Updated: Jan 21, 2022
‘Am I in love or am becoming co-dependent?’ Is a question that I have been asked many times. This blog is not about abusive relationships as such, although they can turn abusive. I want to be clear that a survivor of an abusive relationship is not to blame at any stage and are not co-dependent, they are or have been traumatised. And they react and respond accordingly. but for anyone who is questioning co-dependency then here is an explanation that may help.
What do you expect from love? For me, I want love to be uplifting, supportive, based on truth, energizing, passionate, kind, gentle, forgiving, fun, independently dependant, (otherwise known as interdependency) and the list can go on. But what happens when it feels oppressive, suffocating, controlling, sad, frustrating, selfish, fearful, the passion is offending and scary or that you are constantly walking on eggshells? These are some of the feelings you have when you are in a co-dependent relationship.
Co-dependency is a commonly known casual word for someone needy and clingy to another person. But in truth is far more complex than that. In a co-dependent relationship, the co-dependent’s self-esteem and self-worth will come only from sacrificing themselves for their partner, instead of the partner showing that the co-dependant is a person, with rights, their own feelings and that their needs are just as important as their partner’s needs. The partner latches on to the co-dependency and self-sacrificial behaviours and uses it for their self-serving end game.
There is a big difference from being able to depend on someone (which can be a good trait) and being co-dependent, which is harmful. In other words, co-dependency is an unhealthy form of dependency. Healthy dependency is otherwise known as interdependency and will build healthier relationships. But co-dependency tears down relationships and makes one an enabler or controller and the other subservient and devalued. This kind of relationship does not only have to be between intimate partners but also, friends, family or co-workers.
Let’s talk about Interdependency and why it's ok.
As humans, we are naturally social beings. We’ve lived in communities and have relied on each other for our survival. This means, that there is nothing wrong with needing each other, relying on another person, or being socially connected with people, and asking for help. In this way, we promote growth and a sense of well-being. This is a healthy dependency. It involves a mutual give and takes. In a healthy relationship, both parties give and receive encouragement, support, give practical help and can express their feelings without fear of offence being taken. In a co-dependent relationship, there is always only one person doing the giving, supporting etc. This will eventually cause resentment and dissatisfaction along with emotional and physical burnout. A co-dependent relationship is based on fear. Not necessarily fear of physical harm, but as the co-dependent relies on their approval for love, they fear having love withdrawn if they express their feelings or not 'make' the other person happy. The opposite takes place in an interdependence relationship. Individuals build up self-esteem, self-worth and confidence, and it promotes love, mutual respect and a sense of safety and emotional and physical well-being. Because you know your partner 'has your back' this will help make things easier as you go about your day, problem-solving, trying new things and taking up new hobbies etc. This will help to overcome fears. It also allows you to grow, both individually and as a couple. Interdependency allows you to have individuality whilst being a couple, and doesn’t hold you back, but supports you into being the best version of yourself that doesn’t compromise your identity.
It is quite hard to see the difference between someone who is ‘enamoured' by another person, or in love, and a person who is co-dependent, but here are a few traits to look out for.
A co-dependent person will:
Stay in a relationship with someone who hurts them.
Will do anything to please the enabler making sure they are satisfied at all times, and it doesn’t matter what the cost is to themselves.
Ignore their morals to conform to what the other person wants.
Feels too guilty to express their own needs and desires. Feels guilty just feeling that they have needs that aren’t being met.
Constantly in a state of anxiety about the relationship, due to wanting to make the other person happy.
When away from the other person they cannot find any kind of happiness and worry about the enabler.
Being treated like a ‘servant’ and will give all their energy to the other person to meet anything they desire and ask.
Scared to agree to do any kind of activity that doesn’t involve the other person.
The co-dependent person will feel incredibly anxious about separating from the enabler because their identity has been immersed with the enablers. They have given themselves to sacrificing their needs, wants and desires for the other person, and often to the point that they do not know how to feel for themselves.
Co-dependency is a learned behaviour and stems from past situations where they have found that they have only felt that they are loved when they are making others happy. This could be:
Damaged parental relationships
Living with someone with a physical or mental disability or illness
Abusive family or relationships
Is there a way to get past being co-dependent?
Therapy is part of the process. A good therapist will be able to help to acknowledge where change may be required. Individual therapy will teach the co-dependant to find self-worth and discover who they are once again. Family/relationship therapy will equip the relationship to be more equal and show the partner how they are enabling. If there is abuse within the relationship, then steps must be taken to separate and take measures to protect the co-dependent party. In situations where there is no abuse, but advantage has been taken, there are things that can be done toward creating a positive and balanced relationship:
Taking small steps towards discovering who they are and what they like to do, take up a hobby or find something that will introduce more friendships outside the relationship, take a night out with a friend.
Take more time with supportive family and friends
The enabler must also take steps to recognise their own behaviour and change their approach toward the other partner and help them see that their needs, wants and desires matter.
People who have been abused may need to recognise the abuse and start to learn to ‘feel’ their emotions and needs. They will need to discover who they are and what they enjoy.
Both parties within the relationship must learn to acknowledge patterns of behaviours that have become ‘normal’ to their relationship. The behaviour of ‘needing to be needed or expecting the other person to revolve their lives around them is a general pattern that will take dedication in changing this lifestyle. They will need to be vigilant and aware at all times to make the necessary changes.
These aren’t easy steps, but it will be worth it in the end to gain a more balanced and healthy relationship.
Here are a few comparisons between interdependence and co-dependence:
A mutual reliance on each other for support and love. A balanced give and take and both find value in the relationship
The co-dependent person feels worthless unless they are needed. They make sacrifices for the enabler. The enabler doesn’t give, just takes and enjoys getting their needs met
Both parties make their relationship a priority, but can also find joy in other interests outside of the relationships, friends and hobbies
The co-dependent has no identity outside the relationship
Both parties can freely express their emotions, needs and find ways to make the relationship beneficial for both.
One person feels that their needs are unimportant and scared to express them. They begin to desensitise to their own feelings and eventually they will have difficulty recognising them at all
They help each other in promoting growth, learning and self-sufficiency
Enabling is disguised as help, instead, it creates more co-dependency and stunts personal growth
A sense of being your own person, separate and independent whilst also being a couple.
The co-dependent has merged their identity and feelings, they will only like what the other partner likes, or do what they do.
Both parties feel free to be their authentic selves
They lose sight of their own interests, goals and values.
They fully feel and discover what their emotions are about. They are safe to experience their own feelings
The co-dependent tends to absorb the other persons feeling and suppress their own
They know their individual values and feel safe to stick to them even in conflict
Co-dependents rely on their partner's values and will avoid conflict with them. This will help them feel worthy and valued.
Both parties feel safe and secure
Co-dependents fear rejection, criticism and abandonment
They both have the ability to say no without guilt
Fear of conflict, poor boundaries and there is an expectation of perfection for the co-dependent
They aren’t afraid of telling the truth and admitting mistakes
The co-dependent is defensive and will live in denial
If you feel that you are in an abusive relationship, please feel free to contact me or find someone you trust to help you. Some organisations will support you, so google organisations near you.
Read my 'Great Safe Escape blog for more information on leaving an abusive relationship safely.
If you have found this helpful to understand trauma bonding, then please share and link this blog. If you would like to know more about my own personal story, you can buy my book 'Broken To Be Beautiful' here.
Author information: Xenia Schembri
Along with her husband, Simon, are the founders of the charity At the Ark based on the Gold Coast Queensland Australia. Since 2010 At The Ark have supported families whose children have been abused and families impacted by domestic violence.