(4 minute read) Do you frequently put your partners’ needs before your own? Do you constantly worry about their behavior, opinions, and expectations? Do you feel responsible for fixing or managing those close to you? And do you suppress your feelings to keep the peace? If so, you may be experiencing what some call codependency and are likely feeling depressed, resentful, or trapped in a relationship. But what is codependency? What does a codependent relationship look like, and how do you fix it?

Define Codependency in Relationships

Codependency is perhaps the most widely used mental health term that does not have an agreed definition. It’s not a formal diagnosis and never has been. Nevertheless, it consistently shows up in the therapy room, on the covers of best-selling self-help books, and is one of the most commonly cited reasons for seeking therapy.

It originally appeared in the 1970s as clinicians attempted to describe the experience of those married to alcoholics. There was concern that caregivers were neglecting their well-being. Recovery groups defined codependency as “people whose lives had become unmanageable as a result of living in a committed relationship with an alcoholic”. Over time, the definition expanded to capture the experience of men and women married to a partner demonstrating other relationship problems, such as emotional abuse, narcissism, or infidelity. It was suggested, in a somewhat blaming tone, that codependent caregivers were somehow predisposed to sacrificing their needs and feelings and to managing relationships. In other words, some of their problems were present before the relationship.

More recently, codependency became concerned with the idea that should the caregiver end the relationship, they would gravitate towards another troubled person, and repeat the same behaviors. Many saw this as placing blame on an individual for the behavior of others. A better direction is learning how to identify and alter codependent cycles in a relationship, whether with a spouse, friend, or family member.

A Definition of Codependent Relationships

Upon reviewing several published definitions of codependency in a relationship, Dr. Greg Dear, a clinical and forensic psychologist, found they generally fall into four categories:

  1. External focus – a preoccupation with the behaviors, opinions, and expectations of another
  2. Self-sacrifice – neglect of own needs to satisfy the needs of another
  3. Emotional inhibition – suppression of opinions, feelings, and preferences
  4. Managing others – behaving as though responsible for fixing or managing another

A person with codependency would often engage in all four behaviors, usually to avoid abuse, an argument, feeling guilty, or other unwanted behavior. While it might achieve the short-term goal of keeping the peace or feeling needed, it rarely, if ever, brings lasting change or happiness.

Codependent Behaviors

Let’s look more closely at these four behaviors:

External focusing – This is a tendency to be overly focused on other people. In particular, how they are behaving, what they are feeling, and what they need. For some, there is an uneasiness when in the presence of that person, as they frantically search for information on what they are supposed to be doing.

Self-sacrifice – This involves taking care of another person at the expense of ones’ own needs. There is a sense of not wanting to inconvenience the other person, to say no, or to feel guilty by attending to yourself. Most often, people believe that they are being helpful but end up feeling resentful for missing out on life and getting nothing in return for their sacrifices.

Emotional Inhibition – This is a tendency to have little awareness of our emotions or, to suppress them until they become overwhelming. Typically, a person may keep their feelings under tight control, not readily speak up when something is bothering them, and avoid confrontation, particularly on emotional topics. At times, it becomes too difficult to hold everything in, and they explode with anger.

Managing Others – This involves the tendency to try and control events and how people behave. There is usually a worry that people and events will fall apart if left unattended. Therefore, they give advice, help out (sometimes to extremes), or otherwise try to exert influence. At times, their desperation to control events or people can result in over-accommodating, enabling, and shielding them from responsibilities. At the opposite end of the scale, managing others can even resemble threats, coercion, or manipulation.

Why Do Some People Develop Codependency?

A difficult or harmful childhood or significant relationship can give rise to many codependent behaviors. For example, growing up in an environment where expressing feelings was forbidden or invalidated, may teach you that it’s best to keep your feelings to yourself. Adopting the role of the caregiver from an early age can persist into adulthood and possibly become exploited. Having a family member or spouse with behavioral or mental health difficulties can make it critical to develop an sharp awareness of their mood and expectations. For example, a critical or controlling parent or partner, one with rigid expectations, or one who was emotionally or physically abusive. When you start to look into it, an incredibly wide range of circumstances can give rise to the behaviors and beliefs thought to underlie codependency.

Therapy for Codependency in Relationships

It is common for those who relate to codependency to feel depressed, resentful, and to have thoughts of running away or ending the relationship. Therapy begins with an opportunity to tell your story and receive a professionals’ help making sense of what is happening. Confronting codependency involves looking in detail at your upbringing and your past and current relationships.

Therapy can help you examine the beliefs that drive your behavior and the way you feel. Schema therapy, for example, can assess and treat a wide range of relationship difficulties related to codependency. Treatment focuses on helping you build confidence, value your needs, express emotions appropriately, and develop healthy expectations for your relationship. A tendency to focus on other people, and to feel a need to manage them should diminish. You can also expect to develop stronger boundaries and learn to enforce them appropriately.

Overcoming Codependency in Relationships for good

Codependency counseling is not about learning to accommodate unacceptable behavior in other people. It is about your own growth. Sometimes this in itself can bring monumental changes in your relationship as your partner adjusts to your healthier interactions. In other cases, it may give you the courage to leave an unsuitable relationship confident you did everything you could and that history won’t repeat itself with a future partner.