Pinning your self-worth to another person can create an unhealthy balance in any relationship. In this Cosmopolitan article, Mindpath Health’s Brandy Porche, LPC, discusses codependence and how to recognize toxic patterns of behavior.

two codependent people standing beside each other, sharing earbuds

One of the best things about being in a relationship is feeling comfortable and safe with your partner. In new relationships, the honeymoon phase constantly feels fresh and exciting. And in more long-term ones, nothing beats the satisfaction of climbing into bed together every night. But that comfortable coexistence can go dark if you feel like you’re incapable of being happy if they’re not happy, or if your every choice is based fully on them and not at all on yourself. These can be signs of a codependent relationship, and it’s important to know what they look like so you can avoid falling into one yourself.

It’s important to distinguish that relationships aren’t necessarily codependent, but people can be.

Codependence isn’t a new term. It originated in the world of Al-Anon, a support system for people suffering from the alcoholism of their loved ones, and described people caught up in or trying to fix their partner’s alcohol addiction. It has since broadened in definition to include other addictive behaviors. Today, you still won’t find codependency in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or on a psychiatrist’s prescription pad, but it is potentially toxic behavioral pattern to look out for.

The solution to codependency isn’t total isolation or independence. After all, as humans, we’re naturally inclined to share our lives with each other. This makes distinguishing between unhealthy codependency and healthy interdependence—when a relationship feels equal and brings out the best in both/all partners—even more important.

Here’s what you need to know about identifying and coping with codependent behaviors.

What is codependency?

“A codependent person is someone who allows the behavior and feelings of someone else to influence their own behavior and feelings,” says Brandy Porche, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health. The codependent partner will try to control their loved one’s behavior, trying to “fix” them while reacting to their problems with unhealthy emotions. “Codependents have an irrational sense of responsibility and severely lack objectivity due to their savior complex,” says Porche. Their entire identity can become about being needed.

The biggest problem with codependency is that it can look and feel a lot like love—relationships can and do require sacrifice and support from one another—so it’s important to know where to draw the line.

However, Colorado-based clinical psychologist Dana Torpey-Newman, PhD, says that what could be labeled as unhealthy codependency could very well be healthy interdependence, depending on gender socialization. “Women are stereotypically socialized to engage in and maintain interpersonal relationships; whereas men are not stereotypically encouraged to do so,” she explains. “As with all constructs that we associate with women (other related examples include caregiving and emotional expressiveness), our society devalues and demonizes people, primarily women, who rely on their relationships with others for satisfaction, and label them as though they are pathological.”

Point being: Needing people in your life is not inherently codependent, and neither is loving them and wanting to help them. It’s when your personal identity ceases to exist beyond the needs of your partner or relationship that it starts to raise red flags.

How does someone become codependent?

There is no one-size-fits all way that someone becomes codependent; everyone and every relationship is different. But many times, a person can become codependent if their partner has intense needs or struggles with issues like addiction, to the degree that they feel they need to spend all their time devoted to helping them, thus sacrificing their own happiness and wellbeing in the process. This intense need to serve can do more harm than good, because in many ways, it inhibits their partner’s ability to grow and care for themselves.

According to Mental Health America, codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down generationally. Many codependent people can come from dysfunctional families that dealt with the same issues their partners also struggle with.

What are the signs of a codependent person?

Codependent behaviors can be hard to identify and can vary greatly based on the individuals involved. “Codependence is unhealthy when you stay in relationships regardless of what they cost you emotionally,” Torpey-Newman says. “The consequence of staying in these types of relationships is typically feeling as though you have to compromise your values or integrity to stay in them. If you feel like your relationship requires that in order to maintain it, that is pretty unhealthy.”

This is distinct from interdependence, where the emphasis of the relationship is on mutual respect, growth, and the choice to be together, instead of one person feeling like they need to fix or rescue their partner—like their entire purpose is to be needed by their partner, instead of empowering them to take care of themselves.

How can I get out of a codependent relationship?

Retired psychologist John F. Tholen, author of Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind, believes treating codependency should be like treating other addictive disorders, where the first step to fixing the problem is realizing there is one to begin with.

It may seem ironic to need other people to help you become less dependent, but it’s not the same type of attachment. Co-DependentsAnonymous (CoDA) is a nationwide 12-step organization designed to assist individuals with codependency problems, and you can find meetings through the CoDA website. You can also seek the help of an individual therapist who specializes in these types of emotional and psychological attachments.

Once you’re able to do the hard work of unwrapping yourself from your partner’s choices and emotions, you may have more clarity about whether that relationship is really right for you and can work towards walking away from it if it no longer serves you.

How can I avoid getting into a codependent relationship in the future?

In addition to seeking therapy to understand where your codependent behavior patterns come from, Tholen also suggests proactively trying to avoiding acting on them by remembering these thoughts:

  • I’m only human and I can’t stop someone from self-destruction when they aren’t ready to change.
  • Although it may seem noble, continuing to support my partner as they self-destruct damages both of us.
  • I can help my partner most by modeling self-care and letting them confront the natural consequences of their behavior.
  • I can best support myself, my self-destructive partner, and this family by establishing myself as an independent single person.
  • Relationships are usually most successful when we want—but don’t need—them.
  • With the help of a healthy social support network, I will be able to get my life and my family back on a positive track.

The very nature of codependency is to neglect your own needs in order to prioritize your partner’s, making it that much harder to climb out of these self-destructive patterns. But try to remember that codependency is a common issue. You’re not alone, and there are licensed and trained professionals out there who can help.

Read the full Cosmopolitan article with sources.


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