Recently, a friend of mine revealed that her therapist told her she was too dependent on her partner — many things she used to do for herself she was now leaning on her boyfriend to help out with. This came as a surprise to her as she didn’t realize these little habits and asks were telltale signs of codependency — which begs the obvious question: what are the key differences between dependent and codependent behavior?
“Traditionally, a person being dependent on someone else is usually one-sided,” therapist Keischa Pruden, founder of Pruden Counseling Concepts, tells TZR in an email. “A person can look to their mate to perform tasks for them they probably could perform on their own.” For example, someone might depend on their partner to do the laundry, handle the finances, or fix things around the house. “There is an inherent belief the partner is able to do a better job at a particular task than the other person,” says Pruden. “Thus begins a situation where one person stops engaging in a particular behavior and allows the other person to do it.”
Codependency, on the other hand, involves a dual dependence. Brooke Bralove, relationship expert and founder of Brooke Bralove Psychotherapy, says she believes codependency is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but is largely misunderstood. “It is a dynamic in a relationship in which one individual struggles to maintain a strong sense of self and seems to mold to their partner, depending on the partner’s mood and not their own,” she tells TZR in an email. “People who are codependent struggle to recognize what’s going on inside of themselves because they are so used to basing their thoughts and feelings on the thoughts and feelings of their partner.”
However, the goal of healthy intimate relationships is to foster interdependence, which requires that each partner be fully themselves and advocate for their own needs while staying connected and vulnerable to the other, explains Bralove. So how can you recognize if your dependence is actually codependency — or heading in that direction? Ahead, Pruden, Bralove, and other relationship experts weigh in.
How Dependency May Turn Into Codependency
You may think it’s not a big deal to depend on your significant other for certain things. After all, maybe they are simply better skilled at a certain task or simply enjoy doing it for you. But how do you know when you may be relying on them too much? And how did this even happen? “How you were raised is where the story begins,” dating and relationship expert and founder of Lisa Talks Love Lisa Velazquez tells TZR in an email. “We often don’t realize that the unconscious behaviors we see in our childhood by a parent or guardian have the greatest impact on how we show up in our romantic relationships. Many codependent people tend to lean towards an anxious/preoccupied attachment style because their self-worth is validated by their relationship and their need to be needed. This stems from the parental love and guidance they received in their childhood.”
Pruden adds that most codependent behavior begins with a mutual belief or disbelief in a person’s ability to perform tasks for themselves. “Many of our thoughts are ignited or begin in our childhood that cause us to believe we are ‘not good enough’ or ‘no matter how hard I try, things never work out for me,’” she says. “In these instances, people subconsciously engage others in relationships designed to get their needs met in ways they feel they cannot meet them.”
Signs Of Codependency
Since there is a fine line between dependency and codependency, it’s good to be on the lookout for key signs. “It’s important to notice when you’re silencing your needs and desires to please your partner,” says Velazquez, explaining that feeling unworthy and self-neglect within a relationship are clear indicators that you’re stepping into codependent territory. “When you’re dependent on your partner, you can express your needs and desires in your relationship confidently. However, when you’re codependent, you don’t believe you’re worthy of having your needs and desires met or heard within your relationship. But you believe your partner is worthy — and you always meet their needs and desires in the relationship.” Another sign? A codependent person is the people-pleaser in the relationship, she says, while the dependent is interdependent with a strong sense of self in the relationship.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, too, says there are some additional signs to watch for, too. “While there is nothing wrong with asking for help in a healthy relationship, if you have a tendency toward codependence or think you have, you want to be on the lookout for certain things,” she tells TZR in an email. Some of these include difficulty making decisions without consulting your partner; having poor self-esteem and not enough trust in yourself; problems identifying your feelings; an inability to communicate your feelings to your partner; placing more value on the approval of your partner than the value you place on yourself; an obsessive need for approval and fear of being abandoned; and an unhealthy dependence on the relationship — even at your own peril.
The Key Difference Between Being Dependent VS. Codependent
Hafeez says there are key differences to note between being dependent on your partner versus codependent. “Dependent still gives each partner a feeling of being their own individual whereas codependent enmeshes the two partners so that neither person functions properly without the other,” she say. “In a dependent relationship, you always feel you are a person of value whereas in a codependent one, you only feel worthy when your partner praises you.” And, in essence, in a dependent relationship, you feel secure and safe in the relationship, but in a codependent one, you fear abandonment, rejection, and judgment, she adds.
Why Codependency Is Not Healthy In Romantic Relationships
Pruden says that while codependency is not healthy in any relationship, it is especially toxic for a romantic relationship. “If we look at the core definition of codependency, we know there is an inherent belief that one of the partners in a relationship is ‘less-than’ or ‘needs constant assistance,’” she says. “In acknowledging this definition, imagine trying to engage in a romantic, intimate relationship with someone you feel is always in need of some type of help. Then imagine being the person who always feels they need help in some type of way.” The relationship becomes more like a parent/child relationship — and romance cannot survive in that type of environment, she explains.
Hafeez agrees, saying, “You can’t look to another human for the air you breathe. A relationship needs to be symbiotic. A codependent relationship will lead to anxiety on the part of one (or both) partners. If the codependent person is looking to their partner to have all of their financial, physical, and emotional needs met in one person, they will constantly be in a state of want and need, living to please their partner. Even if they are unhappy in the relationship, they will likely stay because they will fear leaving.”
Codependency in a romantic relationship also doesn't allow you to be a self-sufficient adult and enables self-neglect, which feeds a narcissistic/codependent relationship dynamic, adds Velazquez. “Codependency will eventually silence your voice and your identity in your romantic relationship,” she says. “And it’ll leave you in a position to be controlled by your partner, which will lead to suppressing your freedom of choice and diminishing your sense of self.”
Bralove says there is a key way to spot codependency. “The phrase, ‘I’m okay if you’re okay,’ is the perfect example of it,” she says. “The person makes decisions about their own behavior without actually tuning into what’s going on inside of them and becomes hypervigilant to their partner’s feelings.”
What To Do If You Feel You’re Codependent
If you’ve been — or think you may be — codependent, you need to start reconnecting with yourself, Velazquez explains. “You can overcome codependency by doing your inner work to heal the traumas that are at the root of the patterns of behavior,” she says. “You can begin by reclaiming your life outside of the relationship. You can do this work with a psychotherapist or love/relationship coach with a specialization in trauma.” When she works with clients in her coaching practice, Velazquez says they begin with a love breakthrough session — the client does deep self-reflection to reveal an unhealthy pattern and discover any trauma that needs to be healed. They start with questions like, “Who taught you how to love?” and ‘“What were the love examples you learned from them?”
Hafeez agrees that seeking counseling by a mental health professional is important — that way, you can get to understand the root of its issues in your life. “You can also read books on the topic to know when, and why, you are being codependent,” she says, such as The New Codependency: Help and Guidance for Today's Generation by Melody Beattie. “And then start a journal every time you catch yourself in this behavior.”
Most importantly, Velazquez says to be gentle with yourself. “It’s going to take time to heal and love yourself,” she says. “You deserve the love you give to others. Because codependency can make you feel erased, you may not believe this yet. But you are not gone. You are here. And you deserve to love again — and that starts with loving you.”