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How to tell if you are in a co-dependent relationship

Luisa Williams, CEO & Founder from My Family Psychologist joins us on the blog with her advice on how to tell if you are in a co-dependent relationship.

I can’t live, with or without you. U2’s famous song appears to strike a chord with many of the couples that I have worked with in therapy. The saying ‘can’t live with or without you’ is a struggle faced by many couples. 

You can’t help who you fall in love with, but when does a relationship become more than an intense emotional and physical connection and border into the co-dependency zone? Do you know when that line is crossed?  

It can be hard to distinguish between a person who is ‘clingy’ and a person who is co-dependent. If you suspect that you, your partner or somebody you know is displaying traits of being co-dependent or that you/they may be in a co-dependent relationship, here are some signs to look out for. 

(You don’t need all of them to determine whether you or your partner is co-dependent or whether.)  

Ten tips on how to tell if you are in a co-dependent relationship

1. You or your partner may exercise the need for control.  

Control helps co-dependents feel safe and secure; and to be honest, this is not specific to them.

We all want to feel like we are in control of situations but there is a difference between being in control of the situation and being a dictator of somebody else’s life which is a violation of somebody else’s boundary. 

Sometimes you may not feel like you have control, and that can make you feel like you are being controlled. Co-dependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. 

2. There may be addiction issues.  

This is not true for all co-dependents, but there may be some form of addiction which generally acts as a means to help them relax or to add a sense of order or purpose to their lives. Whether that be substances, alcohol, cigarettes, working or cleaning, this can help them not feel out of control.  

3. You may love the person, but don’t like them.

This may feel like a contradiction in terms, but it is possible to feel love for somebody but not like the things they are doing or how they behave towards you. This can lead to a sense of feeling trapped or unable to leave. 

You need to think about whether the positives outweigh the negative. Work on what isn’t going well and decide how you can work on this. Sometimes it will work out and other times, it won’t. What you risk doing when staying with a person whom you love but don’t want to be with, is resenting that person which is not a feeling that is felt lightly.  

4. You or your partner may experience low self-esteem.  

If you or your partner is experiencing heightened feelings of low self-esteem or feel like you’re are comparing yourself to others, then you may find yourself trying to be comforted or comforting your partner. 

Underneath this veil of low esteem, there may be an underlying issue which is causing this feeling. If everything is going well, you won’t feel bad about yourself and the self-esteem issues should not be there.  

5. There are poor boundaries in place or a lack of boundaries.  

Imagine boundaries as being invisible lines which exist between you and your partner. 

Having boundaries is important to establish the values of relationship, but this also includes your feelings, thoughts and needs. 

This is where co-dependents can get into trouble as they tend to blur the boundary lines and may expect their boundaries not to be crossed, meanwhile overstepping other people’s boundaries. Sometimes, co-dependants can become defensive as a result of having poor boundaries.  

6. There is a lot of ‘people-pleasing’ going on. 

Saying ‘no’ causes anxiety to co-dependants, and they will go out of their way to sacrifice their own needs to accommodate others. 

If you find it difficult to say no to situations and people and feel responsible for others unhappiness or turmoil, then this is only going to cause issues down the line when eventually it will become too much to handle on your own. 

You need to focus on yourself, and if it is impacting your happiness, then you may need to evaluate the situation and not compromise yourself. You may also find little or no satisfaction or happiness in life outside of doing things for the other person. 

7. There feels like a constant push and pull when communicating and interacting with each other.  

At times, co-dependants have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings or needs to others. This can leave the other person trying to guess what is going on, and it will come as no shock that people are not mind readers. 

Often you may be afraid to be truthful because as the old saying goes, ‘The truth hurts.’  You might find yourself pretending to be okay with something to appease the other person or find yourself compromising your own beliefs so that it does not cause upset. 

You or your partner may threaten to leave but then change your mind. Communication can become confusing and dishonest when you try to manipulate emotions or feel like you are being manipulated out of fear.  

8. There may be anxiety, obsessive or paranoid behaviour within the relationship.  

You or your partner may experience thoughts about the relationship or believe that things are happening within the confines of the relationship without any evidence. This is caused by anxieties, fears and dependency about what the relationship means and how it could be destroyed. 

There may be fears about infidelity or being hurt by the other. You or your partner may find yourselves questioning whether the relationship is a mistake and may find yourself lapsing into a fantasy about how you would like things to be as opposed to what they are.  This is to avoid the pain you may feel in the present and keeps you in a state of denial. They won’t reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy. 

9. There may be fears of rejection, abandonment and emotional unavailability. 

Co-dependants need people to like them and want to be around them.

They fear that they will be rejected or abandoned by people close to them, and this may stem from childhood attachments styles and previous experience in relationships. Because of the weak boundaries, they fear that they will be judged, rejected, or left.

 On the other hand, you may fear being smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you’re unavailable. 

Some people find it hard to be by themselves for long periods of time and require constant reassurance. This trait makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even if that relationship is abusive. There is a real risk of co-dependants feeling trapped or potentially making the other person feel that too.  

10. You feel burnout or not do anything you used to enjoy doing  

It is natural in a relationship to compromise as long as both parties agree to this. You may feel like you or your partner tend to get their own way with decision making (whether that be music or films to watch). You may find that you don’t do any of the hobbies or things you enjoyed doing before you got into the relationship or feel that you can’t do them anymore. 

You may feel obligated to spend all your free time with your partner. You may start to feel worn down or exhausted with the relationship and might tend to agree just so there are no arguments. You may start to neglect other important relationships. This can impact your sense of personal identity and might make you question who you are if you enable this behaviour to continue.  

How to change a co-dependent relationship  

It is important to reassure you that anyone can become co-dependent and you are not abnormal if this happens to you. It is important that you do not punish yourself or your partner but seek support to get the relationship back on track if you feel that this is the right thing to do moving forward. If you decide to part ways, that is also okay and you should not feel guilty if this is what you decide.  

Breaking up isn’t necessarily the best or only solution. To repair a co-dependent relationship, it’s important to set boundaries and find happiness as an individual.  

A few things can help in forming a positive, balanced relationship: 

People in co-dependent relationships may need to take small steps toward some separation in the relationship. They may need to find a hobby or activity they enjoy outside of the relationship. 

A co-dependent person should try to spend time with supportive family members or friends. 

The enabler must decide that they are not helping their co-dependent partner by allowing them to make extreme sacrifices. 

Get in touch

If you feel like you are or have been in a co-dependent relationship and feel like you may benefit from some support moving forward, then get in touch with My Family Psychologist. 

We offer different individual therapies as well as relationship and couples therapies. This could be the first step towards a healthier relationship with yourself and your partner. 

Visit the My Family Psychologist website here.

Family law advice 

If you would like any family law advice please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist family lawyers here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Andrew says:

    “Low self-esteem”.

    That phrase always reminds me of an incident in an Employment Tribunal building where there was only a thin partition wall between the men’s loo and one of the retiring rooms. I overheard a bit of the discussion – fortunately not on my case which concerned a male applicant. I clearly heard a (female) voice say:

    No, she has not got low self-esteem: she is just realistic!

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