How to Tell if a Relationship is Codependent

This content has been updated from previous article on December 1, 2020.

It’s impossible to tell exactly how many people are in codependent relationships of some sort. But some experts estimate that up to 90 percent of Americans show some signs of codependency. Some of those signs lead to full-blown codependent relationships, which are unhealthy for everyone involved.

Healthy relationships are built on mutual love, trust, and support. Healthy interdependent relationships distinguish each individual’s needs, and each partner makes an effort to support each other’s emotional and physical need without being demanding or controlling of the other. Healthy boundaries are also set between each partner, and communication styles clearly defined.

How can you know if any of your relationships are codependent? First, it’s important to understand what “codependency” really means and compare your relationships to some common examples. Then ask yourself a few key questions to determine if you could use more independence in your important relationships.

What is a Codependent Relationship?

In a codependent relationship, one person sacrifices their personal identity and needs in order to please the other person. This person is commonly known as the “giver.” It is very common for “givers” to have an anxious attachment style.

Anxious attachment style is one of the four primary attachment styles in attachment theory, popularized by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It is a psychological framework that describes how individuals form emotional bonds and connections with others, particularly in relationships (with parents, between romantic partners, or close friends). “Givers” and anxious attachment style are closely intertwined, since anxious attachment style is characterized by heightened need for emotional closeness, reassurance in relationships, and fear of abandonment or rejection.

The term “codependent relationship” is most closely tied to romantic relationships, such as between spouses. However, people can have codependent relationships with parents, siblings, children, friends, and more. Codependency can even be found in the workplace.


Interdependent vs. Codependent Relationships

Far beyond healthy dependency, codependent relationships take clinginess to the extreme and are unhealthy for everyone involved. In general, the person who sacrifices their own well-being is called the “codependent” in the relationship while the other person is the “enabler.” In Lehman terms, the “codependent” is the giver, and the “enabler” is the taker.

Neither person is necessarily being malicious or purposefully harmful in these relationships. Instead, it’s more likely that both parties aren’t even aware that the relationship isn’t typical.

It is normal and healthy to depend on people in your life for some things, and they can also rely on you. When two people form a relationship that is mutually beneficial without sacrificing their independence, this is a healthy interdependent relationship.

Interdependence (healthy) becomes codependency (unhealthy) when one person derives their satisfaction, identity, and self-worth out of making the other person happy.

In a relationship with healthy dependency, both people:

  • Find equal value in the relationship
  • Provide and receive support
  • Have interests, values, and hobbies outside the relationship
  • Feel free to express their feelings
  • Make the relationship priority, but not the only priority in life

In codependent relationships, one person:

  • Does not feel like their emotions are important enough to express
  • Sacrifices so much for the other person that they damage their other relationships, work life, or mental health
  • Does not have an identity outside of their relationship to the other person
  • Only feels worthy and valued if the other person needs them

The enabler in the relationship only feels happy if the codependent person meets all their needs. This creates a cycle of codependency.

Warning Signs of a Codependent Relationship

When you find yourself in the midst of a codependent relationship, it can be incredibly challenging to recognize and acknowledge the unhealthy dynamics at play. This difficulty arises regardless of whether you are the enabler or the codependent person in the relationship.

Codependency is a complex and often subtle pattern of behavior that develops when two individuals become overly reliant on each other for emotional support, validation, and a sense of identity. In such relationships, boundaries become blurred, and personal needs and desires are often sacrificed in order to maintain the connection.

For the enabler, it can be particularly difficult to recognize the unhealthy nature of the relationship. Enablers tend to have a strong desire to help and fix others, often at the expense of their own well-being. They may feel a sense of responsibility for the codependent person’s happiness and believe that their own worth is tied to their ability to meet the other person’s needs. This can lead to a cycle of enabling behavior, where the enabler constantly sacrifices their own needs and enables the codependent person’s unhealthy patterns.

On the other hand, for the codependent person, it can be equally challenging to identify the toxicity of the relationship. Codependents often struggle with low self-esteem and a fear of abandonment, making it difficult for them to assert their own needs and establish healthy boundaries. They may become overly reliant on their partner for validation and a sense of self-worth and may even feel a sense of guilt or shame when attempting to assert their independence.

