Potential Signs Of Unhealthy Codependent Tendencies In Relationships

Medically reviewed by Corey Pitts, MA, LCMHC, LCAS, CCS
Updated June 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

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 of codependency originally referred to someone who was dependent on or controlled by a person with a pathological relationship addiction but has expanded to also include other situations of either one-sided or mutual emotional dependence. Individuals with certain mental health conditions, unhealthy relationship tendencies, or addictions are typically most at risk of experiencing codependency. Codependency 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 relationships. This type of relationship may also be called a circular relationship, as one partner needs the other, and one needs to be needed. Since being emotionally codependent on someone else isn’t typically a healthy relationship dynamic, we’ll explore methods for noticing and shifting this type of relationship pattern.

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The potential impacts of codependency

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

Four common signs of a codependent dynamic

Codependent relationships often manifest similarly, even across unique situations and relationships. According to an extensive review of research on codependent relationships, there are four elements that tend to characterize codependent relationship dynamics.

1. External focusing

Humans are wired for connection. 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. For the codependent person within a relationship, external focusing—or the absence of a sense of self—is one common characteristic. It means that you alone (or you and your partner both) may lack your own emotions, passions, goals, and the ability to spend time on pursuits outside of your relationship to each other. This codependent tendency may also manifest as being easily swayed by the feelings or opinions of your relationship partner or believing you have to downplay or cover up your own feelings to keep the peace.

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2. Self-sacrifice

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

A tendency to feel too much responsibility for someone or to put their needs above your own in a relationship may stem from low self-esteem or past trauma, meaning that healing will need to come from within oneself rather than from a relationship. 

3. Emotional constraint

Emotional constraint here refers to a difficulty setting boundaries in a relationship healthily—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 a healthy relationship that's not codependent. However, one person or both people may take this too far within codependent dynamics. Being a perpetual “yes” person means removing your own true needs or desires to make someone else happy, which is generally not a foundation for a healthy relationship.

4. 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 significant areas of your life. Whether you don’t trust your own judgment, cut off your other friendships, 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 codependent relationship dynamic usually means ignoring or even directly transgressing your own needs and desires, which can make authentic, long-term connection and fulfillment nearly impossible.

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Tips for overcoming codependent dynamics

Recognizing that you’re either acting as a codependent person or may have codependent tendencies is the first step toward shifting these unhealthy relationship behavioral patterns. The next is taking action. Some of the tips below may help you begin to recognize your codependent tendencies.

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 focusing on your surroundings and how you feel. Some people with codependent tendencies, or who have been in a codependent relationship 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 one feel grounded, improve their mental health, and get more connected with themselves and their desires over time, leading to healthier relationships. There are many different ways to learn how to practice mindfulness, from apps to guided videos to books. 

Trust friends and family members

To be clear: Trusting yourself is often an important element of overcoming codependency. However, if you’re in a safe relationship with a partner or family member who wants you to grow, it can also help you to trust that they can handle it when you speak up for yourself in the relationship. Codependency often stems from a desire to make others feel safe, happy, and comfortable. When you feel anxious that speaking up for your needs and wants may make someone upset, remind yourself that they’re an adult, too. Trust in your family members’ 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 codependent partners who are experiencing substance use disorder (previously called substance abuse disorder) or in abusive relationships in which speaking up for oneself may not always be safe or effective. In codependent relationships with emotional abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse, seeking professional support and/or exiting the relationship may be necessary next steps to ensure your safety and well-being.

Show yourself compassion

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

So while you may feel overwhelmed or guilty as you begin to identify your own codependent relationship behaviors, try to be gentle with yourself. Your gut feelings 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 relationship.

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 of codependent behavior can help produce better relationships overall.

If you’re a codependent person, therapy can help

Codependent relationship patterns and unhealthy coping skills in relationships can take time and effort to break since they’re often deeply rooted. Codependency may stem from past trauma, insecure attachment, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, fear, or even mental health disorders such as personality disorders. Many people may find it beneficial to speak with mental health professionals for support overcoming codependency in relationships. They can guide you through getting to the root of your codependent behavior and learning skills that can help you maintain your personhood and advocate for your needs in relationships.

Whether you’re currently acting as a codependent person or not, a therapist may be able to help you identify any unhealthy relationship tendencies and work toward shifting them towards positive change. There are multiple types of therapy you can use to address codependency and maintain relationships, such as family therapy, marriage counseling, and cognitive behavioral therapy. 

If you'd like 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 traditional and virtual therapy sessions can offer similar benefits, so you can select the one that feels more comfortable for your unique situation. If you’re curious about the relative availability 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.

Takeaway

Changing unhealthy behavior can be challenging. If you’ve noticed codependent patterns within your relationships (whether they be with friends, other family members, or romantic partners), working toward shifting them can help you enjoy healthier, more authentic dynamics with others. If you’re having trouble identifying and overcoming unhealthy dependence and working on your own emotional development, enlisting the help of a mental health professional may be beneficial.

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