It may seem like a no-brainer that with your partner — or even your friends and family members — you want to be caring, empathetic, and generous. These are traits most people want to possess in all their personal relationships. However, for some the line between being sensitive to someone's needs and putting them before your own is a bit blurrier. Wondering where you fall on the spectrum? According to experts, there are some telltale signs that your relationship is codependent, and some are so subtle you might not even be aware you're doing doing them.
Some relationships — whether they be platonic or romantic — have more obvious red flags that make you seriously reevaluate the dynamic. But just because it's not screaming toxicity on the outside doesn't mean it's completely healthy either. For example, codependency might be tougher to spot, but it could be just the thing standing in the way of you having the reciprocal, nurturing connection you deserve.
Before diving into some of the signs, it might help to more clearly define what "codependent" actually means. "At its core, codependency is a self esteem issue," explains Danielle Syslo, Los Angeles-based therapist. "It’s when one relies on another for validation, approval, and love. The opinions of others about oneself are valued over the self. When we abandon ourselves in this way, we allow others to determine our worth, identity, and happiness."
While codependent behavior is often a byproduct of growing up around abuse or addiction, these things aren't mutually exclusive. But in either case, it may be so engrained that it's hard to know when your relationship goes beyond healthy levels of love and support. "There is a fine line between a relationship based on connection and a relationship based on codependency," adds Eve Sturges, licensed marriage and family therapist and podcaster.
Thankfully, these experts admit that there are a few things that can signal you're in a codependent relationship. And while the signs they share ahead can give you some helpful intel, it's important to note that dynamics differ for each person and if you think you might be struggling with codependency, consulting with a professional is your best bet. "These are just a few examples of how codependency manifests in relationships, but is not an exhaustive list," Syslo says. "If you are struggling with codependency in your relationship, a licensed mental health professional can support you in exploring these issues in more detail."
Your Emotions Always Mirror Your Partner's
According to Sturges, one major sign you could be in a codependent relationship is that one or both of you seem unable to have emotions separate from each other. "[He or she] sad, so you’re sad. [He or she] had a bad day, so you can’t enjoy yourself either," she explains. "There’s a difference between empathy and codependency. A healthy couple can recognize their different emotional experiences and support one another without expectations."
And Syslo adds this can lead to feeling disconnected from yourself, as you're no longer prioritizing your own needs. "Some codependents may be able to identify their needs but avoid addressing it with their partner out of a fear of being rejected," she says.
You Feel Tired Or Depleted
"It’s important for everyone to get his/her own needs met," shares Sturges. "If a relationship takes energy away from you because you’re taking care of the other person more than yourself, that’s codependency. Relationships should feel fulfilling, not exhausting." The therapist encourages employing the classic airplane tactic (metaphorically speaking): Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help others.
Besides the overall feeling of exhaustion, Syslo also notes that a codependent dynamic can make you feel constantly frustrated or even downright mad, too. "Maybe you find that you are giving, or sacrificing, a lot for your partner without any reciprocity or acknowledgement," she says. "This can lead to feelings of anger and resentment. This resentment is often expressed passive aggressively, through sarcasm, snide remarks, cruel jokes, etc." And these behaviors can only add to an already unhealthy dynamic.
You Can’t Enjoy Time Away From Them
"It’s healthy to have a life outside your partner; codependency can feel limiting," says Sturges. "Independence is healthy, and everyone — no matter how good their life feels — should have a good resource system of supportive friends and activities."
You Take On Each Other's Burdens
According to Sturges, if one of you takes on the burdens or responsibilities of the other person without being asked — to the detriment of yourself — you could be in a codependent relationship. "This is different than doing a nice favor every once in a while," she clarifies. "This is taking on debt, or lying for your partner to protect them from consequences."
You Base Big Life Decisions Solely On The Other Person
In a committed partnership, it's natural to consult with one another before making major life decisions, like a career change or a move. However, if you find yourself sacrificing the things you want (like that dream job) mainly because you’re afraid of being apart, or you think it will upset the other person, you're putting your needs and desires aside in a way that's in line with codependent behavior.
You're Obsessed With Pleasing/Caretaking
Wanting to please or take care of your partner (or friend, or family member, and so on) might seem like a good thing, but codependents tend to take this concept to excess. "On the surface, these behaviors appear kind and selfless," Syslo says. "In actuality they are methods of manipulation and control (typically unconscious) to feel loved or worthy." The therapist argues that your worth in the relationship should not be defined by what you can do for your partner, or by the feeling of being needed.