It goes without saying that there are many different types of relationships. What floats one couple’s boat will almost certainly not suit another. However, we, as relationship experts, can make some general observations about what makes for healthy and unhealthy relationships. We’ve seen enough of them.
That’s why we recognize that it’s the troubling relationship dynamic mixed with the distinct lack of healthy boundaries that makes codependent patterns of behavior* so damaging.
Let’s take a step back though.
When they hear the term codependency with regard to a relationship, people often think it means simply that one partner is particularly needy. But in fact, codependency is much more complicated than that.
In the worst case, codependent behaviors can lead to extremely dysfunctional relationships, an imbalance of power and poor mental health outcomes. For codependent people, it can feel that their life centers on pleasing their other half, often sacrificing everything to keep them happy. They might feel their entire purpose and sense of fulfillment is bound up in the acceptance and satisfaction of their romantic partner. And they might be happy to ignore their own wants and needs in order to achieve that.
The partner on the receiving end of this 'giving' nature is often only too happy to have all of their needs met. And indeed, to have their worst traits and habits enabled. This results in a cycle of destructive behaviors - a cycle of codependency - that can quickly lead to the emotional or physical abuse that is so often present in these types of toxic relationships.
While we find that 'givers' often display low self-esteem and find it hard to be assertive and set healthy boundaries, the problem doesn’t end there. Those on the other side of the relationship are not displaying particularly healthy behaviors either. It is quite common to find issues such as drug addiction and mental health problems in those that are doing all the ‘taking’. And sadly, these habits are often exacerbated by the cyclical nature of codependency.
It really is a vicious circle.
As with so many aspect of behavior, it is thought that codependent traits stem from childhood relationships and experiences. A lot of damage can be done wen we're not given the opportunity to learn about healthy relationships.
If we grow up being taught to put other people’s needs before our own it can easily become a learned pattern. And it may even mean we seek out codependent adult relationships when we are older. This could happen, for instance where a parent suffers from alcohol abuse or addiction to drugs. Or it might be that they were simply selfish about putting their own needs first.
Either way, once these behaviors become ingrained it can be hard to break free from them.
There are two schools of thought on this – both of which have some merit.
Codependent No More is written by US self-help queen Melody Beattie. It’s a popular book with some good insights. Many people find the format extremely helpful, but we can’t necessarily recommend the codependency quizzes that are included.
In fact, we prefer The Courage to Cure Codependency by Leah Clarke as an aid for the recovering codependent. The idea that you might not be a codependent person, but instead be acting codependent because of the situation you find yourself in can come as a relief. And we find it leaves less room for questioning your entire being.
If you’re wondering whether you might be codependent, we advise examining the qualities of your current relationships:
1. Do you feel your partner displays positive traits? Or do they come over to you as controlling, toxic or even narcissistic?
2. When you respond to your partner’s behaviors do you respond in a way that is true to yourself or in a way designed to preserve the relationship and not ‘rock the boat’?
3. Have you ever acted in this way in a previous relationship? Is this common or not?
If you believe you have identified some codependency patterns in your behavior, it may be worth trying to look into why this occurs. A professional relationship therapist will be able to help you examine your childhood experiences and attachment style in order that you can move forward in a healthier way.
*We should note that codependent behaviors can be found within friendships and families, not just within romantic relationships, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll concentrate on the impact of codependency on non-platonic relationships.