Codependency in Relationships: 10 Tips for Recognizing and Breaking the Cycle

When you are in a relationship, it’s crucial to be able to rely on your partner for support. When you are super stressed or down and out, it’s good to know that there is someone who loves you and has your back no matter what. But there is such a thing as being TOO reliant on your partner. If either you or your partner are too dependent on the relationship, then you might be in a codependent relationship. Codependency is defined as extreme emotional or psychological reliance on a partner. In normal, healthy relationships, both partners are able to rely on each other in a way that allows for individual growth and fulfillment. But in a codependent relationship, one person is often the emotional and psychological support for the other one, playing the role of the caretaker, while the other has their every need attended to. Both partners typically like their role and enable the other, which is what often makes codependent relationships cyclical. The caretaker likes feeling needed, and the other person likes being taken care of and having the constant support of the partner. Some psychologists refer to this role as the caretaker, while others call this person the enabler because they feed into their partner’s need for approval and support.

While both partners can be fulfilled in the role they play in a codependent relationship, that doesn’t mean that it is healthy. If you recognize codependent patterns in your relationship, you and your partner should work towards addressing your codependency. It is important to know that it is possible for codependent couples to become more independent, if they are able to break the cycle of codependency. But, the first step in breaking the cycle is recognizing that there is a problem.

Here are some things to look out for if you are concerned that you may be in a codependent relationship:

* Extreme people pleasing

One key sign to a codependent relationship is when one partner is an extreme people pleaser. This partner (the codependent partner) will often overlook their own wants and needs (or refrain from sharing them) so that they can please their partner. The codependent person often feels as if the support of their partner is essential to their worth, and so they bend over backwards to try and appease and accommodate their partner. While compromise is an important part of every relationship, it’s important that both partners are compromising. If one partner always gets their way, while the other has to make all of the sacrifices, then this is a sign of a codependent relationship. Constantly sacrificing your preferences is a sign of people pleasing, not compromise.

* Lack of boundaries

In codependent relationships, there are often a lack of boundaries that are necessary for a healthy relationship. Creating boundaries provides partners with autonomy and establishes that each partner is responsible for their own happiness and emotional state. In codependent relationships, partners often rely on each other for everything, which means that no one has autonomy. The lack of boundaries normally arises because one person doesn’t recognize or need boundaries, and the other one doesn’t enforce the boundaries that they need. This lack of boundaries causes the people-pleasing partner to give all their time and energy to their partner, which is not sustainable for a healthy relationship.

Of course, there is a range of different kinds of codependent relationships, but it is important to note that these relationships can often become abusive because of the inherent power dynamic between caretaker/enabler and the dependent. Abusive relationships are more common in relationships that lack boundaries.

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* Low self-esteem

Codependent relationships are often rooted in low self-esteem on behalf of one or both partners. The codependent partner (the person who seeks the approval and support of the other), may need constant affirmation and emotional support because they do not believe in their own self worth. They might not think that they are worthy of love, and so they accept a strenuous relationship that gives them purpose. They feel like it’s necessary to sacrifice everything in support of a partner in order to have purpose in the relationship and in their life. The caretaker/enabler partner also probably has low self esteem and needs to feel needed by their partner in order to feel purposeful. This is a great example of the cyclical aspect of codependent relationships. Both partners feed into the other’s need for approval, because they need that approval to feel good about themselves.

* Reactivity

In codependent relationships, it’s common for both partners to be reactive. The codependent person’s identity is based on people pleasing which causes them to be overly concerned with the other’s well being and, perhaps, out of touch with their own needs. If you are constantly trying to please your partner, you will most likely be reacting to their actions and wants, rather than acting in a proactive way. This also has to do with the lack of boundaries that we talked about. Codependent people tend to internalize their partner’s emotions and take responsibility for them which can cause them to act in a reactive way.

The caretaker/enabler role is also a reactive one. Constantly having all of your needs indulged by a codependent partner often leads to a sort of entitlement can also cause people to become reactive. They expect their partner’s to give into their every whim (which they usually do), so in the rare case that this does not happen, or if other people in their lives don’t act similarly, they can become reactive.

  • High levels of anxiety

While it’s common to have low levels of anxiety at different stages in a relationship (think of the butterfly stage, anxieties about taking the next step, etc. etc), your relationship should not be characterized by high levels of anxiety all of the time. In codependent relationships, the codependent person often feels high levels of anxiety related to pleasing their partner and making them happy. Because no person can be happy or pleased all of the time (even if you do EVERYTHING for them), their bad moods will often be the source of a huge amount of anxiety for their partners.

