Why Co-Dependency Isn’t What You Think and How You Can Avoid It

Annie Gurton

Relationship Therapist

The Ties that Bind …

Co-dependency is not, as some people think, the reliance between two people on each other. It is the dependency that one has on another for approval. The reason why it appears to be on the rise is because it was not defined until the early 1940’s – before that it wasn’t a ‘thing’. Now it is in common parlance.

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Humans are biologically wired to be in relationships, and relationships work best when two people are able to trust one another, lean on one another, and comfort one another. In a healthy relationship, there is a balance between each partner’s ability to be independent and their ability to enjoy mutual support with the other partner. In some relationships, however, one or both partners value the relationship much more than they value their own health and wellbeing. This is called co-dependence.

In fact all healthy relationships have an element of co-dependency, and who takes the role of primary co-dependent can change – first one, then the other. Being in a healthy relationship involves times of being weak and vulnerable, and its normal to want to be liked. We are social creatures and in order to bond we need to be liked. Its only when these become exaggerated that people realise that there is an uncomfortable imbalance, and therapy becomes necessary. ‘Normal’ people want to please their partner too and for their partner to like and approve of them without it being an issue. It’s when someone becomes almost paralysed with anxiety or indecision unless they know that they have the support and blessing of their partner, that they are in an unhealthy zone.

At a superficial level, one partner may have a more powerful job and more income, yet underneath be the more dependent on approval from their apparently meeker or less successful partner. In other words, it’s difficult for anyone outside the relationship (except a professional couples therapist) to understand accurately the dynamic between a couple.

Even if you think your partner is the co-dependent one, there’s a chance that you’ve also had a role in the relationship getting this far — and that means that you’ve enabled their codependency, even if you didn’t realise it. So even if you feel like you have a healthy amount of independence, if you realise that your partner is putting too much into you or into the relationship, it’s time to look at your role.

A strategy of ‘moving towards’ your partner is sometimes recommended as a way of overcoming anxiety, being co-dependent can create feelings of anxiety and self-loathing in the one ‘leaning in’. Maybe the co-dependant believes that they are being weak or irresponsible that they are unable to go through life without the sanction and validation of their romantic partner or family member. Sometimes the one being depended upon (the co-dependee) uses the situation for power, or can be the enabler of unwanted immaturity on the co-depender, or other issues such as addiction. Sometimes one can be a co-dependant in one relationship but not in others. At its extreme, there is something called ‘dependent personality disorder’. In other words, it’s tricky and complex.

Signs that you may be co-dependent include:

1. A sense of purpose that involve making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner’s needs
2. Finding it difficult to say no when your partner makes demands on your time and energy
3. Covering your partner’s problems with drugs, alcohol, or the law
4. Constantly worrying about others’ opinions of you
5. Feeling trapped in your relationship
6. Keep quiet to avoid arguments, and being afraid to show your authentic self
7. A constant sense of anxiety that requires your partner’s validation and approval to appease

Signs that your partner may be too dependent on you may include:

1. Always avoids conflict
2. If they express a view which you disagree with, they change their view to yours
3. You find them pushing boundaries of drug or alcohol use, and look to you to enable them
4. They become uncomfortable and anxious if a disagreement arises – their dislike of conflict is so deep that they will do or say anything to avoid it. (This may feel comfortable to you at first but then becomes irritating.)
5. Reluctance for either of you to have friendships outside yours
6. Needing constant checking in to know where you are and what you are doing

If you feel that your partner is, or is becoming, co-dependent the most important thing to do is talk about it. Set aside a time to talk away from distractions, and open up a dialogue about your concerns. If your partner gets super defensive or avoids having the conversation at all, this is a sign that you are indeed in a codependent relationship.

But no matter how much they resist, it’s a conversation that needs to happen. Your partner’s inability to talk about the issue is a sign that they may really have an unhealthy dependency on the relationship. However it will be caused by factors that are entirely understandable, and can be corrected.

Remember that its normal to be dependent to some degree and you both deserve to be in a happy and healthy relationship.

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