In healthy relationships, there is an equal give and take—keeping in mind the needs and wants of each partner. But what happens if there is an unhealthy imbalance in the relationship, where one partner begins to give much more than they receive?
This is what Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, calls a codependent relationship. While a healthy relationship is about give and take, in a codependent relationship there is a giver and there is a taker.
“Someone who is in a codependent relationship has extreme focus on their partner rather than on themselves,” Dr. Fox said. “Their thoughts and actions, even mood, are based upon someone else’s. They want to appease others at the sacrifice of their own wants and needs.”
Typically, there is one more passive person and another who is dominant. The passive partner, also known as the giver or caretaker, often has difficulty making their own decisions and setting clear boundaries. They’ll say things to themselves like, “I’m responsible for your happiness” or “If I do this for them, they won’t be upset.” Caretakers find it nearly impossible to say “no” to people and may find themselves victims of physical and emotional abuse.
The dominant partner, or taker in the relationship, typically wants control and can benefit greatly from this dynamic. They tend to be narcissistic, self-centered and may suffer from an addiction or personality disorder of some kind. They’ll do and say just about anything to control getting love, attention, approval, and even sex from their partner.
Signs You May Be Codependent
Often at the beginning of any new romantic relationship, it can be exciting and all-encompassing. But here are some signs that what feels like being drunk in love is actually codependent behaviors:
- You are more sensitive to the feelings of someone else’s than your own
- Your sense of purpose involves making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner’s needs
- It is difficult to say no when your partner makes demands on you
- You cover your partner’s problems with drugs, alcohol or the law
- You constantly worry about your partner’s opinions of you
- You feel trapped in your relationship
- You keep quiet to avoid arguments
“It is perfectly normal to identify with some of these signs from time-to-time but not be labeled as a codependent,” Dr. Fox said. “It’s when these behaviors become patterns and they begin to negatively impact your life. If they are, by identifying them you can start changing the way you behave.”
This online assessment, known as the Friel co-dependency assessment inventory, can help assess your level of codependency.
What If I’m in a Codependent Relationship?
“The good news is that you can start new healthy patterns and change for the better,” Dr. Fox said. Dr. Fox shares tips for overcoming codependency:
- Stand up for yourself and set boundaries. “First and foremost, be more assertive about what you need and what you are able to live with,” Dr. Fox said. “Let your partner know what you are and are not willing to do.”
- Start doing the things you enjoy. This may even mean trying and experimenting with new hobbies and activities. Find what brings you personal joy and happiness.
- Reconnect with friends and family. “Reach out and reconnect with those you may have distanced yourself from,” Dr. Fox said. “Often in a codependent relationship, you’ll begin to isolate yourself from others.”
- Speak to a professional. Talk to a mental health provider to rebuild your sense of self and self-worth. You may also want to consider couple’s counseling to help find balance and fulfillment in the relationship. Couple’s counseling has proven to be effective when both partners are willing to change their behaviors and work toward a healthy relationship.
What to Do If My Partner Isn’t Willing to Change
“You’ll have to make the determination if you, as the caretaker/codependent, are going to consistently sacrifice being the rescuer and supporter of this individual,” Dr. Fox. “If you don’t work the steps and change the behaviors, you’ll only become more angry, frustrated and resentful.”
With therapy, soul-searching, and the support of friends and family, you can learn whether your relationship is worth saving or if it’s time to walk away.
If you are concerned you may be in a codependent relationship and need professional help, the licensed professionals with Banner Health’s behavioral and mental health extensive outpatient services are here to help you.