Exploring Codependent Relationships

Published on: 12 Sep 2017
Clinically Reviewed by Karmen Smith LCSW, DD 
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Updated on 10/27/2022

Codependency in relationships can often be difficult to understand — and recognize — as it offers a false sense of security, self-worth, and gratification…at least in the beginning. 

What is a Codependent Relationship?

Codependency in relationships is when two people rely on one another in an unhealthy way. The unhealthy relationship will have a giver and a taker, and it’s the codependent person in the giving role who fulfills their sense of self by “being needed.”

The truth about codependent relationships, whether it be a codependent friendship or romantic relationship, is that it is unsustainable, damaging, and harmful to both parties. The toxicity hurts everyone involved, and the cycle can be hard to break unless you know what to look for. 

What signs should you be aware of if you’re concerned you might be in a codependent relationship? Read on to learn more. 

10 Signs of a Codependent Relationship 

There are several important signs you should be aware of. If you’ve ever experienced the following, there’s a good chance you’re in a codependent relationship

1. You feel responsible for their happiness

If you often feel like it’s your responsibility to make someone else happy, and that burden weighs heavily on you, you might be the person who fills the giver role in a codependent relationship

Givers are willing to do virtually anything and everything they can to provide a sense of peace and happiness to their codependent partner, often even at the expense of their own happiness.

2. You’re convinced you need to save them

This can mean you truly believe you must save someone from themself. Givers truly feel that they are their partner’s saving grace. If you firmly believe that someone would be lost without you and that it’s your responsibility to ensure they don’t self-destruct, you may be in a codependent partnership. 

Your caretaker role might mean you cover for addictive behavior or substance abuse, ensure financial stability, or go to great lengths to make sure your partner is successful.

3. You believe they need to change (and you think you can make them)

Caretakers in codependent relationships often think they can fundamentally change their partner. These changes can be related to character — how someone acts, behaves, and thinks — or they can be in terms of beliefs and value systems.

In a healthy relationship, we learn to accept our partner versus believing we can make them change. Codependency in relationships often entails the opposite.

4. You believe their feelings are more valid and important than yours

It is not uncommon for people in caregiver roles to give relentlessly to their partner. You might be willing to sacrifice your own needs and feelings to ensure their happiness. When this dynamic continues in a romantic relationship for too long, some givers can actually begin to feel unsure of their own wants and needs.

5. You need your partner to feel at peace

If you feel like you’re just not OK unless you’re with your partner, you might be a taker in a codependent relationship. When you can’t be responsible for your own happiness, and you rely heavily on someone else to fulfill you in those aspects of your life, it can be detrimental to your overall sense of self. 

Note, this sign can also be a reality for the giver role too. Codependent relationships often have two people who are dependent on each other for their own emotional well-being.

6. You feel worthless unless you’re needed

In a codependent relationship, he might rely on being needed by your partner. Not only are you more than willing to be there for them at all costs, but you might also feel like you lack purpose in life if they don’t need you.

7. You find it hard to be alone

Many people in codependent relationships find it incredibly challenging to be by themselves. Whether you need someone close to you as a source of comfort, or you have the urge to be there as a giver, this is a common sign of codependency in relationships

Comfortably being by yourself is an important skill, though, and it can become an issue if you find this hard.

8. Their tastes become your taste

Giving up your sense of identity and taking on your partner’s likes, tastes, preferences, or dislikes can be a sign of codependency. However, this can become a problem if you are doing so at the expense of your own intrinsic desires and comfort levels.

9. Boundaries lack in the relationship 

Healthy relationship boundaries are virtually nonexistent in codependent relationships. The idea of respecting one another’s limits can eventually become a source of significant stress in your relationship. 

Whether you’re the one crossing boundaries or the one whose boundaries aren’t being respected, the unhealthy behaviors can ultimately cause resentment and distress.

