4 Common Signs Of Codependency In Relationships

Updated May 4, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines codependency as “a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on (or controlled by) a person”. The concept originally referred to someone who was dependent on or controlled by a person with a pathological addiction, but has expanded to also include other situations of either one-sided or mutual emotional dependence. It is most often used in reference to people involved in romantic relationships, but it can also be an element of the relationship between a parent and their child or other types of connections. Since being emotionally reliant on someone else isn’t typically a healthy relationship dynamic, we’ll explore methods for noticing and shifting this type of pattern.

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The Potential Impacts Of Codependency

Healthy relationships are typically characterized by two independent individuals coming together to impart experiences, support, and love. In codependent situations, however, either one partner or both partners are not fully independent individuals. Their emotional state depends on that of their partner, and they’re likely to give up or ignore their own needs in favor of the other’s. Letting yourself and your desires merge into another means you’re not being fully authentic, which is a crucial component for the intimacy that healthy relationships are usually built on. Codependent relationships tend to lead to emotional imbalances, a buildup of resentment, and a loss of your sense of self. Recognizing the signs of it is often the first step toward taking action to find a better balance.

4 Common Signs Of Codependency In Relationships

Codependency often manifests in similar ways, even across unique situations and relationships. According to an extensive review of research on the topic, there are four elements that tend to characterize codependent dynamics.

  1. External Focusing

Humans are wired for connection. In fact, research shows that social isolation and a lack of close relationships can have a wide range of negative health effects. That said, an unhealthy relationship dynamic can be limiting or even damaging. In a codependent relationship, external focusing—or the absence of a sense of yourself as an individual—is one common characteristic. It means that you alone (or you and your partner both) may lack your own interests, goals, and pursuits outside of your connection to each other. It may also manifest as being easily swayed by the feelings or opinions of the other person, or believing you have to downplay or cover up your own feelings in order to keep the peace.

  1. Self-Sacrifice

This element is one of the most easily identifiable in codependent relationships. It refers to a dependent person consistently putting the needs and desires of the other first—often to their own detriment. If the other partner has a substance use problem or similar personal challenges, the self-sacrificing partner may be easily taken advantage of. However, this dynamic may appear even when the other partner tries to respect the self-sacrificer’s needs and desires.

A tendency to feel responsible for someone or to put their needs above your own is often rooted in low self-esteem or past trauma, meaning that healing will need to come from within oneself rather than from a relationship.
  1. Emotional Constraint

Emotional constraint in this context refers to an inability to set boundaries in a healthy way—in other words, being a “yes” person. Being open to compromise and having care and respect for the needs of others are all elements of healthy relationships. However, one person or both people in the relationship may take this too far in codependent dynamics. Being a “yes” person in every situation means erasing your own true needs or desires in order to make someone else happy, which is generally not a foundation for a healthy relationship.

  1. Interpersonal Conflict And Control

This fourth key sign of codependency can take many forms. A common one is letting the person you’re in a relationship with steer your life in significant ways. Whether you don’t trust your own judgment or want to avoid conflict by agreeing with their opinions, you may let them make most or all the decisions for you and your relationship together. Again, this dynamic usually means ignoring or even directly transgressing your own needs and desires, which can make authentic, long-term connection and fulfillment nearly impossible.

Build Better Boundaries And Self-Esteem In Your Relationships

Tips For Overcoming Codependency

Recognizing that you’re either in a codependent relationship or may have codependent tendencies is the first step toward shifting these unhealthy patterns. The next is taking action. Some of the tips below may help you begin this process.

Practice Mindfulness

Research has found that practicing mindfulness, typically through some type of meditation, is linked to all kinds of positive physical and mental health outcomes. Regular practice may also benefit a person’s relationships, especially those characterized by codependency. Mindfulness is all about awareness, or tuning into your surroundings and how you feel. Some people with codependent tendencies, or who have been in codependent dynamics for a long time, may feel that they don’t know where to begin with speaking up for their own needs and having their own identity. Cultivating a mindfulness practice may help such an individual feel grounded and get more in touch with themselves and their desires over time. There are many different ways to learn how to practice mindfulness, from apps to guided videos to books. 

Trust Others

To be clear: Trusting yourself is often an important element of overcoming codependency. However, if you’re in a safe relationship with a partner who wants you to grow, it can also help you to trust that they can handle it when you speak up for yourself. Codependency often stems from a desire to make others feel safe, happy, and comfortable. When you’re worried that speaking up for your needs and wants may make someone upset, remind yourself that they’re an adult, too. Trust in their ability to self-control, problem solve, and adapt. If you preemptively censor your needs to defend them, you’re not giving them the chance to show you that they can hold space for you to use your voice. 

Note, however, that this mindset may apply differently to partners who are experiencing substance use issues or to relationships characterized by abuse, in which speaking up for oneself may not always be safe or effective. In situations like these, seeking professional support and/or exiting the relationship may be necessary next steps to ensure your safety and well-being.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse of any kind, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Show Yourself Compassion

Many of the behaviors that fuel codependency are generally considered to be kind and thoughtful, such as a concern and respect for the needs of others.

So while you may feel overwhelmed or guilty as you begin to identify your own codependent behaviors, try to be gentle with yourself. Your instincts may well be coming from a good place; they just might need to be adjusted so both you and your partner can enjoy a healthier, more authentic dynamic.

Research also supports the benefits of self-compassion for a variety of situations, as it correlates with “greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem, but involves less self-evaluation, ego-defensiveness, and self-enhancement than self-esteem”. Showing yourself kindness even as you work to adjust certain patterns or behaviors can help produce better outcomes overall.

Work With A Mental Health Professional

Codependent patterns and unhealthy coping skills can take time and effort to break, since they’re often deeply ingrained. They may stem from past trauma, low self-esteem, fear, or even a mental health condition. Many people in this type of situation find it beneficial to speak with a therapist for support in overcoming codependency. They can guide you in getting to the root of these behaviors and in learning skills that can help you maintain your individuality and advocate for your needs in relationships.

Whether you’re currently in a codependent relationship or not, a therapist may be able to help you identify any unhealthy tendencies in yourself and work toward shifting them in a positive direction. There are multiple types of therapy you can use to address codependency, including family therapy, marriage counseling, and cognitive behavioral therapy. 

If you’re interested in seeking the support of a mental health professional, the next step is to decide on the format that works best for you. Research suggests that both in-person and virtual therapy sessions can offer similar benefits in most cases, so you can select the one that feels more comfortable for your unique situation. If you’re interested in the relative accessibility and affordability of meeting with a therapist online, you might consider a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. You can get matched with a licensed therapist who fits your needs and preferences according to your answers to a brief questionnaire, and you can then meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing.


If you’ve noticed codependent patterns in yourself and your relationships (whether they be with a friend, family member, or romantic partner) working toward shifting them can help you enjoy healthier, more authentic dynamics with others. If you’re having trouble identifying and overcoming these patterns, enlisting the help of a mental health professional may be beneficial.

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