Let’s face it: Relationships are hard. Trying to parse out the right balance between sharing our life with someone versus being joined by the hip can start to get fuzzy over time.
And if Grey’s Anatomy has taught us anything, it’s that spending every waking hour with our “person” can make it hard to decipher where they end and we begin.
Apparently, it’s a line that often gets crossed for couples. Although popular culture often glamorizes this kind of romantic enmeshment, according to psychologists, it can quickly devolve into an unhealthy dynamic called “codependency,” a tendency of over-reliance on others.
If you and your partner find it hard spending time apart or struggle to make even the most basic decisions without the other’s approval, read on.
Codependency for the Uninitiated
While most people automatically think of codependency as a generic term for any kind of dysfunctional relationship, the concept originally referred to the enabling behavior of the partners of those struggling with addiction. But the definition has since evolved within the mental health community. According to WebMD, codependency is a pattern of behavior where your entire sense of self revolves around your partner’s approval.
Sara Stanizai, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with high-functioning anxiety in couples, says that unlike independence, where each person is capable of meeting their own needs and then chooses to be present with their partner, “in codependence, people are not capable of meeting their own needs and require this from their partner.”
It impacts relationships because people have a hard time making even basic decisions on their own without consulting their other half. This means that on a deeper level, they are strongly influenced by their partner’s feelings and emotions.
This is different from mutual dependency, says Claudia Luiz, a New York City psychoanalyst and author. “Codependency is very frustrating, like trying to walk through quicksand or being stuck in slow motion.”
Signs You’re in a Codependent Relationship
“It feels like playing a role as opposed to being a real person who is allowed the full spectrum of human experience,” says digital nomad Vironika Tugaleva, a Canadian life coach.
Tugaleva, 30, has been in codependent relationships for most of her life. “Even the one I’m in now begins to curdle into those patterns,” she says, “and we have to claw our way out with self-awareness, honesty, and forgiveness.”
Many times, we don’t know what codependency looks like, as it’s often passed down as learned behaviors, says Keba Richmond-Green, a marriage and family psychoanalyst from Atlanta.
“Codependency can wreak havoc on relationships and block someone from experiencing true intimacy.”
—Eliza Boquin, licensed marriage and family therapist
In order to identify these patterns, she advises we take honest inventory of our relationship by asking ourselves the following questions: Do I always feel I get the short end of the deal? Am I worried about their opinion of me or my choices? Am I uncomfortable expressing my true feelings? Do I feel humiliation or like a child when I make a mistake? Am I passive? Do I keep quiet to avoid arguments?
Taking stock of the answers that might arise isn’t easy, but here are other clear-cut signs to look for, according to experts:
There is little to no privacy or personal time; you don’t spend time separate from one another. One of the resulting red flags is not having personal hobbies, only hobbies together. Another flag for this is when you have each other’s passwords for every account.
This is the result of another symptom: One or both of you have difficulty setting or enforcing limits and boundaries. There’s constant texting or checking in with each other, and there’s panic if there’s no response to texts. There’s also a feeling of mistrust when spending time apart.
Needs and Emotions
You feel an overwhelming need to be liked and approved by the other person—this often results in you feeling emotionally and physically drained the majority of the time. Exacerbating this is the feeling that you can’t be happy unless the other person is happy.
Oftentimes, you are unable to identify your own needs and desires and, consequently, not meeting them. You may also suffer from low self-esteem, feeling like you’re never good enough.
You’re easily swayed by your partner’s opinion or emotions, even when your instincts or feelings say otherwise. There’s a distinct fear of abandonment or exaggerated fear of the relationship ending.
How Codependency Inhibits Growth
Since intimacy is fueled by the perfect balance of distance and closeness, according to Eliza Boquin, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Houston, individuals in codependent relationships will often struggle to achieve the autonomy needed to experience the type of connection they so often desire.
“Codependency can wreak havoc on relationships and block someone from experiencing true intimacy,” she says.
Tugaleva acknowledges that these dynamics have often held her back by not allowing her to explore a fuller range of emotions, but she also recognizes that these patterns have been embedded within her family for generations. In fact, research on codependency shows it’s trans-generational in nature and often stems from a child watching and imitating these behaviors from other family members.
It’s also important to note that these symptoms can later be seen in a variety of different relationships and isn’t limited to those that are romantic in nature.
For someone prone to codependent traits—such as excessive caretaking or feeling the need to fix others—it’s easy to fall prey to toxic friendships where the person can initially feel both needed and appreciated. The danger here is in basing our sense of self-worth on our “friend’s” needs.
