What to watch out for and getting help
People need other people. We are relational creatures, but our relationships can take on unhealthy characteristics. Sometimes, we require help from experienced clinicians or counselors to work through relationship difficulties. Other times, we need to create boundaries or limit our contact with certain people.
One type of unhealthy relationship is a codependent relationship. Codependent relationships should not be confused with simply needing another person or having someone in your life who needs your help. Rather codependency involves an unwholesome relationship where one person is doing all the giving, and the other person is doing all the taking.
It's essential to recognize the signs of a codependent relationship to avoid it in your relationships and to get the right help if you find yourself in a codependent relationship.
What is a Codependent Relationship?
People need each other. In relationships, we often need to yield our desires to what is best for the other person or the relationship overall. This dynamic can be healthy and beneficial to our well-being as social creatures.
But a codependent relationship is when the "give and take" is no longer mutual. Instead, one person becomes the leading supporter while the other becomes the sole "taker" This dynamic can then contribute to non-beneficial behavior, such as the supporter encouraging addictions or other destructive actions. And supporters may also neglect their own needs or participate in other self-harm activities (Psychology Today, n.d. & Bortolon et al., 2016).
Difference between codependency and being in a codependent relationship
Mental Health America explicitly describes the behavior codependency. It attributes this behavior to the person who is the "giver" in a codependent relationship. Codependent people may have the following characteristics or act in the following ways:
Make excuses for the "taking" person in the relationship and may try to cover for the taker's behavior.
May experience problems with addiction themselves, in part as a coping mechanism.
Want to feel needed, recognized, and approved of, to the extent of staying in unhealthy relationships or engaging in destructive behavior.
Struggle to set boundaries or say no
Examples of a Codependent relationship:
The idea of codependency first came about to help describe the dynamic where one person in a family or couple had an addiction (Psychology Today, n.d.). A codependent relationship can take on many forms, and it doesn't always have to be a romantic relationship. But romantic relationships can be quite detrimental when they are codependent.
The exact nature of a codependent relationship will depend on individual factors, but here are a few potential examples:
A husband (the taker) has a severe alcohol addiction that leads him to neglect his at-home and work responsibilities. His wife (the giver) often works to cover up that he has a problem and mitigate the consequences of his choices. She has also had to take on responsibilities that her husband had initially promised to fulfill.
An older adult (the taker) has a chronic illness. Her adult son (the giver) is her primary caregiver. While she can still do many activities for herself, her son takes over what she can do because he thinks it's easier and faster. This takes the workload off of her but, in the end, causes her to lose independence and function.
A mother (the giver) still takes care of her adult child (the taker.) Her daughter rarely does work for herself and has not shown ambition to get a job or an advanced education. The mother continues to give her daughter money and even covers up for her daughter's irresponsible behavior. The daughter then feels free to pursue unhealthy behaviors, including drug use.
While multiple factors contribute to these situations, codependent relationships are when too much of a good thing becomes bad. It is not bad to be a caring person to others or to help someone who is struggling. It becomes a problem when there are unhealthy levels of self-neglect or when a giver ends up hurting or enabling the taker.
For example, in the situation of the wife and the husband with a drug addiction, it is helpful for the wife to share the load of household duties. But she is not helping her husband by covering up for his bad behavior and discouraging him from getting the professional help that he may need.
(Psychology Today, n.d.)
What signs should I be watching for if I think a relationship in my life is codependent?
Honest self-evaluation can help you identify a codependent relationship or risks for this sort of relationship developing. It can be helpful as well to identify your tendencies. For example, if you were to find yourself in a codependent relationship, would you likely be the giver or the taker?
You may also need help from someone outside the situation to help you evaluate if your relationship is codependent. But look for the following components as you evaluate:
One person doing the majority of work that should typically be shared.
One person feeding into someone else's destructive behavior, such as by making excuses or covering it up
The presence of abuse or addiction that is covered up or encouraged. (While not distinct signs of a codependent relationship, abuse and addiction can be present and worsen the problem.)
If you think you may be a giver, ask yourself the following questions:
Do you find your identity exclusively tied to this relationship? (It's okay for your relationships to be part of who you are, but they are not the only thing that makes up your identity.)
Do you see yourself as a rescuer who wants to save the other person? Do you find that pity and love are deeply connected for you?
Do you make excuses for others' behavior or go to great lengths to avoid confrontation or conflict?
