Codependency refers to a pattern of prioritizing needs of relationship partners or family members over personal needs and desires.

It goes beyond:

  • wanting to help a struggling loved one
  • feeling comforted by their presence
  • not wanting them to leave
  • occasionally making sacrifices to help someone you love

People sometimes use the term to describe behaviors that don’t quite fit this definition, which leads to some confusion. Think of it as support that’s so extreme it becomes unhealthy.

The term is often used in addiction counseling to describe enabling behaviors in relationships affected by substance misuse. But it can apply to any kind of relationship.

If you think you might be in a codependent relationship, here are some pointers to help you move forward.

The line between healthy, supportive behaviors and codependent ones can sometimes be a bit blurry. After all, it’s normal to want to help your partner, especially if they’re having a tough time.

But codependent behavior is a way to direct or control someone else’s behavior or mood, according to Katherine Fabrizio, a licensed professional counselor in Raleigh, North Carolina. “You’re jumping into the driver’s seat of their life instead of remaining a passenger,” she explains.

It might not be your intention to control them, but over time, your partner may come to depend on your help and do less for themselves. In turn, you might feel a sense of fulfillment or purpose from the sacrifices you make for your partner.

Other key signs of codependency, according to Fabrizio, might include:

  • preoccupation with your partner’s behavior or well-being
  • worrying more about your partner’s behavior than they do
  • a mood that depends on how your partner feels or acts

Once you’ve got a handle on what codependency actually looks like, take a step back and try to identify any recurring patterns in your current and past relationships.

Ellen Biros, a licensed clinical social worker in Suwanee, Georgia, explains that codependent behaviors are typically rooted in childhood. Patterns you learn from your parents and repeat in relationships usually play out again and again, until you put a stop to them. But it’s hard to break a pattern before you notice it.

Do you have a tendency to gravitate toward people who need a lot of help? Do you have a hard time asking your partner for help?

According to Biros, codependent people tend to rely on validation from others instead of self-validation. These tendencies toward self-sacrifice might help you feel closer to your partner. When you aren’t doing things for them, you might feel aimless, uncomfortable, or experience lower self-esteem.

Simply acknowledging these patterns is key to overcoming them.

Not all unhealthy relationships are codependent, but all codependent relationships are generally unhealthy.

This doesn’t mean codependent relationships are doomed. It’s just going to take some work to get things back on track. One of the first steps in doing so is simply learning what a healthy, non-codependent relationship looks like.

“Healthy love involves a cycle of comfort and contentment,” Biros says, “while toxic love involves a cycle of pain and despair.”

She shares a few more signs of healthy love:

  • partners trust themselves and each other
  • both partners feel secure in their own self-worth
  • partners can compromise

In a healthy relationship, your partner should care about your feelings, and you should feel safe to communicate your emotions and needs. You should also feel able to voice an opinion that differs from your partner’s or say no to something that conflicts with your own needs.

A boundary is a limit you set around things you aren’t comfortable with. They’re not always easy to set or stick to, especially if you’re dealing with long-standing codependency. You might be so accustomed to making others comfortable that you have a hard time considering your own limits.

It might take some practice before you can firmly and repeatedly honor your own boundaries, but these tips can help:

  • Listen with empathy, but stop there. Unless you’re involved with the problem, don’t offer solutions or try to fix it for them.
  • Practice polite refusals. Try “I’m sorry, but I’m not free at the moment” or “I’d rather not tonight, but maybe another time.”
  • Question yourself. Before you do something, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Why am I doing this?
    • Do I want to or do I feel I have to?
    • Will this drain any of my resources?
    • Will I still have energy to meet my own needs?

Trying to control someone else’s actions generally doesn’t work out. But if you feel validated by your ability to support and care for your partner, failing at this can make you feel pretty miserable.

Their lack of change might frustrate you. You might feel resentful or disappointed that your helpful efforts had little effect. These emotions can either leave you feeling worthless or more determined to try even harder and begin the cycle again.

How can you stop this pattern?

Remind yourself you can only control yourself. You have a responsibility to manage your own behaviors and reactions. You aren’t responsible for your partner’s behavior, or anyone else’s.

Giving up control involves accepting uncertainty. No one knows what the future holds. This can be scary, especially if fears of being alone or losing your relationship contribute to codependent behaviors. But the healthier your relationship is, the more likely it is to last.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help your partner, but there are ways to do so without sacrificing your own needs.

Healthy support might involve:

  • talking about problems to get new perspectives
  • listening to your partner’s troubles or worries
  • discussing possible solutions with them, rather than for them
  • offering suggestions or advice when asked, then stepping back to let them make their own decision
  • offering compassion and acceptance

Remember, you can show love for your partner by spending time with them and being there for them without trying to manage or direct their behavior. Partners should value each other for who they are, not what they do for each other.

Codependency and low self-esteem are often linked. If you link your self-worth to your ability to care for others, developing a sense of self-worth that doesn’t depend on your relationships with others can prove challenging.

But increased self-worth can increase your confidence, happiness, and self-esteem. All of this can make it easier for you to express your needs and set boundaries, both of which are key to overcoming codependency.

Learning to value yourself takes time. These tips can set you on the right path:

  • Spend time with people who treat you well. It’s not always easy to leave a relationship, even when you’re ready to move on. In the meantime, surround yourself with positive people who value you and offer acceptance and support. Limit your time with people who drain your energy and say or do things that make you feel bad about yourself.
  • Do things you enjoy. Maybe the time you’ve spent looking after others has kept you from hobbies or other interests. Try setting aside some time each day to do things that make you happy, whether it’s reading a book or taking a walk.
  • Take care of your health. Caring for your body can help your emotional well-being improve, too. Make sure you’re eating regularly and getting enough sleep each night. These are essential needs that you deserve to have met.
  • Let go of negative self-talk. If you tend to criticize yourself, challenge and reframe these negative thought patterns to affirm yourself instead. Instead of “I’m no good,” for example, tell yourself “I’m trying my best.”

Remember, codependent patters often begin in childhood. It may have been a long time since you stopped to think about your own needs and desires.

Ask yourself what you want from life, independently of anyone else’s desires. Do you want a relationship? A family? A specific type of job? To live elsewhere? Try journaling about whatever these questions bring up.

Trying new activities can help. If you aren’t sure what you enjoy, try things that interest you. You might find you have a talent or skill you never knew about.

This isn’t a quick process. It may take weeks, months, or even years to develop concrete ideas about what you really need and want. But that’s OK. The important part is that you’re thinking about it.

Codependent traits can become so entrenched in personality and behavior that you might have a hard time recognizing them on your own. Even when you do notice them, codependency can be tough to overcome solo.

If you’re working to overcome codependency, Biros recommends seeking help from a therapist who has experience working with recovery from this complicated issue.

They can help you:

  • identify and take steps to address patterns of codependent behavior
  • work on increasing self-esteem
  • explore what you want from life
  • reframe and challenge negative thought patterns

“Continuing to place your focus outside of yourself puts you into a position of powerlessness,” Fabrizio says. Over time, this can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, which can contribute to depression.

Codependency is a complex issue, but with a little work, you can overcome it and start building more balanced relationships that serve your needs, too.