10. You are afraid of rocking the boat

It’s very common for a codependent person to just go with the flow rather than be willing to cause strife. This can be problematic if you’re not getting what you need from the relationship, though. If you’re ready to sacrifice your own needs just for the sake of peace with your partner, you might be codependent.

Causes of Codependency in Relationships 

So, what causes codependency? There can be several causes of codependency in relationships. Some can be easier to identify, while others might take some deep soul-searching. 

“Causes of codependency include lack of self validation, low self esteem, and lack of self worth. This can make a person look for those things from others in their lives. Therapy can help you recognize the negative patterns that are causing you to be codependent.”- Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

Difficult relationships with an under-protective parent or caretaker

Many people who grow up to be codependent in their adult life often learn the behavior as children. If you grew up in a home where your needs were not met or valued, or where you were abandoned by your caretaker, you might have come to believe you’re simply not important.

Codependency can also result when children were responsible for their parent’s needs, rather than the parent taking care of them. If you grew up in a home where addiction was a factor, you might have been forced to be the caretaker to a parent who had a problem with drugs or alcohol.

Difficult relationships with an overprotective parent or caretaker

Much like the under-protective parent, being too protective can also be damaging. Overprotective parents might try to remove any risks or challenges from their child’s life. 

The result can be someone never learning to overcome adversity or recover from rejection. Someone who’s never had to face any challenges in life might feel inadequate and unable to manage their own world as an adult, causing them to seek out codependent relationships. 

Past abuse

Any type of abuse, from sexual, to emotional, to physical, can culminate in behaviors of codependency in the future. People who are abused as children learn to hide their needs or feelings to survive. The behavior can eventually cause someone to internalize that they’re not worthy of love. 

Additionally, people who are abused when they’re young might seek out abusive relationships in the future because it’s what they know. They might become an enabler to a future abuser, feeling the need to deny their own feelings while protecting the person abusing them.

Breaking Codependent Relationship Patterns

Even if the question ‘what is a codependent relationship’ has never crossed your mind, chances are you’ve either experienced or witnessed the behavior. Some research suggests that a significant portion of the population has codependent tendencies. One study found that more than half of college-age students exhibit a high middle level of codependency. 

The good news, though, is that it is possible to break the codependent cycle and create a healthy, positive, mutually fulfilling relationship. When it comes to how to stop being codependent, the catch is both people must be willing to recognize and want to correct the behaviors associated with codependency in relationships.

“If you have identified that you are in a codependent relationship, you should define it as such. Therapy can help you engage in healthier relationships where you feel more confident and self assured.” – Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

If you and your partner are willing to do what it takes to let go of codependency in your relationship, the following tips can help. 

  • Look at your past – An essential part of changing behavior is understanding the source. Where did you learn to be codependent? What happened in your past that caused you to feel comfortable being either the giver or taker in a relationship? Once you identify this, you can work to heal from it. 
  • Examine your values – What are your core values in life, and are you living up to them? For example, if you believe that self care is important, are you doing what you need to ensure you’re making time for yourself in healthy ways? Are you encouraging your partner to do the same?
  • Find a good therapist – Codependent behaviors can be difficult to correct. It might be beneficial to find a therapist who can help you figure out why you’re so comfortable in a codependent relationship. 


Once you figure that part out, they can help you identify and change the thought and behavior patterns you bring to the relationship. Therapy can also be useful in helping you understand your partner’s behaviors as well. When learning to change codependent behaviors, both individual and couples counseling can be incredibly beneficial.

If you’re looking for support or help in navigating how to let go of or repair a codependent relationship, Talkspace has experienced therapists who are ready to work with you and your partner. 

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that makes getting mental health help simple, affordable, and convenient. Learn more about how a Talkspace therapist can help you ditch your codependent behaviors so you can develop healthy relationships in your life.  

Sources:

Crester, G. A., & Lombardo, W. K. (1999). Examining codependency in a college population. College Student Journal, 33(4), 629-637. https://indexarticles.com/reference/college-student-journal/examining-codependency-in-a-college-population/. Accessed September 20, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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