The term codependency is bandied around a lot these days – sometimes too much. Many people mistakenly think of codependency as one partner being too “needy”. But it’s important to say that we all need each other from time-to-time, and seeking reassurance and support from our partner is healthy and natural.
Inevitably, life throws us ups and downs – typically at different times – so it’s normal to find one partner feeling more vulnerable than the other, and needing more support. But typically, the pendulum swings back round again, and the couple switches supportive roles. Even though that might “look” different on the outside, that support is felt and experienced within the relationship.
In an equal, balanced relationship, both individuals are able to get their needs met, both through their connection, but also in their hobbies, interests and friendships outside of the relationship.
With codependent relationships, this balance is out of whack. One person gives, and the other takes. But importantly, both individuals need each other in order to feel “whole”.
Codependency doesn’t just exist in romantic relationships. It can happen between friends and family members too. But for the sake of ease, we’re going to focus more specifically on codependency within the context of a romantic relationship here. But it might be helpful to see whether you notice any of these same characteristics in your other relationships too.
Characteristics of codependent relationships – how do I know if I’m in a codependent relationship?
- You find it difficult to cope with day-to-day life without the input and support of your partner.
- You plan your entire life around your partner.
- One of you “needs”, and the other one enjoys feeling needed, playing the role of caretaker.
- You hate being alone for any length of time.
- You find your self-worth through your partner.
- One of you struggles to voice – perhaps even identify – that they have needs.
- You don’t trust your own judgement, and need a lot of reassurance. Seeking reassurance might extend outside of the relationship too, into work, friends, family etc.
- There’s a lot of anxiety in the relationship, with at least one partner feeling the need to “please”.
- You don’t feel whole without your partner.
What is the root cause of codependency?
Codependency can often be traced back to childhood, to the relationships we had with our parents (or primary caretakers). It usually happens when we had parents who were either overly protective or under protective.
Overprotective parents hold their children back from building the confidence needed to move out into the world. There might have been anxieties around trying new things (“you can’t go on the slide because you’ll hurt yourself”) or you might have been so mollycoddled that you never learnt how to do basic tasks like cooking or washing your clothes.
These kinds of parent-child relationships are often enmeshed as well, with limited personal boundaries. Perhaps a parent treated you more like a friend, sharing secrets with you, over-involving themselves in your life and including you in daily decision-making. The parent keeps the child dependent on them by reinforcing dependent behaviours and discouraging independent behaviours. In these cases, aside from not developing the confidence to take care of yourself, there might also be a guilt attached to even wanting or needing your own life.
Under protective parents, on the other hand, build the basis for codependency by not providing their child with enough support. Independence is something that needs to be found gradually, over time. We need to be provided with a safe and secure base as a child in order to feel confident enough to build our own security. Missing this vital step can leave a child feeling very alone and unsafe in the world. Some children with under protective parents might find that they overcompensate for this feeling by becoming overly autonomous, rejecting any needs for guidance and support. But despite this, the underlying fears and sense of aloneness will be difficult to shake.
Likewise, children who grew up with an alcoholic parent/s can easily find themselves in codependent relationships in later life, because the pattern of neglecting their own needs for the needs of another is so familiar.
How to fix codependency
First off, be kind to yourself. If you relate to any of the above, you’ve fallen into a pattern of codependency because your needs were not met fully as a child. You did what you had to in order to survive and find connection. It was actually incredibly smart at the time! It’s just not serving you – or your relationships – right now.
Fixing codependency is about healing your inner child. Reconnect to yourself and your own needs. What were you lacking as a child? Were you left to your own devices and just expected to “get on with it”? Or perhaps your parents were “everything” to you but you also felt slightly smothered? Try and pinpoint where this stems from.
Get clear on the things that make you afraid. Write them down on a list if it helps. Inner confidence is built gradually, through mastery. Once you’ve identified your fears, start small and work your way upwards. If you find that you over-rely on your partner, try your best to resist the urge to look for reassurance. Trust your own judgement. With each small step that you take, you’ll slowly build up your confidence. Everything you need is already right here with you. Believe in yourself.
If you and your partner do everything together, find a hobby or activity that you can do outside of the relationship. If you’re not sure, think back to the things you enjoyed doing as a child and take up something new. Your partner will never be able to fulfil your every need. Build a life that is full and varied – and which isn’t only centred around them.
Therapy – either individual or couples – can be really beneficial in helping you unravel where this pattern of dependency stems from so you can break the cycle. A therapist will help you identify your needs and build your self-worth enough to realise that you are worthy of them.
The security you’re craving is already inside of you. You have the power to give it to yourself – you only need to realise it.