In both cases, the codependent relationship can become a vicious cycle, with each person reinforcing and perpetuating the other’s unhealthy behaviors. This can lead to a deepening of the codependency, making it even more difficult to break free from the toxic patterns.

Recognizing the signs of an unhealthy codependent relationship is crucial for both the enabler and the codependent person. These signs may include a lack of personal boundaries, an excessive need for approval and validation, a fear of being alone, an inability to make decisions without the other person’s input, and a constant sense of anxiety or unease when not in the presence of the other person.

Once the unhealthy dynamics are identified, it is important to seek support and professional help. Therapy can provide a safe space to explore and address the underlying issues that contribute to codependency. Through therapy, individuals can learn to establish healthy boundaries, develop self-esteem, and cultivate a sense of independence.

You might be in a codependent relationship if you or the other person:

  • Put vastly unequal amounts of effort into the relationship
  • Want to fix or change the other person
  • Have no boundaries with the other person
  • Do not have separate interests
  • Don’t put effort into other important relationships
  • Lose all contact with other loved ones
  • Ask for permission before completing basic tasks
  • Encourages the other person to partake in unhealthy habits, like drug use or binge drinking
  • Constantly need reassurance about the state of the relationship
  • Frequently break-up, only to reunify soon after
  • Make excuses for the other person’s behavior

Having one or two of these signs does not necessarily mean that the relationship is codependent. However, it might be worth investigating further with a therapist or working on creating interdependence.

How to Fix a Codependent Relationship

If any of your important relationships show signs of codependency, don’t lose hope. This realization can be the brave first step in a journey to a happier relationship with yourself and the other person.

Breaking free from a codependent relationship is a challenging and complex process that requires a great deal of self-reflection, courage, and determination. Codependency is a dysfunctional pattern of behavior in which one person excessively relies on another for their emotional and psychological needs, often at the expense of their own well-being. This type of relationship is characterized by an unhealthy imbalance of power, with one person assuming the role of the caretaker or enabler, while the other becomes dependent and unable to function independently.

To break free from a codependent relationship, individuals must first recognize and acknowledge the unhealthy dynamics at play. This can be a difficult step, as codependency often involves a deep emotional attachment and a fear of being alone or abandoned. However, it is crucial to understand that codependency is not a healthy or sustainable way to relate to others.

Once the codependent patterns have been identified, individuals must then work on developing a strong sense of self and building their own self-esteem. This involves setting boundaries and learning to prioritize their own needs and desires. It may also require seeking therapy or counseling to address any underlying issues or traumas that may have contributed to the development of codependent behaviors.

Breaking free from a codependent relationship also requires individuals to develop a support system outside of the relationship. This can involve reaching out to friends, family, or support groups who can provide guidance, understanding, and encouragement throughout the process. It is important to surround oneself with people who can offer a healthy and balanced perspective on relationships and provide the necessary emotional support.

Additionally, individuals must be prepared for the possibility of resistance or backlash from the other person in the codependent relationship. The person who has been dependent may struggle with the loss of control and may attempt to manipulate or guilt-trip the individual seeking to break free. It is important to stay firm in one’s decision and to seek support when facing these challenges.

Breaking free from a codependent relationship is not a linear process and may involve setbacks and moments of doubt. It is important to be patient and kind to oneself throughout the journey, as healing and growth take time.

With perseverance and a commitment to personal well-being, individuals can break free from codependency and cultivate healthier, more fulfilling relationships in the future.

Codependent relationships can become healthy if both people commit to:

  • Being honest with yourselves and each other
  • Creating healthier thought patterns
  • Spending time away from one another
  • Establishing and respecting boundaries

Many people find that achieving all these goals is difficult alone. Qualified relationship therapists and counselors can help. A licensed therapist can be a neutral third party who can help you explore your feelings, understand what’s healthy, and work toward a better future together.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults.

Reviewed By

Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S
Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

Nicholette is a faculty member at John Carroll University’s Clinical Counseling program, and she is also the host of the LifeStance podcast, Convos from the Couch.