How to Tell If You're In a Codependent Relationship
It was a brisk fall day in New York City as I walked up the subway steps and into the lower east side of Manhattan. I was only 19, and I was on my way to my first CoDA meeting. That's Co-dependents Anonymous, and my therapist suggested I attend a meeting to and see if I identified with any stories I heard.
My hands were sweating with anxiety and shame. "How did I end up here at 19?" I asked myself. When I walked into the meeting room, I saw five other people who were all at least 25 years older than me sitting, talking, and also anxiously awaiting the meeting to start. When it began, the facilitator set the container (meaning, they told us the boundaries and purpose of the space and meeting), and I sat and listened to folks share how their lives were in absolute ruins because of codependency.
At that moment, I decided I didn't want to go to this meeting again, and I definitely didn't want to be 25 years older, like the people I was listening to, and still navigating the same set of problems. It was a wake-up call. My extreme people-pleasing had evolved into a codependent relationship, and I wanted out. (Related: It Took Me Until Age 32 to Live Fully As My Polyamorous, Bisexual Self — and I'm a Sex Therapist)
Today, I want to destigmatize codependency. Not only has codependency become this dirty word that, if you're accused of, automatically feels shameful — but it's also wildly misused.
Odds are, you've probably experienced a little bit of codependency in at least one relationship in your life — and that's okay. Like most things in life, this is not all or nothing, black and white, or yes or no — codependency exists on a spectrum.
Let's dive into what codependency is, some signs of codependency and what looks like, how to stop being codependent, and what healthy attachment and security in a relationship look like compared to codependency.
What Is Codependency?
Basically, codependency is an unhealthy focus or obsession on other people's problems, feelings, and needs (generally within parent/child relationships or romantic relationships). This unhealthy focus typically leads codependent people to focus on other people in their lives to distract them from their own pain — which inherently leads to them losing themselves in the process.
Though they're often confused, codependency is not dependency. Being dependent on someone is just that. Dependency is defined as a reliance on something or someone else (or being controlled by something or someone else). For example, if one person in a partnership is solely responsible for bringing in money, the other person may be financially dependent upon them. Similar to codependency, dependency isn't inherently bad — there are situations in which it's healthy and necessary, and other times it can be unhealthy. (Related: 5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Sex and Dating, According to a Relationships Therapist)
While both dependency and codependency pose the risk of losing your sense of self, they are very different.
Codependency can manifest itself in many different ways, and it can look different from relationship to relationship. Sometimes, the drive behind codependent behavior is about finding work or purpose. Sometimes, it's simply being unconscious about your own behaviors and how they impact other people and your relationships. And other times, there's an addiction component; codependency is also known as relationship addiction because "people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive," according to Mental Health America.
In a codependent relationship, people generally don't have a healthy relationship with themselves, their time, boundaries, and mental health. While some codependent relationships could be classified as emotionally abusive, not all fall on that spectrum; often, codependency shows up on a much smaller scale, making it even harder to spot. (See: 7 Signs You're In a Toxic Relationship)
I asked Jennah DuBois, a certified sex educator, about her experience navigating codependency in her almost 10-year relationship with her partner. "I feel like I have been many different versions of myself over the 10 years, and one of those versions, back in my early twenties, was very codependent," she says. "It manifested itself in small ways — doing kind things for my partner so I would feel validated by him, basing my happiness off the quality of our time together, being very protective over our time together, and having my sense of self tied up in our relationship. Now that I've done some work about this, I do kind things for him because I love him — not for his love. It might feel uncomfortable at first to become aware, but oh my goodness, it was so helpful to recognize this about myself and to begin shifting my intentions and perspective."
When a relationship has turned codependent, you may feel as though you've lost yourself. When your priority is someone else's experience, needs, wants, etc., you lose sight of your own wants or needs. And, if you're the person getting their needs met, you may notice that your partner isn't doing things for themselves or only asking about you instead of taking care of or sharing about themselves. (Related: The Potential Red Flags In a Relationship You Need to Know About)
Examples of Codependency Are Everywhere
Many people grow up watching movies and TV shows where codependency is basically the relationship model on display. Think: Jealousy or control over their partner's time, possessiveness over their partner, or putting too much pressure on their partner to meet all of their emotional needs. (Related: Here's What a Clinical Sexologist Thinks About Netflix's 'Sex/Life')
And remember, codependency isn't limited to romantic relationships, so it may show up as a mom finding her only identity through being a mom, creating a codependent dynamic between child and parent. I mean, how many sitcoms do you watch where it's funny for a character to be so wrapped up in someone else's life?
Even a lot of popular music talks about love and relationships in a possessive way — and this is especially confusing when most people don't learn the skills they need to guide them through the complicated feelings. Most of us learn how to be in a relationship by watching the adults who raised us or through the TV and media — and nearly none of those are displays of healthy relationships. Yikes.
