can be introduced with help from individual or couples counseling.
It’s important to remember that even though being codependent can feel comforting sometimes, it’s not healthy in the long term for either person. Codependency can leave one partner struggling to have their needs met, while the other is enabled to indulge in their bad habits. Both partners will benefit from taking incremental steps to increase their independence from one another and form an individual identity.
What Are 10 Characteristics of a Codependent Person?
The signs of codependency may vary a bit from relationship to relationship, and even from one codependent person to the next. From the outside, and without professional mental health training, it can be difficult. But in general, codependent people:
- Lack boundaries: People in codependent relationships tend to have problems recognizing or reinforcing boundaries in a healthy way—for either parties.
- Have people-pleasing tendencies. It’s normal to want your loved ones to be happy, but there’s a difference between this and people pleasing. People pleasing puts all your personal needs aside and says, “I’m ok only if you’re ok”.
- Are emotionally reactive: When it feels like someone’s identity is based solely on their role as a caregiver for another person, they may react to situations in a defensive or reactive way, especially if their relationship dynamics are criticized. People outside the relationship are often ignored if they point out unhealthy behavior, and both people may internalize this criticism without seeing the truth in it.
- Suffer from chronic relationship stress: When codependent friends, family members, or partners focus too much on ther relationship, this can be disruptive to their daily functioning. This stress can be made worse by substance use or undiagnosed/untreated mental health conditions in one or both partners.
- Are capable of being emotionally manipulative: People who are codependent may become comfortable guilting others into helping them. They may use different forms of emotional manipulation like gaslighting.
- Have poor communication skills: Someone will feel very comfortable expressing their needs (the taker), while the other person rarely if ever expresses their needs.
- Express themselves with passive-aggressive forms of communication. It’s difficult to express internal conflict when it has the potential to worsen tension in a relationship, especially for caretakers.
- Have unresolved trauma: Someone with codependent habits may have suffered from a form of abuse in their past, or were neglected as a child. These types of adverse experiences can affect an individual’s attachment styles, and the resulting insecurity can influence their ability to be independent in relationships.
- Have difficulty setting and achieving their own goals: Especially for codependent individuals who take on the caretaker’s role, setting and identifying personal goals can be stressful and feel unnatural. They may have few if any plans for their own future.
- Suffer from low self-esteem: Due to trauma, abusive partners, physical or mental health conditions, or other factors, someone who is codependent typically has low self-esteem. They may tether themselves to someone else in order to unsuccessfully cope.
- Are socially isolated: Whether it’s due to their low self-esteem, intense focus on other people, or something else, people who are codependent may also be socially isolated. This can intensify their codependent behavior, and when they feel lonely, they might double down on their unhealthy habits.
What Are the Signs of a Codependent Relationship?
- One individual who is the caretaker
- And other who is the receiver
Both of these individuals are likely to display the codependency characteristics listed above. It’s worth noting that the relationship doesn’t have to be romantic for codependency to exist. Parents, siblings, friends—even roommates—can all be codependent.
Even though it may initially look like the caretaker is the victim (and it may well be the case), they often choose this role willingly, and might do or say things to convince the receiver to remain dependent on their care. The receiver may be struggling with a form of addiction or undiagnosed mental health condition. This can serve to influence the other person in the relationship to take on the caretaker role.
Sometimes, the caretaker is an empath and the receiver is a narcissist—but the opposite can also be true; however, usually, the empath is the one who is doing the caretaking for the narcissist. Over time, the caretaker may start to resent the receiver: They may realize that the other person doesn’t truly want, or is able to stop their self-destructive behavior and regret all the work they’ve put in that’s gone nowhere.
In healthy relationships, the effort involved in maintaining it is typically two-sided. One person isn’t doing all the work. With this in mind, the number one sign of codependency is a situation where one person is doing all the giving, while the other person is doing all the taking.
Dependency vs. Codependency: What’s the Difference?
Codependency has two people involved. Dependency, the state of being overly reliant (on someone else exclusively) involves one person leaning on the other person. Dependency can be a source of irritation for the non-dependent person in the relationship, much more quickly than in a situation where both people are codependent. The other non-dependent person may pull away or try to address the dysfunction.
Codependency in Marriage
Gender roles can feed into codependency, and for married couples, this can become a big issue over time. If you’re married and feel like you have a complete loss of identity, or your only identity becomes catering to your spouse’s needs, your relationship may be suffering from codependency.
Traditional gender roles where men leave the home to earn a living to support their wives, while their wife stays at home to take care of kids and put dinner on the table can create codependent dynamics, even though it’s a narrative that many of us have grown up with. Sometimes people love traditional roles in marriage (even same-sex marriages) and that’s okay. It’s great to take pride in self-identifying as a stay-at-home mom, or a breadwinning husband, but sometimes one or both spouses may have other goals.
A spouse in a codependent relationship may think, “I’m doing everything I can to support my wife/husband and family. But I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed my hobbies, or prioritized my other goals.” This is where marriage counseling can save a relationship, as a neutral third party (the couples counselor) can provide guidance and support as both partners air their frustrations and share what they’ve been holding back so that the relationship can move forward more healthily.
Can Codependency Cause Physical, Emotional, or Sexual Abuse?
Abuse can be common in codependent relationships. As stated previously, people who are susceptible to entering into (and staying in) codependent relationships may be struggling with low self-esteem because they feel like that’s all that they’re worthy of.
Mutual or reactive abuse can occur, but anyone victimized by emotional or physical mistreatment shouldn’t feel obligated to stay in such a relationship—that said, sometimes leaving can be as unsafe as staying. Fortunately, there are people and organizations that can help and offer you safety and temporary shelter.
If you’re the victim of abuse, please be careful. Before contacting local support groups or online resources (which you can find in this article), hide your caller I.D., hide your call history, and use an incognito browsing window or delete your history afterward.
How to Overcome Codependency
The first step in overcoming codependency is to start acknowledging your own needs. If you’re a caretaker, or even if you’re the receiver, something called individuation can be very important. This means becoming aware of yourself and your own identity while working to grow that identity apart from your partner. It doesn’t mean cutting them out of your life, or caring about them less—it just means establishing that you are truly two different people who share a relationship—not an identity. =
It takes time, and like stretching a muscle you’ve neglected, overcoming codependency can feel uncomfortable, even painful. Start by acknowledging and checking in with yourself: “What do I need?”, or “What are my needs?” And if you need a guide, teacher, or simply a supportive listener, a marriage or couples counselor can be the most effective tool for couples struggling with codependency.