The Difference Between a Relationship and a Codependency

3 min
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Two individuals committing to support, celebrate, and love each other is a beautiful thing. Sharing life in a healthy partnership is what many of us aspire to一and it’s what cinema from Hollywood to Bollywood and beyond, along with mainstream media, have given us quite problematic ideas about. Sure, we love a good meet-cute and a happy ending to a rom-com as much as the next person, but why can it be problematic? Because romantic relationships should complement our lives, not exist as the main purpose, goal, or component in them. By expecting a partner to ‘complete’ or ‘fix’ us, we are setting ourselves up for the damaging relationship dynamics of a codependency.

Ugh, Hollywood! So What Is a Codependency?

A codependency is a relationship with unhealthy boundaries, where one or both of the individuals in the partnership is over-reliant on the other. Codependency can happen with parents and family members, friends, and co-workers, as well as in romantic partnerships. This dynamic is characterized by an imbalance that’s unfair on both parties: the dependent feels helpless without the emotional or physical support of the enabler, who in turn feels burdened by their responsibility and obligation to the dependent. Codependencies are perpetuated by fear in both parties – the dependent fears losing their one-person support system, and the enabler fears losing the importance of being needed. There’s also a trust issue – neither party trusts that the dependent will be able to cope on their own or look after themself.  

Isn’t Codependency a Form of Love? It Doesn’t Sound Very Romantic.

Ironically, this kind of codependence is what mainstream culture often tells us is “love”: the idea of being in need of someone so completely that we lose all sense of self. And this is where the issue lies. A secure sense of self, identity, and personal autonomy is the foundation of mental health. When the lines between two people get blurred, it is detrimental to individual well-being. In some more extreme cases, codependent relationships have even been linked to an increase in anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. But a tendency towards codependent relationships often stems from a deep insecurity that is then perpetuated by the relationship. An anxious attachment style is often what attracts people into a codependency in the first place.

Can Anxious Attachment Styles Lead to Codependent Relationships?

Anxious attachment can be the result of trauma in early life, particularly the total or proximal abandonment of a parent or caregiver. It can also be a learned trait, passed on by parents through abandonment and attachment issues, or the result of relationship trauma as a young person or adult. Anxiously attached individuals often end up sacrificing their own needs and requirements for emotional and spiritual fulfillment, in favor of the needs of others. It's like their energetic center of gravity is outside of them altogether. People with an anxious attachment style might struggle to know what they want and where to draw the line regarding what others ask or want from them, and be very disconnected with their intuitive, authentic self. Anxious attachment can result in relationship addiction, where an individual seeks out validation and self-worth from romantic partners at the expense of self-respect or self-fulfillment.  

So what does a healthy relationship look like?

Interdependence refers to a more symbiotic connection in which boundaries are honored and respected. Each member of the relationship has autonomy, with trust, open communication, honesty and mutual care as the cornerstones. Gratitude for what each member of the relationship brings to it independently – rather than a sense of neediness or indebtedness – has been found by studies to make for stronger, higher quality relationships.

Recognizing the Signs of a Codependent Relationship

Here are some of the signs of codependency to look out for:

  • Excessive feelings of guilt or indebtedness within the context of your relationship.
  • A conviction that you wouldn’t be able to cope in life if your partner left you.
  • Issues around communication within your partnership.
  • Ongoing resentment about how much you ‘give’ to the relationship.
  • Feeling like you have to do or say the right things in order to be loved.
  • Taking your partner’s feelings personally, or being afraid to express yours.
  • A lack of time for your own hobbies and interests in favor of theirs.
  • Waiting for ‘permission’ from your partner for much of your decision-making.
  • Anxiety around doing anything without your partner.

How to Get Out of a Codependent Relationship

Speaking to a couple’s counselor or embarking on individual coaching or therapy is one of the best ways to start exploring any codependent dynamics in your relationship. A trained therapist will be able to help you untangle all of the confusing emotions, and gain some clarity about what insecurities and attachment issues you and your partner are bringing to the relationship. It’s definitely possible to heal these dynamics if both parties are willing to do the work. You may also find that working through your own issues will help you build the self-esteem to leave a toxic environment, and move on to a healthier relationship with strong boundaries and mutual respect.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Measuring Codependency; It’s The Little Things: Everyday Gratitude As A Booster Shot For Relationships; The Lived Experience of Codependency; Codependency and Relationship Dimensions; The Relationship Between Codependency and Divorce; Co-dependency: An empirical study from a systemic perspective

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