Do you struggle with self-worth and find that you need approval from other people?
Do you lack support outside of the codependent relationship?
Do you find yourself neglecting self-care?
(Mental Health America, n.d., WebMD, 2020, & Raypole, 2021 )
Why codependent relationships are so destructive
Codependent relationships can be detrimental to the well-being of everyone involved, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
For takers, it can prevent them from getting the help they need. For example, suppose a taker has a drug or alcohol addiction. In that case, the taker may continue in the habit and fail to seek help. Suppose a taker is lazy and not taking responsibility. In that case, they may continue to do nothing if the giver is doing everything already.
It is important to note that all people are ultimately responsible for their actions. So in cases of abuse or addiction, you as the giver are not responsible for the taker's actions. But codependent relationships can discourage the taker from changing.
Codependent relationships also hurt givers. Givers may take on more responsibility or neglect their own needs. They may have poor health as a result of these actions. They may also have problems with mental well-being. They may struggle with personal identity and refuse to set boundaries. In addition, they may turn to unhealthy coping strategies to help deal with the relationship, such as drug or alcohol use.
(Mental Health America, n.d. WebMD, 2020, & Bacon, McKay, Reynolds & McIntyre, 2018)
Getting the help you need
The level of help you may need in managing a codependent relationship will vary. It will depend on several factors:
Who is involved in the codependent relationship and the nature of the relationship
If the other person involved has acknowledged the problem.
The seriousness and manifestations of the codependent relationship
Acknowledging this type of relationship dynamic can be one of the first steps in learning to grow and change. You may need help from professionals and other family members throughout the process. If both you and the other person acknowledge the problem, it can make the steps of getting help more beneficial for both of you.
The taker needs to admit problems like addiction or other destructive behaviors. As they acknowledge these problems, they can take steps to change. This may involve help from people like therapists, doctors, and spiritual leaders. The taker can also work to encourage the giver and actively help by taking on more responsibility. Open communication will be critical throughout the process.
Givers may need to work through components like past childhood trauma or instances of abuse with a licensed mental health expert.
As the giver in the relationship, you may need to work on the following components to help you build strong relationships and sometimes to work through your current, codependent relationship:
Practicing components of good self-care.
Learning to set boundaries so that you do not feed into destructive behavior.
Establishing and fostering support systems outside of the codependent relationship.
Expressing your emotions and learning healthy outlets to deal with your emotions.
Learning to ask for help from others.
(Raypole, 2021 & Psycology Today, n.d.)
Your relationship may not exhibit all the signs of being codependent. But that doesn't mean you can't seek help. Early identification and intervention can be quite helpful in the long run. Open communication between you and the other person in the relationship is critical. You both need to help each other and come at the relationship understanding that both of you will need to give and receive.
You may be able to get help from a relationship counselor early on. This can help you identify potential pitfalls and plan how to overcome them. A neutral third party can also help you learn how to set boundaries and resolve conflicts before your relationship becomes codependent.
You are not alone
It is good to ask for help. Relationships are part of who we are, and they shape many aspects of our mental well-being. You do not have to handle a codependent relationship on your own. You can get help, and asking for it is a courageous thing to do.
Developing healthy relationships is not always easy, but it is possible. And as people mature and grow, so can their relationships.
Bacon, I., McKay, E., Reynolds, F., & McIntyre, A. (2018, August 21). The lived experience of codependency: An interpretative phenomenological analysis - international journal of mental health and addiction. SpringerLink. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11469-018-9983-8
Bortolon CB, Signor L, Moreira Tde C, Figueiró LR, Benchaya MC, Machado CA, Ferigolo M, Barros HM. Family functioning and health issues associated with codependency in families of drug users. Cien Saude Colet. 2016 Jan;21(1):101-7. doi: 10.1590/1413-81232015211.20662014. PMID: 26816168.
Contributors, W. M. D. E. (2020, November 23). Codependency: 6 signs to look for. WebMD. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/signs-codependency Reviewed by Dan Brennan, M.D.
Mental Health America. (n.d.). Co-dependency. Mental Health America. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://www.mhanational.org/co-dependency
Psychology Today. (n.d.). Codependency. Psychology Today. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/codependency
Raypole, C. (2021, June 10). Are you codependent? here are the key signs of codependency. Psych Central. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/symptoms-signs-of-codependency