How to know if you’re in a codependent relationship, according to psychologists

There are certain things you learn about yourself when you experience growth—and, for me, one of the things I learned was that I was codependent. It hit me hard when I realized I was in a codependent relationship. I didn’t think I was that person. I was independent, self-aware, and had a healthy network of friends and family. And while this was true (and is still true), it became clear while I was going to therapy and when I was looking at therapy Instagram posts on codependency that helped me recognize I have codependent dynamics, too.

The need for frequent check-ins from partners? Check. The anxiety and fear experienced when I didn’t immediately hear back from said partners? Check. The fear of abandonment felt when a friend bailed on a Friday night out or wouldn’t text back? Check. The sense of responsibility I felt to caretake a parent’s feelings? Check. My absorbency of other peoples’ feelings, especially if they weren’t exactly pleased with me? Check, check, check. Even though this is how codependency showed up for me, it can crystallize in other behavioral traits for other people.

“Co-dependency within relationships can show up in many different ways but is most often characterized by a dysfunctional and often one-sided relationship in which one individual is emotionally dependent on the other for their happiness and stability,” Haley Neidich, LCSW, tells HelloGiggles. “However, there is a broad spectrum of co-dependency both in terms of the way it shows up and the severity.”

While the “aha moment” shook me, it was a relief to pinpoint what I had experienced within my relationships and why. Like many of the traumas and baggage we shoulder throughout our adult life, my history with codependency could be traced to my family of origin.

“Codependency often comes from a lack of self-esteem or self-worth, which is typically rooted in the adverse childhood experienced of rejected emotions and an insecure attachment with caregivers,” says Neidich.

Adds Erika Martinez, Psy.D., CDWF, “Generally, it’s a pattern of behavior that someone learns through their early relationships with parents. They tend to have grown up in a household in which they were shamed and their emotions were ignored or punished if verbalized.” Both Neidich and Martinez note that codependency is commonly seen in families where one of the parents has an addiction. “However, some people can exhibit codependency as adults due to the particular circumstances of a certain relationship and never show signs of codependency afterward in other relationships,” says Martinez.

If any of the above sounds familiar, read on for more information and insight about codependency.

What are the signs of codependency in a relationship?

According to Neidich, some of the most common signs of codependency include people-pleasing, poor boundaries, emotional distress, fear of abandonment, poor self-esteem, obsession or preoccupation with the partner and relationship, difficulty communicating, and/or attempts to control the partner.

“Additionally, one of the most common signs is someone who gives up the things that are important to them in their life [for] the relationship,” she says. “For instance, you may often hear these people state about past relationships where they tend to ‘lose themselves.’”

How can someone become less codependent in a relationship?

Becoming aware of my own codependent tendencies was a huge release for me as my past relationships and their patterning finally started to make sense to me. Now I know I can move forward with this knowledge and make healthier decisions for myself.

Martinez agrees that awareness of one’s own codependent behavior is a good start. “This awareness then allows you to choose different behaviors when new opportunities arise,” she says. And that different behavior is typically learning how to put yourself first, says Neidich.

“Codependency is like having an addiction to another person, including fixing others and putting yourself last,” Neidich says. “The most powerful change someone can make who is struggling with codependency is to begin to take steps to put themselves first in their life in order to begin to improve their self-esteem.”

One of the most challenging parts for my healing has been learning how to emotionally regulate and self-soothe, especially when my anxiety revs up. Neidich says this is normal.

“People with codependency [issues] often indicate struggling the most with regulating their emotions,” she says. “One of the most impactful ways to begin regulating your emotions is [doing] a regular, daily meditations and [using a] distraction toolbox. Meditation helps to calm the mind and can improve self-esteem and an overall sense of contentment in one’s life, whereas a distraction toolbox is a set of skills that are typically distraction-focused such as calling a friend, organizing your closet, watching a movie, going for a walk or simply screaming into a pillow.”

Neidich explains that you can keep your distraction list in your phone or write them down on notecards to keep track of them.  “These tools are to be used during times of emotional dysregulation in order to help yourself move through the pain without reactivity. Emotional regulation is all about helping yourself to get through the difficult emotion by riding the wave of discomfort without reacting,” she says.

I have found that establishing a morning grounding routine that includes mindfully preparing my coffee, meditating, breathwork, and yoga has helped prepare me for the day. When I’m thrown off-kilter over a reaction or inaction from someone else, I return to my breath and choose to focus on something that makes me feel good, like writing, watching a funny TV show, or finishing up chores.

Adds Martinez: “For those [who] do want to change, I advise reading and learning about relational codependency and attachment styles. I also recommend tracking your feelings every day at several points in the day. The more aware you can be of your feelings, the more likely you are to communicate them to your partner, which is a good step towards differentiating your self from your partner.”

If you feel the need for more support, Neidich also suggests that individuals who are dealing with codependency, either in themselves or a partner, would also greatly benefit from psychotherapy with a counselor who has experience helping people recover from codependency.

How do you deal with the setbacks in codependent relationships?

As I’ve become more aware of my codependent behaviors and triggers, I admit that it’s been a bit of a back-and-forth when it comes to healing. Sometimes I feel good and know I’m showing up healthier and more focused. Other times, I’m triggered and I feel like I’ve gone ten steps backwards. But if you experience the same with your own healing journey, Martinez says don’t sweat it.

“That back and forth is normal and to be expected. Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she says. “As you’re learning to be less codependent, you’re (literally) rewiring your brain and that takes time and effort. Eventually, your brain will shift and [heal.]”

Adds Neidich: “Recovering from codependency is not linear and certain situations can be deeply triggering of old codependent behaviors, but that doesn’t mean they are de-compensating completely. Within a healthy partnership, one should be able to be honest and open about their co-dependent past so that their partner understands what their triggers are and they can decide as a team how to communicate when things become challenging. Particularly when new relationships are beginning and codependent tendencies are typically at their worst, the support of a licensed therapist can be deeply valuable.”

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