Updated: Jul 19, 2022
A codependent relationship is a dysfunctional one where one person is a caretaker, and the other person takes advantage.
Codependent relationships are prevalent among people with substance use issues. Typically, one partner will take care of the other to the extent of enabling that partner's addictive behavior. The caretaker is often raised in a family with an addicted parent and learns to placate that parent to make life easier for a child and any siblings. Often this can be the oldest child, and that child may repeat the pattern in their relationships as an adult.
Codependency is not suitable for either partner. It allows one partner to sink deeper in addiction while forcing the other partner to entirely forgo their wants and needs to care for the other. The following are warning signs you might be in a codependent relationship.
It's normal to want people to like you, and we all want our loved ones to be happy, but there's a difference between these normal tendencies and having to please people all the time. People pleasers often feel like they have no choice but to keep others happy. They don't like to say no, even when pleasing others substantially interferes with their wants and needs.
Lack of Boundaries
People in both roles in a codependent relationship tend to have problems recognizing, respecting, and reinforcing boundaries. Having boundaries means respecting the other person's right to their feelings and autonomy. It also means acknowledging that you aren't responsible for the other person's happiness. People in codependent relationships tend to have a problem where one person doesn't recognize boundaries and the other person doesn't insist on boundaries. Thus, one person is controlling and manipulative, and the other person is compliant and fails to assert his or her own will. Working on setting and maintaining boundaries is essential for families to learn in family therapy.
Typically, neither person in a codependent relationship has excellent self-esteem. One person needs the other's approval or at least needs to be of service to the other to have a sense of purpose. The other person has low self-esteem due to having to depend on someone else to meet material needs and needing validation from that person. The dependent person is often controlling out of a basic sense of insecurity that the other person might leave.
A significant sign of codependency is when you feel like you have to take care of everyone all the time. Typically, this comes from childhood; when the caretaker learns there may be terrible consequences from failing to take care of a parent's needs. As a result, he or she may feel compelled to take care of others, especially a partner, not so much out of affection, but from the fear that something bad will happen if he or she doesn't. Most people can get by reasonably well on their own and feeling like things will go wrong if you don't take care of them is often a sign of codependency.
When your identity is based on pleasing others, and you feel responsible for everyone's wellbeing, you might find yourself reacting to situations rather than acting out of your own volition. You might find yourself being defensive or easily internalizing criticism. This can result in losing touch with your wants and needs, making it harder to be proactive. It is also partly a result of your inability to set boundaries so that you feel responsible for someone else's feelings.
A codependent mindset makes it hard to communicate effectively. The caregiver is often unaware of his or her wants and needs, and when either is aware of them, they may be reluctant to express them. He or she may feel like caring for the other person is the most important thing, or may fear upsetting the other person by being assertive. The dependent person may be in the habit of communicating dishonestly, more interested in maintaining control than in actually communicating. Communication is another crucial skill to learn in family therapy. Both people have to learn to communicate honestly and effectively.
Lack of Self-Image
The caregiver may have low self-esteem, or may not have much of a self-image at all. Often, the caregiver defines him or herself mainly concerning the other person and may have no idea who they are without having that role to play. This is why the caregiver is also dependent, even though he or she takes care of practical matters and could probably get along just fine without the other person.
Of course, dependency plays a significant role in codependency. Each person needs the other for something. One person needs their material needs to be met because addiction or other issues have impeded her autonomy. The other person needs validation and a sense of purpose from taking care of someone. In a way, it's a tradeoff, but it also limits both people involved.
As you might expect, any of these factors can put a lot of stress on a relationship. When you can't communicate or respect boundaries, you're bound to have problems. The caretaker often feels a lot of anxiety about doing everything right, while the dependent person often feels insecure about being abandoned by the caretaker. Both are afraid to be alone, but neither is particularly happy. There may not be many fights since one partner is typically committed to keeping the other happy, but both are likely to feel stressed, nonetheless.
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