Don’t know where your needs end and your partner’s needs begin? Learn the phases of codependency to see if it’s time to focus on your sense of self.
It’s common to want our romantic partners to feel loved and appreciated. When you’re in love, it’s natural to want to spend time with your partner and make sure you’re meeting their needs.
But when these ideas are taken to an extreme, it can be unhealthy for both of you. It might feel like a compulsion to prioritize your partner — or an addiction to love.
When you become codependent on a loved one, you might lose a sense of your own needs and emotions. In turn, your partner often begins to rely more heavily on you.
In a healthy relationship, the ability to enjoy some “me time“ can be as valuable as your experiences together. In a codependent relationship, though, partners often only have shared friends and hobbies.
By learning the signs and stages of a codependent relationship, you can identify if you might need to break a codependent pattern. The most important thing to know is that you can break the cycle of codependency.
A codependent relationship often begins with one person putting their partner’s needs above all else — including their own needs, interests, and independence. This behavior in a relationship is called codependency.
While striving to meet their partner’s needs with a sense of desperation, the partner who exhibits codependent behaviors often depends on their loved one to the extent that it can feel like a love addiction.
The codependent partner’s moods commonly depend on their partner’s moods — not their own. They may also take up their partner’s hobbies or only hang out with joint friends.
Overall, codependency often feels like losing your sense of self. This leads to an unbalanced, unhealthy, and enmeshed relationship.
The other half of the partnership may tend to hold more sway over the codependent partner. The attention lavished on them can bring on a desire to control their mate by maintaining the upper hand. This lopsided all-give versus all-take dynamic often results in the attraction between people who exhibit codependent qualities and people who exhibit narcissistic qualities.
This type of behavior can fall into many different kinds of relationships, such as:
- romantic partners
- self-sacrifice and living through (or for) the other person
- a desire to control their partner
- inclination to focus on others
- difficulty identifying and expressing feelings
- valuing the approval of a loved one over self-acceptance
- acting extremely loyal, even if it’s no longer safe for them
- avoiding rejection by jeopardizing their values
- refusing to compromise
- taking on their partner’s feelings
- becoming resentful when their help is declined
When we think of addiction, our minds may immediately drift toward substance use disorder (SUD), which involves substances like drugs and alcohol.
But behavioral compulsions, such as love addiction, don’t meet the criteria for addiction, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).
Research from 2018 outlines several criteria for love addiction, including the following that overlap with codependency symptoms:
- spending a lot of time thinking about your partner
- withdrawing from friends and individual hobbiesto dedicate more time to your partner
- loyalty to the relationship, even if it’s toxic or dangerous
- compromising personal values to maintain the relationship
In contrast to SUD, 2016 research called love a “natural” addiction that can be a common, healthy thing to experience. While 2021 research shows that the end of a relationship can induce withdrawal-like symptoms, they might also be explained as grief.
Like many other issues, codependency can become progressively worse without treatment and can last for a long time.
There are three stages of codependency. Understanding the stages may help you identify your own codependent traits so you can seek help if you need it.
The first stage is the toughest to spot. It can still look like a typical romantic relationship with increased attention and desire to please your partner. However, certain behaviors may creep into the relationship, like:
- obsessively thinking about a partner
- rationalizing problematic behaviors
- having unhealthy boundaries
By this stage, both partners or the codependent partner may be spending less time with their friends or participating in activities they used to enjoy while single.
The signs of codependency become more obvious during the middle stage. Self-esteem commonly drops, and one partner might begin compromising more of themselves to satisfy the other. Inside, they may also feel anger and resentment.
The codependent partner might enable their counterpart or try to control them with:
To hide problems in their relationship, people might withdraw further from family and friends.
At this stage, the codependent partner may look for other coping mechanisms to handle their decreasing mood and the strain of the relationship, such as:
- excessively exercising
- substance use
Once you reach the late stage, relationship stress has likely started to affect your physical body. You might begin to experience symptoms of stress-related disorders like:
- temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder or jaw pain
- digestive problems
- eating disorders
The obsessive behavior that started in the early stage of the codependent relationship typically grows in intensity in the last stage, which may cause:
It may take a hurtful event to recognize a codependent relationship. But when you do identify it, there are ways to reverse its effects.
When there is an uneven balance of power, both parties of the partnership can seek help and recover together. Ending the codependent relationship isn‘t always the answer for getting over a tendency for codependency.
Working with an individualtherapist can be a great place to start identifying codependent patterns and causes. A therapist can also guide you through practices that can help rebuild:
Attending a couples therapist with your partner can be a safe space to learn how to set boundaries and use clear communication techniques.
A 12-step program, such as CoDA, can be a structured way to bring your focus from the other person to yourself in a group setting.
Outside of professional support, aiming to rediscover your individuality can be helpful. You can try spending time alone and pursuing individual interests and former hobbies. Reach out to friends and family to start rebuilding relationships separate from your partner.
Breaking a pattern of codependency is possible. Finding support is often the first step to honoring your own needs.
In a relationship, it’s common to have a certain level of dependence on each other. However, codependency isn‘t balanced — and often isn‘t fulfilling for one or both partners.
It is possible to overcome codependent behaviors and build up your self-worth and independence.
You can start by seeking help from a therapist who can give you the tools you need to thrive independently again — even if you stay in your current relationship.
Psychotherapist Jodi White has a podcast called “Journals of a Love Addict,“ which explores her own experiences of codependency. You can also check out Co-Dependents Anonymous if you want to learn more about codependency and codependent relationships.