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."
You Know Your Relationship Is Unhealthy, But Stay Anyway
If in your gut you (or both of you) know the situation you’re in is not right for you but can’t imagine the alternative of being without your partner, this might be a key sign of codependency says love and life coach Melissa Snow. “You know it's unhealthy, not good for you, toxic, etc. but you stay anyway because you think you need them or the relationship in order to be okay,” says Snow. “People who are afraid to be alone often end up in codependent relationships because they don't know how to be happy, healthy, and whole by themselves.”
There’s Resentment Involved
“Often, the first sign [of codependency] is resentment,” says therapist Skylar Ibarra. “You may find yourself creating emotional tests for your partner — instead of telling them that you feel a bit down, you ‘wait to see if they'll notice.’ Perhaps you want to go out with friends, but you decide that your partner will be upset or sad and so you tell your friend no. Soon, the thoughts in your head circulate that ‘my partner doesn't let me do anything I want,’ when they weren't even part of the conversation. Something I see time and time again is a couple having one-sided conversations, building up and up on both sides. When we chip away at what is assumed versus what is actually felt, a lot of the codependency naturally subsides.”
The Amount Of Effort Is Unbalanced
“Some partners have done things like fly 10 hours to where a supposed significant other is, after months of no contact, just because that missing significant other texted out of the blue to say that they still want to be with them,” says Cherlyn Chong, toxic relationship recovery and trauma specialist and coach. “But during the whole relationship, or even ‘situationship,’ no such sacrifice was made on that missing significant other's part. The other partner is always the one going towards them. When you feel exhausted due to the huge efforts you are making to keep your relationship, you are excessively relying on the other person for any bit of love you can get, creating an unhealthy imbalance.”
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
If you’re unable to go on vacation or even spend a day away from your partner, it might be a sign of codependency, says Sturges. "It’s healthy to have a life outside your partner; codependency can feel limiting," she explains. "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." For instance, if you pay off your partner’s credit cards to help get them out of debt, and that puts you in negative financial standing, it could be time to reexamine things.
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. Perhaps you’ve always dreamt of having a family and your partner would rather not have children (or vice-versa), and you sacrifice your own life desires for the other person — this could build resentment and an unhealthy codependent foundation.
You're Obsessed With Pleasing/Care-Taking
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.
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