No matter how you slice it, relationships are tricky, and many can show some form of unhealthy behavior (even in the mildest of instances) from time to time. Sometimes, however, said instances turn into a full-blown habit or pattern of behavior if they go unchecked. Codependent behavior, for example, was long associated with substance abuse and addiction. These days, however, it’s evolved into a relationship pattern that is much more common and widespread — not to mention toxic.
“The term ‘codependent’ first appeared in the Western vernacular as one given to people who would engage in long-term relationships with those who struggled with addiction issues,” says psychotherapist Dr. Holly Daniels. “Over the last few decades, the term has broadened to include any person who puts the needs of their partner in front of their own needs because they have built their identity upon the relationship.”
Psychologist Dr. Perpetua Neo says modern examples of codependency “center around unhealthy relationships ...with toxic people or those who are non-toxic but trigger us to have codependent behaviors.” Also, Dr. Neo adds that codependent relationships are not designated to those of the romantic or family variety anymore. “They’re also about our friendships and work relationships,” she says. “Some researchers also include workaholism as a type of codependency.”
While codependent relationships may seem complicated, the root (and reasoning behind its evolution) is actually more simple than one would think. “Put simply, codependency is when your self-worth is dependent on something external to you and dysfunctional, but you stay trapped in that dependency because you don’t think you’re worthy of a better situation,” explains Dr. Neo. “You feed into a vicious cycle.”
To give you a more modern view of what codependency can look like today, Dr. Neo and Dr. Daniels break down some common symptoms and behaviors to look out for, as well proactive ways to change.
The inability to say no as a means to keep those around you happy, could be signs of codependency, says Dr. Neo. “The few times you’ve stood up for yourself, you feel bad about it… You’re afraid of conflict, so you avoid direct confrontation, doing everything to smooth things over, even if there are loads of figurative monsters cavorting merrily under the surface.”
The answer to this is simple...ish. Learn the beauty of the word no. While relationships will always require a level of compromise and sacrifice, it should be balanced. So, if you find that it isn’t, and resentment is building on your front, practice using that magical two-letter word once in awhile, particularly in situations that genuinely make you unhappy or you typically wouldn’t partake in. N-O.
Being A “Fixer”
While wanting to help a friend or loved one is not a bad thing, excessively needing to fix people is a different story. “You’re always jumping in to give solutions, even when you’re not asked,” explains Dr. Neo. “You believe it’s your duty to clean up someone’s mess. For example, you cover up for that person’s shortcomings, pay their loans, make excuses to their boss, etc.”
This “fixer” mentality takes on new meaning when you are so fixated on everyone else, you forget to focus on yourself, says Dr. Neo. “When you ask for solutions, you apply them halfheartedly to prove to others ‘I’ve tried, and failed — nothing can be done’ or you shoot them down.”
While deep-set habits and behaviors are best dealt with with the help of a professional, some initial steps can include asking yourself, “‘What about my own needs am I running away from?’” says Dr. Neo. “We procrastinate on things that matter out of fear of doing them wrong — so projects, issues, and goals that are the most personally meaningful might be the ones we run away from. When something strikes a deep chord with us, it’s possibly the last thing we want to sit down and honestly face. So we distract ourselves with others’ needs. This can be a sobering wake-up call to get started on the things that matter.”
Being Defined By Your Job Or Relationship
How do you know if this is you? “If we took your job or relationship away, you wouldn’t feel a sense of worth,” says Dr. Neo. “You say ‘I cannot help it. I’m too empathetic/sensitive’ and use that as an excuse on why you get exhausted from dealing with types or things that trigger your codependence, and a reason you cannot stay away from them/it.”
The deeper root and meaning of this attachment could come down to wanting to feel, well, wanted, says Dr. Daniels. “You decide on an unconscious level that the way you can prove to yourself and to the world that you are a good person, worthy of love and trust, is by being in a relationship,” she explains. “You are not able, because of your shame and insecurity, to feel worthy of love and trust just being yourself. And so you develop a deep fear of being alone or losing your relationships.”
Again, the help and assistance of a trained professional is key here. “You can also help yourself by reading about anxious attachment and codependency,” says Dr. Daniels. “Research setting healthy boundaries in relationships, and practice mindful self-compassion meditations in which you can practice knowing yourself and loving yourself independent from any relationships. Practice being alone for a few hours every week and develop your own hobbies and interests outside of your relationships.”
Lack Of Boundaries
In the family of people-pleasing, lies boundless behaviors and relationships, which can be toxic if they go unchecked. “You fear that if you don’t do these things, the person will leave your life and it’ll mean that you are less of a person,” says Dr. Neo. “You let your boundaries erode, constantly.”
According to Dr. Neo, boundaries serves as the healthy but assertive “hell-nos” in your life. “And when you’re codependent, when someone tramples on your boundaries, you make excuses for them. This means you show them that your boundaries can be lowered, giving toxic people a free pass to hurt you systematically.”
In the same vein of the first point mentioned, learning to say no and refrain from things that feel uncharacteristic or unhealthy for you, can be a good step in the right direction. But, if this behavior is rooted in a much deeper issue like neglect or past abuse, “find a therapist who can help you understand your fear of abandonment and can support you as you take the leap to be more independent and self-compassionate,” says Dr. Daniels.
Obsessing Over A Relationship
“Another sign of codependency is obsessing about and wanting to control the relationship,” says Dr. Daniels. “Because the relationship is the primary way that someone who is codependent identifies their worthiness and lovable-ness, they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the relationship, wishing their partner would do this or that, and even resenting their partner for not fulfilling their fantasy of the perfect relationship.”
If you find your thoughts constantly coming back to a particular person or relationship, you need to take a step back and, that’s right, get to the bottom of this behavior. Ask yourself what the real reason is that you can’t trust your partner, or why you seem to be so resentful of them all the time. Chances are, the issue will probably have nothing to do with them, but with your own insecurities or fears.
“When we pinpoint the root, grieve over the hurt that’s happened to us and process the complexity of emotions, we can rewire our bodies and brains to have healthier relationships with ourselves and others,” says Dr. Neo. "We need professional help for this ... And this isn’t just about being logical about the situation — these patterns, emotions, and traumas are also stored in our bodies, so we have to work on metaphorically detoxing them, and rewiring our brains."