Relationships are all about giving and taking. We often have to make sacrifices for the people we love. Parents may take a second job (or quit their job) to provide for their children. A partner may move across the country to be with another partner. You can probably think of sacrifices, big or small, that you’ve made for your partner or loved ones recently.
But what happens when your entire relationship is built on your sacrifices for another person? Well, you might find that you’re in a codependent relationship.
What Is Codependency?
The definition of codependency might surprise you. Codependency is not the tendency to rely on another person for everything. A codependent relationship is one where there is an imbalance in giving and taking. A codependent person may give, give, give, even at the expense of their own well-being or safety.
Couples may stay in a codependent relationship for a long time, but it will not put either partner in a position to be their happiest selves.
Examples of Codependency
Often, codependency is used to describe a relationship in which one person is an addict or an abuser. They display harmful behaviors. Maybe the partner gets a DUI, doesn’t come home when they say they will because they’re drinking too much, or takes their anger out on their partner. A codependent partner may enable their partner’s behavior. They let their partner slide when they refuse to get help after their DUI. They make excuses for their partner, time and time again. Maybe they blame the partner’s violent behavior on themselves.
But one person doesn’t have to be an addict or an abuser to be in a codependent relationship. If one person is relying on the other for their happiness and satisfaction, rather than taking responsibility for their own, they may be codependent.
Where Does Codependency Come From?
Codependent people often confuse their behavior for love. They see their self-sacrificing behaviors as “doing their part” in the relationship, even if the other partner doesn’t reciprocate these behaviors.
Why? As their attachment styles develop, codependent people learn these habits from a very young age.
If one parent is an addict, abuser, or emotionally unavailable, the other parent will be left to fend for themselves. The parent may rely on the children for emotional fulfillment. The child, in response, learns to care for their parent and put the parent’s emotions above their own. They see this as displaying love, even if they are acting as the “caregiver” of the parent.
Without intervention, the child grows into an adult and continues to confuse “love” for sacrificing their well-being. They look for partners who need to be cared for. These partners may be addicts, abusers, or emotionally unavailable. A codependent person finds themselves valuable and important only when they are able to care for this person. Maybe they hope they can change them for the good. Maybe they don’t see value in just caring for themselves. Either way, the codependent person puts their partner’s needs ahead of their own, constantly.
Signs of Codependency
This is not an easy line to draw. When are you being codependent, and when are you just doing your part to contribute to a relationship?
The thing to remember is that codependency causes an imbalance in a relationship.
- If you put your partner’s needs ahead of your own, consistently, forcing you to put your needs on the back burner, you might be codependent.
- If you rely on another person’s happiness to be happy, you might be codependent.
- If you find yourself responsible for your partner’s actions, and feel the need to make excuses for their actions, you might be codependent.
- If you feel that putting your needs first will result in your partner leaving you, you might be codependent.
- If you find yourself constantly feeling conflicted, resentful toward your partner, or insecure of your own desires, you might be codependent.
How Codependency Affects Relationships
Codependency isn’t a death sentence in a relationship. But if you have learned codependent behaviors from past relationships or your childhood, it’s something to monitor. Putting your well-being and needs aside to satisfy a partner, especially one who is not considering your needs, is not going to set you up for long-term happiness and relationship satisfaction.
Can Codependency Look Like Narcissism?
Codependency and narcissism are often discussed together, but they are not the same. Reddit user littlelunacy summed up the relationship between these two terms nicely:
“They are two sides of the same coin. Both ultimately being overly dependent on others to get their needs met, both willing to manipulate (consciously and unconsciously) to meet these needs. Both have an external locust of control and operate from this place. Both…. are self serving. Its just that “narcissists” will take what they need seemingly without remorse or compassion. Codependent will ALSO take what they need, but in a roundabout, I-care for-you-and-want-to-help-you sort of way. So called narcissists are straight shooters and do not hide or mask their intentions as much as or as well as codependent. Codependent are so good at masking that they hide even from themselves, seeing themselves as do-gooders and philanthropists when its not really so simple.
Btw It’s possible to not BE a narcissist and have narcissistic traits. Narcissism is a spectrum. As is codependency. Some people are on one end, others further down. In my experience, yes, codependents do tend to exhibit narcissism as they are two sides of the same coin…. one that ultimately is based on a “self love deficit” (ross rosenberg)”
How to Overcome Codependency
Maybe you think you are in a codependent relationship. What’s next?
This process cannot be done overnight. As I discussed earlier, many people learn codependency as a child. It is okay if you were raised to care for others and sacrifice your well-being for the needs of others – you are not alone. But in order to live a more satisfying life and enjoy a relationship where your needs are met, you will have to make some changes.
These changes could be small. It might start with seeing your partner’s destructive behavior and saying, “This is their responsibility.” Maybe your partner gets upset at something that has nothing to do with you. Instead of letting their mood affect yours, maybe you step back and say, “I am not responsible for their happiness. They can change themselves.”
This process can feel like you are separating yourself from your partner, but it’s not always a bad thing. You give them room to make positive changes for themselves. You give your partner a chance to adjust their mindset and behaviors when they are upset or making bad choices. Sure, they are going to mess up. If they are an addict or abuser, they are going to seek help. But this is a decision that they will have to make. You can provide support and resources for a partner who is going through a tough time, but you cannot change them if they are not changing themselves.
Are You Codependent?
A relationship therapist can help you through this process. If you believe that you are in danger and that overcoming codependency could result in harm, seek support sooner rather than later. Overcoming codependency is not easy, but it may result in the satisfaction of having a partner that meets your needs and takes responsibility for themselves.