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Why Do Some Couples Become Codependent?

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

It says a lot about both people in the relationship, you'll find.

My ex-husband and I didn’t start out as codependent.

We were both recovering drug addicts who had met in a 12-step fellowship. I worked my program; he worked his. We went to meetings both together and separately.

But over time, he started going to less meetings, so I started going to less meetings. He started hanging out with friends less, so I started hanging out with my friends less. I couldn’t stand to leave him alone, even though I was often miserable when we were together. Then his mood began to affect me: if he wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy.

Then I started trying to get him to change. I had no idea he had resumed using, so I just thought his issues were because he wasn’t working his program well enough, and if he would just do something I thought he should do, that would fix it: If he would just go to more meetings, call his sponsor more, go the gym, change his job, eat right

I was self-righteous and bossy, making unreasonable demands on him (telling him, “Just go to the gym!” when I myself wasn’t going). Whenever I realized I couldn’t control his moods or actions, I was disappointed and depressed.

I subsumed my identity into his, and I felt personally responsible for his sick and bad behavior. My self-esteem, happiness, and well-being became contingent on whatever he did.

In Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide for Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Helping, Shawn Meghan Burn defines codependence as “an imbalanced relationship pattern where one partner assumes a high-cost ‘giver-rescuer’ role and the other the ‘taker-victim’ role.”

By the time I left my ex-husband, I managed nearly everything for our household. I thought raising two children on my own would be back-breakingly difficult, but it wasn’t because I was taking care of two, not three, dependents.

Until I discovered my ex-husband had been actively using for five or more years, I would have never said we were in a codependent relationship. I thought what we were doing was normal. Every couple balances shared duties their own way, right? Every couple has their problems, right?

When I realized for years that I had enabled his addiction and bad behavior, I was devastated. I hadn’t been able to decipher love from codependency because I thought that if we love someone, we put that person’s needs before ours and make their happiness our priority.

You might be in a codependent relationship if:

1. You are solely responsible for connecting with your partner.

As my ex-husband pulled back in how invested and present he was within our relationship, I started compensating. I put in more and more effort, time, and energy to bond. I suggested books we read together. I chose to stay home and hang out with him instead of going and doing something I wanted to do for myself. When my efforts to reconnect us didn't work, I just kept trying harder and harder.

2. You want your partner to change.

Because my partner continually didn't connect with me, I started to blame him for the problems in our relationship. If he'd just communicate more or control his anger better or get a different job, so he was happier, etc. etc. Because I wasn't satisfied with how things were in the relationship, my focus was on getting him to try to change.

But while I was hoping for him to change, I was ignoring any self-care needs for myself.

3. You stop maintaining your boundaries.

Healthy relationships are built on healthy boundaries. Codependent people often give at the expense of themselves, so whatever boundaries they had in the beginning, they start giving up to maintain their unhealthy relationship.

4. You've given up your own hobbies and interests.

The best relationships are built between two whole people, as in you each have an identity outside of your relationship. The time you spend away from each other should be time where you get to work on yourself, so you can be a better more well-rounded person.

If you absolutely can't do anything without your partner at your side, you've moved into a codependent relationship.

5. You give up your relationships with friends and family.

The first phase of most relationships has a period of enmeshment, but the healthy ones start to individuate again once the honeymoon phase passes.

But if you begin sacrificing your personal relationships to be with your partner instead far after the new rosy period, it’s a sign that your romantic relationship has become too much of a priority and is hurting your other relationships.

6. Your partner has unhealthy habits.

Real love is when we encourage our partner to be the best version of themselves they possibly can be.

To a codependent though, who wants to feel needed, their partner choosing to be healthy can actually feel like a threat, so they can often subconsciously or consciously sabotage their partner’s attempts at being healthy.

For example, you might be in a relationship with someone who is a borderline alcoholic. You start excessively drinking whenever your partner drinks, and/or you take care of them when they're hungover, even going so far as to call in sick for them at work. But if they decide to quit drinking, instead of supporting them in this, you might start drinking in front of them. Subconsciously, them getting healthy would be scarier for you than them staying unhealthy.

7. You’re always needing reassurance.

People in a codependent relationship often feel high levels of anxiety about themselves and their relationship. Because of that, they'll constantly seek reassurance, either verbally or physically. If you don't get the reassurance you'd like or need, you may start fights just so you can get to the lovey-dovey make-up afterward.

Codependent relationships are not healthy. They're built on two half people, where one is trying to control and change the other. A relationship like this will not improve unless BOTH people get help, ideally from a mental health counselor or therapist.

The first step in addressing this issue is becoming aware. If you or your partner has behaviors that concern you, have a conversation and research ways you can get the help you need.

If you have any concerns about your safety in an abusive codependent relationship, get to a safe place and call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–7233 or go to their website for resources and help.

Want a relationship that ISN’T “normal?” Click here to sign up for my FREE “Being a Match for Your Dream Relationship” Worksheet!

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