Understanding how to overcome codependency is tricky because, from an outsider’s perspective, it can simply look like a very invested relationship.
It’s only when you’re in a codependent relationship that you can get a glimpse of how caring too much can wind up being toxic.
Codependent relationships can be deeply soul-sucking and hurtful. If you find yourself inside one—whether it’s a romantic one or one with a family member or friend—here’s how to try and fix things:
What is codependency?
Codependency is “a relationship dynamic that may involve an imbalance of power, where one person tends to play the role of caretaker due to the belief that the other is troubled, in trouble or unable to make decisions,” according to Janet Brito, a Honolulu-based relationship therapist.
It’s also “a behavior that tends to enable negative outcomes,” she said. People may sacrifice their own needs so the other person won’t get mad—but this just leads to a one-sided relationship, according to Brito.
In a codependent relationship, you might find yourself making excuses for your loved one while ignoring reality entirely.
If your romantic partner expects you to take care of all of their needs but constantly berates you for little things, and you insist that it’s not their fault because they’re simply stressed from work and refuse to stand up for yourself, that might be a codependent relationship.
Signs of codependency
Of course, not every unhealthy relationship is a codependent one. It’s also possible for a healthy relationship to have aspects of codependency—after all, the give-and-take of care can swing strongly in one direction or another for periods when one partner needs more support than the other. Here are some signs that a relationship between two people might be codependent:
- One person is always making excuses for the other person, even when it is harmful to them.
- One person often says “yes” to things when they want to say no.
- There’s no healthy and open communication.
- One person is chronically doing things just because they’re scared of disappointing the other person, or they’re doing things just to avoid conflict.
- One person is convinced the other person always knows best.
- One person has extremely low self-esteem and/or feels unlovable.
- One person feels very comfortable giving care but deeply uncomfortable receiving care.
- One person’s mood is entirely dependent on the other’s.
- One person is more obsessed/concerned with the other person’s behavior than they are.
- One person repeatedly overworks themselves to the point of exhaustion to please the other.
- The two people have a set, unbalanced dynamic (“one person is the rescuer, the other person is the enabler,” as Brito put it) that doesn’t change.
- One person has trouble setting boundaries or asserting themselves.
- One person feels worthless or bored unless they’re taking care of the other or solving the other person’s problems.
- One person will drop everything just to make the other person happy.
What is a codependent relationship?
Codependent relationships aren’t just limited to romantic relationships, according to Brito. Codependency patterns may form in all types of relationships.
Any relationship in which you and another person are very close can become unhealthy over time if unequal dynamics are left unchecked. This could be a close friendship, a parent/child relationship or another familial bond.
It could look like this, said Brito:
“Your loved one engages in destructive behaviors (gets into a fight, uses chemical substances, abuses you) and you believe it is your fault,” for instance, or “Your loved one is experiencing trouble and you believe it is your responsibility to rescue them.”
What causes codependency?
Codependency will take slightly different forms for every person and relationship, so it’s hard to point to just one thing as the cause. However, certain things do tend to crop up as potentially increasing someone’s likelihood of falling into codependent behaviors. Brito, for one, points the finger at people’s home life growing up, citing “dysfunctional familial patterns.”
People who end up in codependent relationships, she said, may have experienced “being blamed during childhood for everyday problems.”
“Thus,” she added, “the person believes conflicts are their fault,” rather than recognizing that conflict almost always requires two people.
However, if you learn the lesson that you are always at fault or that you always need to fix things as a young person, these perceptions can manifest themselves in your adult relationships if you don’t work to reverse them.
How to overcome codependency
While it might be your instinct to pull up stakes and walk away, Alana Carvalho, a New York City–based therapist, isn’t sure that’s always the right approach when it comes to overcoming codependency.
“Unless the relationship has become highly abusive, I wouldn’t leave before you see if it’s fixable,” she said.
“Often when people find out they’re in a codependent relationship, they feel like that means they must have to leave it to heal,” Carvalho added. “However, it can be extremely healing (sometimes for both parties) to work it through within the relationship.”
If attempts to heal things don’t work, you’re well within your rights to end the relationship. But before you do that, you may want to try these steps:
1. Be kind to yourself
Step one of codependency recovery, according to Brito, is to extend kindness and care toward yourself.
“Be gentle and compassionate with yourself,” she said. Codependency typically doesn’t come about because of malice. If you’re the person who’s feeling more worn out, it’s important to recognize that this isn’t your fault.
2. Observe your behavior
You’ll want to start paying closer attention to how you behave in the relationship.
“Start becoming your own observer,” Carvalho said. “Notice when you say ‘yes’ to something that actually doesn’t feel right. Notice how your body feels when you tell someone something that actually isn’t true for you.”
3. Think about why you act like this
As you start to notice and recognize some of your behavior patterns, it’s useful to explore why it is that you engage in them. “Gently explore the function of this behavior,” Brito said. “Explore how it has been adaptive and necessary to your survival.”
Always saying “yes” to this person might not serve your long-term interests, but if you’re deeply afraid of losing the relationship, that approach might be a form of trying to protect yourself from that terrifying sense of loss.
4. Ask for your needs to be met
Now comes the trickier part—trying not just to recognize the patterns but to change them. For Carvalho, that means doing the work of asking for what you need, even though you’re not used to it.
“Learn to identify your needs and ask for them to be met,” she said. “This is a tough one! But [first] we need to know what our needs are, and step two is telling the other person in an honest and clear way.”
5. Start with behavior
Healing codependency won’t be easy. That’s why it’s important to make your first strides behavioral rather than emotional.
“The feelings follow the behavior,” Carvalho said. “You must make the behavioral changes before your emotions fall in line. Allow yourself to feel guilty and all the negatives by changing, knowing that eventually your feelings will catch up with your new way of being.”
6. Keep the focus on you
If you’re struggling—and especially if the other person in the relationship is pushing back against the changes you’re trying to make—Carvalho said it’s important to remember why you’re doing this in the first place.
“Keep in mind the changes you are making are for you, not the other person,” she said. “The reason this is important is because even if this relationship doesn’t last, the changes will help you more authentically connect in your other relationships.”
7. Be mindful of your expectations
It can be hard to know how to heal from codependency, and part of that difficulty comes down to what we expect of the process, Carvalho said.
“We often have unrealistic expectations that once we recognize our dysfunction and begin to change, people will gladly honor our new ways of being,” she explained. “Realistically, people most often don’t like change. Give others time to get used to the new you.”
8. Practice, practice, practice
No one starts off knowing how to recover from codependency. We have to learn it, and learning requires practice.
“For most codependents, learning to communicate honestly and without trying to fix the other person can feel very uncomfortable,” Carvalho said. “We usually do it wrong before we do it right.”
“Allow yourself to practice communicating effectively, knowing that it will take time to get to a point where you state your perspective, needs, desires in a way that feels right for you,” she added.
9. Consider therapy
Finally, if you’re looking to learn about recovering from codependency, sometimes a couples counselor or family therapist may be useful in helping both of you untangle from the unhealthy aspects of the dynamic while keeping your love for each other intact.