Romantic relationships are, arguably, some of the closest bonds we form. Your significant other knows you in ways that other friends and family may not. But sometimes this closeness can be expressed in ways that are unhealthy such as when a couple becomes codependent.

What is Codependency?

Everyone has heard the term codependent before, but what exactly does it mean? Currently, codependency can be defined as “a behavioral condition in a relationship in which one person enables the other person’s addiction, underachievement, irresponsibility,” or otherwise destructive behavior. Codependency is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a separate personality disorder, and for this reason, it can be hard to pin down an exact definition for the term.

In psychology, the term is often used to refer to a behavioral condition in an individual. However, according to BPDFamily.com author, Skip Johnson, the term applies less to the individual than to the actual relationship dynamic itself. For our purposes, we will talk about codependency in the context of a relationship.

Codependency In a Relationship

Two people codependent riding bicycles

Being able to depend on your partner is an essential component of a committed relationship. But having a dependable partner and being utterly dependent on your partner are two different things. According to Johnson, in a codependent relationship, both partners are highly reliant on one another to meet their needs, whether they be emotional needs or physical ones.

There are often two distinct roles that are played in this type of relationship dynamic; that of the caregiver or enabler, and that of the taker. The giver takes on the problems of the taker to validate themselves and give them feelings of self-worth. Meanwhile, the taker, who often exhibits neediness, addiction, entitlement or some other behavioral condition, relies “on the giver to take care of them, assume or soften the negative consequences for their actions, and to compensate for their under-functioning.” That is according to Shawn Meghan Burn, a Psychology Professor at Cal Poly State.

In the codependent dynamic, the giver enables the taker to continue their addiction or bad behavior by means of trying to ‘help’ him or her. However, the help given is not actually helpful as it prevents the taker from self-sufficiency. This perpetuates the cycle of ‘give and take’ and the dependence on one another. For the taker, negative behavior is rewarded with care and love from the giver, which leads to dependency. In turn, the giver usually exhibits a strong desire to be needed, which the relationship satisfies.

The help given is not actually helpful as it prevents the taker from self-sufficiency

In a codependent relationship, the individuals have a hard time maintaining their individuality. They become entangled in one another, losing sight of themselves. They may stop doing things they once enjoyed because their partner doesn’t enjoy these same things. They may isolate themselves from friends and family members.

Codependent relationships commonly have issues with fundamentals like communication and boundaries. Codependents feel responsible for other peoples feelings and have a tendency to neglect their own needs, taking on the problems of their partner instead. In this way, the giver feels more in control. There may be manipulative and controlling behaviors, and each partner may blame the other for the problems in the relationship.

In this type of relationship, one or both partners may feel like they are trapped. According to Dr. Burn, “Although these unbalanced relationships can go on for some time, they are ultimately unsustainable due to their consumption of the helper’s physical, emotional, or financial resources, and because they lead to resentment and relationship strain.”

A Healthier Way

A symbiotic relationship is one in which each person is dependent upon and receives reinforcement, whether beneficial or detrimental, from the other. Codependent relationships exhibit a sort of detrimental, symbiotic nature. But there is another, healthier type of relationship symbiosis called interdependence.

Interdependence, much like it sounds, is a state of beneficial, mutual dependence between two people, and the dynamics of an interdependent relationship look much different than those of a codependent one.

What is Interdependence?

Couple being interdependent

Barton Goldsmith Ph.D. says in his article on PsychologyToday.com that an interdependent relationship is when “two people, both strong individuals, are involved with each other, but without sacrificing themselves or compromising their values.” Each person values their sense of self and can fully be themselves. Interdependent couples can find a balance between time spent on individual pursuits and time spent together doing things they both love.

In an interdependent relationship, both people recognize and value the bond they share. Each partner can support the other when needed, yet they can maintain their individuality. According to couples counselor Joleen Watson, interdependent partners “recognize the importance of maintaining their identity and are confident expressing their opinions but can still be sensitive to the other person.”

That being said, an interdependent relationship does involve compromise. However, the roles of the relationship are much more balanced. In this dynamic, each partner works to meet the physical and emotional needs of the other in appropriate ways. You can distinguish between giving in when it is beneficial for the relationship and giving so much of yourself that it becomes detrimental and can distinguish between compromises that are beneficial to them.

An interdependent relationship does involve compromise

When a relationship is interdependent, partners do not depend on one another for feelings of self-worth. This is a relationship that fosters growth and self-sufficiency. It is a relationship consisting of two mentally healthy people that are aware of their own emotions and values. An interdependent relationship may exhibit qualities such as: having healthy boundaries, each partner having healthy self-esteem, taking responsibility for behaviors, taking time for personal interests, and a clear communication style.

From Codependence to Interdependence

If you think you may be in a codependent relationship, there is hope for change. The first step is to recognize the problem. You can try talking to your partner about it, but if they resist, there are still steps you can take to restore balance in the relationship. Communication is key, as is setting boundaries and sticking to them.

Relationships can be complicated. Maintaining a healthy relationship takes work on the part of both partners. Codependency can be hard to break away from, but interdependence is possible.

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