So basically, we're taught that codependency is the "normal" relationship model but then are shocked when we find out that we are codependent. Here's what I have to say to that: It's not your fault if you're codependent (there's a lot of societal and familial dynamics wrapped up in it all), but it is, 100 percent, your responsibility to do something about it.
How to Stop Being Codependent
If you think you're exhibiting codependent behavior, the below can help you take stock and make changes to stop being codependent. If you think your partner might be codependent, use the "acknowledge, explain, and offer" framework to let them know how you're feeling, what you're seeing, and what you'd like to be different.
Step 1: Define your behaviors.
It's normal to want to help your partner, show them love, and be involved in each other's lives. But if you're doing these actions to control your partner's mood or behavior, it's time to check yourself.
A helpful way to recognize codependency is to monitor your intentions: Ask yourself why you're doing what you're doing. Codependency is unidirectional, with the codependent partner meeting all or most of their partner's needs while not receiving anything back. For a relationship to be securely attached and healthy, the process of getting needs met needs to be multidirectional.
Check in to make sure your actions are for the betterment of your relationship and not for you to feel validated. There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel validated, but your partner needs to be aware that they are helping you work through these emotions instead of being victims of them (even on a very small scale). You can do this by getting to know yourself, so you can understand your emotions, thoughts, and motivations — and then opening up to your partner about them. (Also read: How to Identify Your Feelings with a Wheel of Emotions — and Why You Should)
If you're unsure about all this, I highly recommend reading the book The Disease to Please by the late Harriet Braiker, Ph.D. (Buy It, $14, amazon.com) — because codependency has people-pleasing at its core. This book is a literal life-changer.
Step 2: Learn what a healthy relationship looks like.
Why there is no class in high school about what healthy relationships look like is beyond me. (After all, there isn't even decent sex ed.) But it's never too late to learn how to be in a healthy relationship.
How, exactly? For one, you can learn more about what healthy relationships look like by going to a workshop, retreat, or other event put on by a couples therapist or researcher. Check out The Gottman Institute, created by John Gottman, Ph.D., and his wife Julie, a clinical psychologist. They have more than 45 years of research data showing what makes relationships last and use those insights to do seminars for therapists and the general public. I also recommend all of their books — especially What Makes Love Last (Buy It, $13, amazon.com), in addition to following some relationship-focused therapists online. I often talk about healthy attachment and communication on my Instagram, but I also recommend following Shadeen Francis, Tess Brigham, and Julia Kristina on Instagram as well as @homegirltherapist and @lizlistens on TikTok.
Step 3: Confirm your needs and boundaries.
Deciphering your needs and boundaries is an incredible way to begin building security in a relationship. When your boundaries are constantly being crossed, or you are doing the crossing, it's hard to feel like you have autonomy over yourself and your relationships. It can often feel like you're just flailing, trying to grasp onto whatever ounce of control you think you have. (More here: How to Set Boundaries with Anyone In Your life — and Why They're Important)
Your needs are things you may need in a relationship to feel secure — just like love languages! Communicating your love languages (the things that make you feel loved and the things you like to do to show your love) and needs to your partner (and vice versa) is so helpful for better understanding what the other person needs to feel loved and validated in the relationship.
Boundaries require you to recognize difficult areas for yourself and set up parameters for how you want to navigate them. For example, I can have any hard conversation, but not if I'm being yelled at. That boundary can sound like, "I will always be available for hard conversations. And, if voices get raised, I'm going to need to step away and come back when they're lower." (Related: How to Have Healthier Relationship Arguments)
Decide where you need to draw boundaries — whether it's around your time, traumas, etc. When you can assert your wants, needs, and boundaries, you're behaving as the antithesis to codependency. When the two (or more) people involved in the relationship can each do this, it creates a dynamic that keeps codependency away. Remember, codependency usually means one person is being prioritized so that the other person can feel a sense of importance or belonging; however, if both people are prioritized, it's hard for codependency to exist. (Related: Why You Might Feel 'Stuck' In a Relationship — and How to Know When to End It)
Step 4: Consider therapy.
If you think you may be in a codependent relationship, I highly recommend looking into therapy. Whether it's you and your partner together or both of you individually. Therapy will help you break down why you might be in this situation, and it will help give you amazing tools to take steps away from these current behaviors. (See: How to Find the Right Therapist for You)
If it weren't for my therapist seeing some early signs of codependency in my relationships, I would have never ended up at that CoDA meeting. I would have continued behaving in a way I thought was nice and kind — not destructive.
Remember, it's not your fault if you're in a codependent relationship, but it is your responsibility to learn, grow, and move forward.
Rachel Wright, M.A., L.M.FT., (she/her) is a licensed psychotherapist, sex educator and relationship expert based in New York City. She's an experienced speaker, group facilitator, and writer. She's worked with thousands of humans worldwide to help them scream less and screw more.