As humans, we long for connection — especially a romantic connection. We want someone we can share our troubles with, our daily lives with, and hopefully form a family and build a life with. But the success of a relationship depends on the level of emotional connection the two parties feel for one another. Sometimes, how that emotional connection is expressed can be unhealthy.
This is where relationships can begin to take a turn toward codependence. Some people might ask, “Can codependency be healthy, though?”
The short and simple answer is “no.” Codependency does not make for a healthy relationship in any case.
What Is Codependency?
Nowadays, a lot of people use the word “codependency” to describe a relationship where a partner is extremely clingy, needy or reliant upon the other partner. However, codependency within a relationship can be much more extreme than just being “clingy” or “needy.”
According to Medical News Today, codependent relationships are characterized by the fact that “one partner needs the other partner who, in turn, needs to be needed.”
This type of relationship then becomes a cycle between the two partners, where one partner constantly gives and the other always gladly takes.
Can Codependency Be Healthy?
Codependency is almost certainly not healthy.
By nature, a codependent person will begin to plan their life around their partner, or the enabler, and how they can please them. Essentially, this person will not be able to see a difference between where they end and their partner begins. This is known as “enmeshment,” or an intertwining of one’s identity with the other.
In these types of relationships, one person focuses so much on the interests and needs of the other that they suppress their own. Their need to be needed is so strong that they stay around even if all of their other needs aren’t being met.
This is what makes codependency so unhealthy — one partner completely loses themselves in the other because they are trying to feel worthy.
Seven Characteristics of a Codependent Relationship That Make It Unhealthy
Now that you know what codependency is and why it is unhealthy, here are seven characteristics of a codependent relationship to be on the lookout for.
1. Poor Boundaries or No Boundaries at All
In codependent relationships, the boundaries set in place may not be upheld or may be completely nonexistent altogether. In these kinds of relationships, one person may do anything and everything they think necessary to help or enable their partner in order to please them.
Though the enabler in this situation may think they are helping their partner, they are actually crossing boundaries that are keeping their partner dependent on them in order to fulfill their need to be needed.
This can also go the other way around. The partner who is only receiving may disrespect or cross the boundaries of the enabler to ensure that they also keep their partner in the relationship by making them feel less worthy.
2. People-Pleasing Behaviors
As you may have noticed, a large part of codependency is that one partner plays the role of the enabler and consistently tries to meet the needs and interests of the other.
Consistent people-pleasing behaviors like this are unhealthy because they are also a consistent sign that one partner is ignoring and suppressing their own needs and interests. This is bound to result in resentment at some point during the relationship.
Codependent relationships can also be characterized by a level of reactivity. This means that instead of taking the time to process what happened in a situation and then respond, the partner simply reacts out of whatever emotion they are feeling at that moment.
Reactivity can result in things being said that you didn’t want to be said and hurt feelings on both sides.
4. Manipulation and Controlling Behaviors
Codependency is also characterized by manipulation or controlling behaviors. This is due to the fact that one or both partners are looking for the other to validate them and make them feel worthy. They need to feel needed.
If one partner starts to feel better about themselves, the other may feel as if they are not needed anymore. When they feel this way, manipulative and controlling behaviors or actions may be used to keep the other partner down so that they feel they need the other still.
Remember when we said it was a “cycle”? This is that cycle. One partner works to fix, help or rescue the other. Then the other begins to feel better. Then the enabler or caregiving partner puts the other partner down and the cycle begins all over again.
5. Partners Don’t Function as Independent Parts
In codependent relationships, the partners do not feel that they can function as independent people. They lose themselves in the relationship, and it becomes hard for them to see where they end and their partner begins.
A codependent partner plans their life around the other and is mainly concerned with meeting their partner’s needs, goals and interests.
They also have trouble adjusting between seeing themselves as a part of the couple and seeing themselves as a separate, independent person. A person in a healthy relationship is able to slide between the two on a situational basis.
For people struggling with codependency, it may be an all-or-nothing situation. This means they may be totally accommodating to the partner or, alternatively, they may see that partner’s demands as “pure selfishness.”
6. Low Self-Esteem in One or Both Partners
Low self-esteem is a large part of why the relationship may have become codependent in the first place. One or both partners are trying to find their worth and value through the other.
Doing this is extremely unhealthy because that person may not always be around to make you feel validated. Moreover, looking for validation through someone else leaves you open to unmet expectations, which in turn can directly impact how you see yourself.
7. Lack of Interest or Goals Outside of the Relationship
Earlier, we mentioned enmeshment. Enmeshment is when one or both partners intertwine their identities with the other. When this happens, the codependent person can lose interest in their interests or goals outside of the relationship.
In short, they are only focused on the relationship and taking care or being taken care of by their partner. To them, it is as if there is nothing else in the world but this relationship.
What Is Interdependency?
Dependency in a relationship isn’t completely unhealthy. Healthy dependency is also known as “interdependency.” When a couple has interdependency in a relationship, they have a balance between their “self” and their part within the relationship. It recognizes that both partners are committed to their own, as well as their partner’s emotional and physical needs, and will work to meet them in appropriate ways.
In relationships where there is interdependence, each partner is firm in their belief of their worth and value and does not need to find it in their partner. They can function as a couple, but also as individuals. Interdependence is also healthy because both partners make sure their own needs are met, as well as help their partners fulfill theirs.
Here are some characteristics of what healthy dependence looks like in a relationship:
- Boundaries that are understood and respected
- Each partner has interests and goals outside of the relationship
- Clear and effective communication
- Taking responsibility
- Creating safety for vulnerability
- Responses, not reactions
- Healthy self-esteem on both sides
- Being together, but still being independent
When you understand what codependency is and what it looks like in a relationship, it is easy to see that codependency can’t be healthy. But dependence in a relationship will always be necessary to some extent. Just remember that interdependence is a much healthier form of dependence.