Likelihood of Thriving in Codependent Relationships
Sometimes couples can worry that they have “too much drama” to be happy, explains Stanizai. But if you and your partner have similar reactions to drama, then it’s not necessarily a problem. “For example, if you are both hot-headed or cool-headed, that’s a better situation than if one of you is very reactive and the other is cool as a cucumber.”
One of the most important factors in making a relationship happy, she says, is if you and your partner match in communication styles, emotional patterns, etc. “Just feeling that you are codependent doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is doomed,” Stanizai affirms. “There are many people in codependent relationships who have regular disagreements but still rate their relationship as very happy overall.”
Still, she cautions: “Codependency itself isn’t the best type of relationship to be in, so you should consider working together with a therapist, coach, or religious leader to help you manage your relationship.”
Luiz agrees with her, saying an otherwise great relationship can often hinder a couple from working on the codependency. “It’s easier to sweep a problem under the rug when things are otherwise pretty okay.”
Making the Decision to Break Patterns
Giving each other space is the first step toward breaking these patterns.
The next, according to Boquin, is working with a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in healthy relationships and who can give you the necessary tools to identify and implement healthy boundaries. This also allows you and your partner to gain further insight into unhealthy relationship patterns and provide you with the necessary support to begin experiencing healthy relationships.
However, experts offer a word of caution that not all relationships can be salvaged, especially if they are based on a foundation of toxicity or emotional abuse. “When two people trigger each other perpetually, cannot walk away when things get too angry, cannot be loving, can’t be heard, or [can’t] create a positive outcome, then the couple becomes tragically stuck in codependence,” says Luiz.
“But if the codependency is relegated only to a corner of the relationship,” she adds, “let’s say around food consumption, around having temper tantrums when there’s a particular trigger, or around not setting good boundaries with children perhaps, then the rest of the relationship may be fine.”
She’s quick to note, however, that this doesn’t exempt a couple from the arduous task of working on their issues. “As a psychoanalyst, when a couple brings me their codependency issues, we are at the heart of everything that is unresolved for both people,” Luiz explains. “Like feeling unheard, being with somebody who is emotionally unresponsive, feeling loved, feeling respected, feeling in control, etc.”
If you find yourself in a relationship that is (or could become) codependent, Stanizai recommends taking the following steps for improving autonomy:
Have personal hobbies, friends, or other things that are just for you.
Have separate gyms, Friday night happy hour, or certain events that are just fun for you. “Couples will have to negotiate what they are okay with,” Stanizai says, “but the idea is to deliberately spend time apart, take a risk, and cultivate trust.”
Self-soothe and calm yourself down when you start to get nervous.
If you partner hasn’t returned a text for a few hours or your mind starts to wander, counteract those negative thoughts with positive ones. It’s most likely not the worst-case scenario you think it is.
Practice active listening.
Believe your partner when they tell you something. You would want the same, right? When they tell you something, repeat it back to them until they are satisfied that you understand them. (This sounds weird on a daily basis, but it’s more useful after a disagreement.)
The good news: Codependency can be overcome!
Luiz reiterates that dependency in itself isn’t the problem. “Your dependence on each other should only be changed if it’s standing in the way of growth, productivity, or greater intimacy.”
“This is an opportunity to scratch beneath the surface of the relationship,” she says, “and go deep into knowledge of each other to shake things up and come out ahead.”
Luiz recommends couples use their codependency to learn more about themselves; part of this means delving into uncomfortable truths about one’s past, such as exploring early childhood issues and their connection to current dysfunctional behavior patterns.
35. Your marriage cannot be at an impasse and you refuse to let someone help you. It’s foolishness. This is why during marriage counseling I ask young couples to choose one person/couple they both agree to turn to if things go wrong. #MrMrsBetterHalf
— Godman Akinlabi (@PGeeman) July 13, 2018
Working closely with a licensed psychotherapist can help you and your partner begin to turn things around and make significant strides toward improving your relationship—but equally important is turning an inward eye to where it all first started. While we can’t change events from our personal history, we can become more aware of the effects they have on our present and the ways we can reduce their impact.
Tugaleva now looks back on her prior relationships through the lens that time and introspection have given her. She says the more she’s allowed paradoxes into her experience, the more she’s been able to heal these negative patterns.
She believes that in order to lead healthy relationships with ourselves and others, we must first be able to access the entire range of human experience when we need it. “I can be angry and sad, vulnerable and hard, strong and weak, loud and quiet,” Tugaleva notes. “I need to be all these things at different times.”
“Now that I am able to do so, I refrain from playing small, limited roles with others,” she adds. “I am free of needing them to act a certain way in order to be happy.”