A codependent relationship is an unhealthy relationship. When someone is “being codependent,” they’re either excessively controlling or compliant in a relationship; don’t practice self-care or have much self-respect; and enable their partner to engage in self-destructive behavior, according to Chris Kingman, LCSW, a psychotherapist in the Flatiron District in New York City.
Some people believe the emotional pain in these kinds of relationships is simply a reflection of their love for each other, he said. However, “healthy love doesn’t cause pain; it heals pain.”
Another common myth about codependent relationships is that partners enable each other’s self-destructive ways out of “love and altruism.” However, Kingman clarified, they really enable each other because that’s “how they’ve learned to feel wanted, and to avoid dealing with their own insecurity and self-esteem issues.”
Below, he shared specific signs of a codependent relationship, what you can do and what a healthy relationship looks like.
Signs of Codependent Relationships:
- You enable your partner’s unhealthy behaviors, and they enable yours.
- You minimize your needs and preferences.
- Instead of growing together, you deteriorate together.
- You feel increasingly bad about yourself.
- Your mood and self-respect are dictated by your partner’s mood and behavior.
- You feel devalued or disrespected by your partner.
- You feel frustrated or angry about how you’re being treated but you don’t speak up. Instead you “waffle between fight — getting into conflicts — or flight — keeping [your feelings to yourself].”
- You feel ashamed and embarrassed about what’s really going on in your relationship.
Because people who struggle with codependency also don’t have high standards for how others treat them, they often pick partners who don’t treat them very well, Kingman said.
“Then because the partner devalues you, you devalue yourself.” Kingman described it in this way: “If he or she treats me well, I feel good about myself, but if he or she treats me bad, I feel bad about myself.”
Recovering from Codependency
“If you see signs of codependency in yourself or in your relationship, the best thing to do is to start educating yourself by reading about it,” Kingman said. He suggested starting with these books: Codependent No More by Melody Beattie and Facing Codependence by Pia Melody.
According to Kingman, recovering from codependency involves revising how you see yourself, how you value yourself and how you respond when others don’t treat you with respect.
He reminds his clients, “Your self-respect should not be for sale, nor is it something you should give away for free. Treat it like a priceless family heirloom that you take good care of so you can pass it down to the next generation.”
Recovery also involves respectfully and effectively communicating your feelings and expectations for your relationship to your partner, especially when they’re being distant, unkind or hurtful, he said.
A healthy relationship is inter-dependent. This means that partners take care of themselves and each other, Kingman said.
“Inter-dependency is about creating a relationship that is mutually satisfying to both partners, where partners give and receive and rely on each other (relatively) equally.”
Of course, sometimes, one partner will carry a heavier load, but over time each partner contributes equally to the relationship, he said. “This is one of the ongoing creative challenges of relationships and requires regular communication.”
When Kingman works with couples he suggests they reflect on these questions with curiosity, honesty and respect:
- What’s working well, and what needs some improvement, in our relationship?
- What do we need and want from each other at this stage of our relationship?
- What do you think is required of me to be a better partner in this relationship?
Healthy relationships involve speaking your truth, being vulnerable, asking for help and receiving compassion and support, Kingman said. This is why healthy love heals. These are “the mechanisms for emotional healing.”
If you are in a codependent relationship, remember that you can recover. Start by seeking out helpful resources, such as books, websites or professional help. By changing how you relate to yourself and to others, you can build a healthy, fulfilling relationship.