We all feel a sense of comfort when we’re with our loved ones and fear of abandonment is common. It’s normal to want to keep your loved ones with you, wanting to help them out and even, on occasion, making small sacrifices to do so.
A co-dependent relationship, however, goes beyond that. It’s a pattern of unhealthy and often extreme co-dependent behaviours that results in one half of a couple becoming a ‘caretaker’ after the other seeking care and then becoming dependent on it.
In this blog I want to talk through what a co-dependent relationship looks like, how it differs from other relationship types and the common signs of co-dependency to lookout for.
In a healthy relationship, both individuals will give and take equally. When one becomes ill the other will care for them until well again and vice versa, for example. The relationship is balanced equally so both people can get their needs met easily, feel respected and valued, and be able to have a life outside of their relationship through work and with friends.
A co-dependent relationship is dysfunctional. There’s no longer an equal balance of power as one half of the couple begins to increasingly need the other and their partner begins to need to be needed. Both are co-dependent on the other within a “cycle of co-dependency” that neither individual feels able to break.
It’s different from a dependent relationship where one person may need their partner to fulfil their needs, but their partner doesn’t then need to be needed, they’re able to separate the role of caregiver from themselves as an individual. In a co-dependent relationship, individuality is lost, and little exists beyond the relationship itself.
You don’t need to be in a romantic relationship or marriage to be co-dependent either. Co-dependency can occur within any close dynamic including friends and family, “couple” is simply used to mean the two people involved.
Logic would, perhaps, argue that if one has a need for the other who in turn needs to be needed, that all needs are therefore met. Indeed, you may have felt this way yourself if you’ve been in or think you might be in a co-dependent relationship, but if you’re reading this then you know, deep down, that it’s inherently wrong.
That’s because the one needing the additional help and support can often becoming controlling and manipulative to get it. What might have started out as a short-term care fix for the caretaker, such as following a brief illness, support during a period of unemployment, etc suddenly becomes so much more than that, because there always seems to be one additional need to fulfil for the other person. There’s always a new reason why they can’t meet this need themselves, and so a pattern emerges where the caretaker no longer challenges their needs and will not only go along with the status quo but begins to gain self-validation from making those sacrifices and being such a good and caring person.
Unfortunately, gaining self-validation in this way is unhealthy. You become reliant on the other person to feel good about yourself, and this in turn makes it so much easier for them to place higher demands on you.
Often, these behaviours belong to a pattern that stems back to childhood. Maybe you had a parent that demanded much of your time or attention and so you became accustomed to taking on the caring role from a young age and now look to fulfil that role with others. Likewise, if you needed more support as a child due to illness, trauma, etc (whether you did or did not get that help), you may have developed into an adult subconsciously expecting that same level of care, even when no longer needed.
Co-dependency is part of a cycle, but it can be broken. To do that, you need to be able to recognise the signs of co-dependent behaviour so you can kick those habits and replace with healthier alternatives.
It’s normal to want people to like you but if you feel you have to do everything in your power to please others and make them happy, no matter who they might be – that’s a common sign of co-dependent behaviour.
If you’re unable to say no to people, start doing so. When saying yes to something means breaking your boundaries, making a sacrifice or doing something above and beyond what would socially be expected, you are absolutely entitled to say no, and people won’t think any less of you. If they do, chances are they’re also co-dependent and you should probably be steering clear of them.
Whether you’re the needy one or the caretaker, you probably have a difficult time recognising, reinforcing and respecting boundaries. Your feelings are so wrapped up in the other persons feelings that the idea of boundaries is lost. Unfortunately, lack of boundaries naturally leads to one being controlling and the other compliant to maintain the relationship.
Work on identifying and setting boundaries and respecting and reinforcing them too. If you’re unsure how to get started, why not try something new that gives you some distance from your co-dependent partner, taking up a new hobby, attending an evening class, meeting with friends once a week, etc are ways to start doing this (they’ll boost your self-esteem and confidence too!)
Do you ever feel that your default mode is set to ‘react’? Because you’ve become a people pleaser you find yourself ready and waiting for anything that needs a prompt reaction to help others. This can be as simple as jumping into the kitchen when someone mentions they’re getting thirsty.
You might also be finding that you’re more sensitive than you used to be and reacting negatively to others. Always being on the defensive and taking criticism personally are common within co-dependent caretakers.
To break these habits, remember that you’re not responsible for anyone else. Others can make their own drinks (yes, even your needy friend) and criticism isn’t always going to be aimed at you. Try letting others take care of their own needs for a while.
How we view and feel about ourselves is important. It’s common for both people in a co-dependent relationship to have poor self-esteem because one needs the approval of the other and the other is dependent on their partner for getting their needs met. It’s not a healthy position to be in for either person because self-validation from others fosters a sense of insecurity and fear that it might stop soon if you don’t carry on with things the way they are right now.
Finding ways to get validation elsewhere is important to break this co-dependent cycle. It might be through work, a hobby that you can be acknowledged in (like learning an instrument and earning certificates as you progress), studying for a qualification or getting creative and making things you can be proud of. These will boost your self-esteem, help you to identify your self-image as separate from your partner and boost your confidence too.
It’s difficult to communicate effectively when you’re in a co-dependent dynamic. When you’re scared of tipping the balance, of asserting your own needs over theirs and no longer keeping them happy, you’re more likely to stay quiet and compliant. This means they don’t hear what you’re really feeling and needing in the relationship.
Unfortunately, the needy partner may resort to dishonest communication to ensure their control is kept and needs are being consistently met. You might be aware this is the case but feel unable to challenge it because you need to keep them happy.
It’s a difficult situation but until you’ve both learned to communicate honestly and effectively so both voices are heard equally, you won’t be able to break the co-dependency cycle you’re trapped in.
Co-dependent relationships are difficult, but they can be turned around into a healthier dynamic that restores equality and self-esteem to both of you. Counselling is an effective way of doing this, whether alone or as a couple, as it helps you to identify the co-dependent behaviours and habits to break, where they may have come from initially and the inner strength to break the cycle.
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