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* Substance abuse

Codependent relationships are common if one person has a problem with substance abuse. In these scenarios, the codependent partner enables the addicts actions by bending over backwards to do things for them, support them and love them despite their destructive, unhealthy behaviors. In these situations the codependent person is actually an enabler to the addict, either knowingly or unknowingly encouraging the addictive behavior because of a need to be needed. This is one of the more serious types of codependent relationships, and can lead to extended addiction, and failure at recovery programs for the addict. If you or your partner have a substance abuse problem that is enabled by the relationship, then this could be a sign that you are in an unhealthy codependent relationship. It’s possible to be in a relationship with an addict that is not codependent if you hold them accountable, and actively support their recovery process. But this can be hard to manage with little experience and other compounding factors that make certain people more prone to codependency in the first place.

If you think that you might be in a codependent relationship, there are some things that you can focus on to try and break the cycle. Of course, this will be a team effort and your partner will need to be on board in order for this to work. Here are a few tips for how to break the cycle:

* Nurturing yourself and your needs

Because a lot of codependency arises out of low self esteem and a lack of boundaries, an important way to break the cycle is to focus on self care and self love. The first step in doing this, is recognizing that you and your partner are both in control of your own emotional state. You cannot rely on a partner or the relationship to make you feel fulfilled. Once you are able to recognize your own agency over your emotions, it’s important to take the necessary time and energy for yourself in the relationship rather than focusing all of your mental capacity on your partner. This can be hard to do (especially if you struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries), but this is absolutely necessary. Once you give yourself permission to take time and energy for yourself, focus on things like self care and self love. Look into mindfulness activities, take up a hobby that you enjoy (also a great way to practice spending time apart as a couple), reflect on how you are feeling. This of course takes time and practice, but if you are both able to nurture yourselves and your needs, then you will be less reliant on a partner to do so.

* Establish boundaries

Like we said above, a lack of boundaries is often the cause of codependency in a relationship, so working to establish boundaries is a great way to try and break the cycle of codependency. We understand that establishing boundaries is often easier said than done, especially when you will have to continually enforce these boundaries in order for them to work. In order to nurture yourself and your needs, you will need to establish boundaries in the relationship. Setting boundaries can look like, “I do not have the time or energy to do that today,” or “I need to take some space to myself this afternoon.” Setting boundaries is all about asking for what you need in the relationship, and not feeling guilty or bad for voicing your needs. Introducing healthy boundaries into your relationship will help break the cycle of codependency.

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* Learning to recognize abusive behavior

Like we said before, codependent relationships run the risk of becoming abusive because there is an uneven power dynamic in the relationship. The caretaker/enabler will often take advantage of the codependent person through manipulation, verbal abuse and even physical and sexual abuse knowing the codependent person is not able to stand up for themselves or leave the relationship. The abuse often plays off of the codependent person’s lack of self esteem and knowing that they won’t leave the relationship because it provides them with purpose. The abuser will often explain how much the codependent person means to them, but will then treat them badly and aim to decrease their feelings of self worth so that they become even more reliant on the abusive partner. Hearing things like “Only I could love you” is a sign of emotional abuse. While it is possible to work through some codependent relationships, it is not possible to fix an abusive relationship. Even if your partner can change, it will come at a great emotional expense that may not be worth it in the end. If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, you should turn to a close friend or trusted professional to make a plan to leave the relationship.

* Therapy

Navigating a codependent relationship, and breaking the cycle can be extremely difficult to do on your own. Especially if you are not able to see the codependent patterns from an objective point of view. If you are in a codependent relationship, it can be helpful to turn to a professional. A lot of therapists specialize in codependent relationship therapy, and have skills and experience helping couples overcome toxic codependency.

* Relish

If you are interested in exploring therapy to address codependency in your relationship, but do not have the time or money to go to a traditional therapist, then you and your partner should explore Relish. Relish is a relationship coaching app meant for modern couples who want to address the struggles in their relationship, including struggles related to codependency.

Relish offers one-on-one coaching, and focuses on goal setting so that you and your partner can achieve your #relationshipgoals and break the cycle of codependency. Don’t wait, try our award winning relationship coaching and self-care app free for 7 days.


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