What Is a Codependent Relationship and How to Tell if You’re in One

We spoke to two relationship experts about the signs of a codependent relationship and how to set boundaries
by Sarah Finley
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare
codependent relationship

Codependency is a type of relationship dynamic where one person persistently prioritizes their partner’s needs and preferences over their own, and where their well-being, self-worth, and mood heavily rely on their partner. 

We spoke to Lynsey Murray, a licensed professional counselor, and Kendra Capalbo, a licensed couples therapist at Esclusiva Couples Retreats about the signs of codependency in a relationship, the red flags you should avoid, and what type of people end up in these unhealthy relationships.

What is the definition of a codependent relationship? 

“A codependent relationship is when one or both partners are totally dependent on the other for their sense of self-worth,” says Murray.  

Capalbo adds that codependent relationships will also lack “boundaries and a sense of security and is instead rooted in anxiety which is often managed through control and manipulation.” It’s completely normal to want to meet your partner’s needs, but in a healthy relationship, it’s equally important to do so while also advocating for your own. 

There could be many reasons why someone developed a codependent attachment in a romantic relationship. Your upbringing and relationship with your parents, previous romantic relationships, mental health, and your levels of self-esteem can all play a role. In fact, people with co-dependent tendencies often struggle with their self-worth. 

“They can also feel no self-esteem or lack of self-worth unless their partner is consistently affirming or praising them,” says Murray. “Boiled down, codependency means ‘If the other person is not okay, then I, too, am also not okay’ or ‘I am not okay and I need my partner to fix this for me. If they can't fix it for me, they are not a good partner’.”

What is an example of codependent behavior?

Codependency can show up in different forms, and to different degrees. “This could be a case of someone needing to be needed, needing to "fix" the other person, or being afraid to ever speak up because you are worried to upset the other person,” explains Murray.

Another example of codependent behavior is when a relationship lacks healthy boundaries. “Many partners find it difficult to say no, they put the needs of their partners always above theirs, and experience anxiety if they put their own emotions and self-care above their partners,” she adds.

What are the signs of a codependent relationship? 

Murray believes one of the warning signs is partners who are extremely reactionary towards each other. “When there is no clear autonomous identity with either partner, usually they have lost themselves trying to either please or fix the other person, or they rely on the other person to meet all of their emotional needs and get disappointed or angry when their partner inevitably lets them down,” she explains. 

Capalbo adds that another key sign of codependency in a relationship is when you’re “no longer nurturing relationships with family and friends or prioritizing self-care, and instead spending all of your time with your partner.”

What are the characteristics of a codependent person? 

  1. Low self-esteem

  2. Conflict avoidance

  3. Anxious personality

  4. Looking to your partner for validation

  5. Prioritizing your partner’s needs and neglecting your own

  6. Guilt over prioritizing your own needs unless you get approval from your partner

  7. Lack of personal identity

  8. Lack of independence and accountability 

  9. People pleasing

  10. Fear of abandonment

  11. Difficulty communicating needs effectively

  12. Consistently seeking reassurance from your partner

  13. Preoccupation over keeping their partner happy

  14. Problem-solving for your partner. 

How does a codependent person act in a relationship? 

It varies depending on how the codependency is showing up, says Murray. “If you feel totally responsible for your partner, this kind of person can show up passively, afraid to speak up so they don't, taking all the blame/accountability even when it's not warranted, and can often be depressed and anxious in a cycle like this,” she explains.

“If codependency is showing up as a total reliance on the other partner to meet all of their emotional needs or put their wants and needs first all the time, they can often be angry, disappointed, and also depressed and anxious because they describe it as not being able to rely on their partner. Codependent partners show up as depressed, anxious, or angry but in different ways.”

What is a toxic codependent relationship?

A toxic codependent relationship is when there is constant conflict in the relationship because neither of you has the emotional ability to tell the other what you need.

This type of dysfunctional relationship “will have intense moments when issues arise because neither of them is showing up authentically to state what they want and need,” says Murray.

“While neither has the emotional self-regulation skills to handle the anxiety that comes when their partner does state what they want and need.” 

She goes on to say that one partner may be stating what they want or need, but it comes across as a demand rather than a personal need.

Can you fix a codependent relationship?

Yes, if you are both willing to put in the work. The first two things to invest in are couples therapy and looking at support groups that can help you form healthier relationship patterns.

“The goal is to shift from codependency to interdependency, a healthy level of dependency,” says Murray. “We all need our partners and are allowed to admit that. But when we are interdependent, we state what we need, what our upsets are, desires, etc., and respect when this doesn't always match what our partner’s levels are,” she explains.

“The first step is to develop a sense of autonomy, and clarity on what your autonomous goals are as an individual person, and eventually learn to differentiate from your partner and learn how to come back to a new attachment with them as healthier people. Therapy is the best way to learn those skills and what it means for you,” adds Murray.

Support groups can be found through Co-dependents Anonymous (CoDA) while a licensed couples therapist can help you figure out your relationship patterns and to form new, healthier ones.

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