One of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship is an equal, mutual give and take between yourself and the other person. When a relationship honors both your needs and the needs of the other person in the relationship — whether that’s your parent, partner, or friend — both of you can thrive.
But what happens when you sacrifice your own thoughts, feelings, time, and “self” for the other person, or the other person’s needs are prioritized over your own? Relationships like these are often referred to as codependent relationships, and they can be extremely difficult for everyone involved.
Here’s what you need to know about what it means to be in a codependent relationship, including some of the common signs to look out for and how to get help if you’re in this type of relationship.
In a codependent relationship, people often fall into one of two roles: the caretaker (also called the giver or enabler) or the taker.
The caretaker in the codependent relationship prioritizes the thoughts, feelings, and needs of the other person over their own. As a result, they often lack the ability to take care of themselves — emotionally and physically — and spend a large amount of time making sure that the other person is taken care of.
In turn, the taker in the relationship often takes advantage of this caretaking, whether intentionally or unintentionally. In many cases, the taker’s needs overshadow those of the caretaker, so much so that the other person in the relationship may completely lose their sense of self.
Usually, codependency becomes a cycle in which the caretaker continues to give, the taker continues to take advantage, and the relationship becomes unbalanced and dysfunctional.
Although every relationship looks different, here are some of the signs that you might be taking on a caregiver role in a codependent relationship.
1. You’re not able to dedicate the time or energy to your own needs and wants.
You might have trouble taking care of your own needs or desires. Because you’re doing more of the “work” in the relationship, whether that’s physical or emotional, it often leaves little time for yourself.
2. You have trouble spending time with other people or doing personal hobbies.
When you do need to focus on your own needs, you might notice that you feel guilty about this. As a result, you might feel that you’re unable to spend time apart from the other person, or even do things with other people. And when the other person doesn’t notice your efforts, you might become hurt or upset.
3. You feel as if you can somehow control or change the other person.
As the caretaker in the relationship, you may feel a strong sense of responsibility for the other person — including feeling responsible for the way that they feel or act. You might even feel that it’s your responsibility to change or save the other person from themselves or others.
4. You find it difficult to feel OK without the other person’s presence or approval.
When you’re in a codependent relationship, you might feel as if your own feelings depend on the other person’s approval. When they’re not around — or even when they are — you may be afraid that they’ll leave or abandon you if you don’t meet their approval.
5. You have a hard time being sure of how the relationship makes you feel.
If you’ve been constantly prioritizing someone else’s needs over your own, you might have trouble even recognizing your own feelings anymore. And when you do think about the relationship, you might struggle to pinpoint exactly how it makes you feel.
Being the “taker” in a codependent relationship doesn’t have to be a permanent condition, and the first step toward a healthier relationship is recognizing what’s happening.
If you find yourself answering yes to any of the following questions, it can be helpful to look for a therapist who can help you work through these issues.
1. Do you find yourself always blaming your partner when there’s an issue?
Emotionally healthy and secure people should be able to admit when they’re in the wrong, and take the responsibility for their mistakes.
But if you find yourself always feeling that your partner is to blame when problems arise, even when they may not be directly involved in the issue, it may be a sign of an unhealthy perspective on your relationship.
2. Do you recognize that your partner loves you so much you could do about anything to them, and they would stay with you?
In a healthy relationship, it’s normal to have boundaries and standards that would cause you to leave if they were broken. No one in the relationship should feel that they “have” to stay in it — for any reason.
If your partner has expressed that nothing you could do would ever cause them to break up with you, it may be a sign of codependency.
3. Does your partner meet your needs before you’re even aware you had the need at all?
This goes beyond taking an interest in your life and doing nice things for each other. In codependent relationships, the caregiver may devote all their time and energy to caring for their partner’s needs and wants. A symptom of this could be your partner not having hobbies or friends of their own.
4. Do you find that substance use or mental health conditions cause you to lash out at your partner?
Substance use is not uncommon for those involved in a codependent relationship. It’s also possible for mental health conditions to contribute to this relationship style.
If you find that your mental health or substance use is causing stress for you or your relationship, a therapist can help you create a plan for living a happier and healthier life.
Much of the original research on codependency explored relationships where one partner had a substance use disorder.
However, the research on codependent relationships has since evolved, and mental health professionals now recognize that these relationships can happen between anyone — including parents, family members, partners, spouses, and even friends.
- Parents: Codependent relationships are especially common in children or adults who have parents with substance use disorders, but can also occur through many types of emotional abuse. For example, someone whose parents couldn’t control their own emotions might learn to ignore their own thoughts and feelings to appease that parent.
- Family: Another common source of codependent relationships is having a family member or loved one with a physical or mental health condition. Someone who’s the sole caretaker of a relative with a chronic illness, for example, might forget to take care of their own needs in the process.
- Partner: Romantic relationships between partners or spouses may become codependent for a variety of reasons. For example, someone raised to believe they have a strict role to play in the household may dedicate all their time to making sure that the other person is taken care of — even over their own needs.
- Friends: Close friendships or even work relationships can become codependent, especially if there’s an uneven give or take in the relationship. When one friend is always the one who decides when and where you spend time, for example, there may be feelings of codependency.
Research from 2014 suggests that substance use disorder still plays a large role in the risk of developing codependency. But mental and physical conditions, as well as abuse, can all increase the risk of someone becoming codependent.
A codependent relationship isn’t a healthy relationship, and it can lead to long-term emotional effects for all parties involved. While there’s no way to say exactly how a codependent relationship might affect someone, here are some of the potential long-term emotional effects of being in a codependent relationship:
- loss of self-trust and self-confidence
- lack of trust in other people
- trouble setting boundaries, especially intimate ones
- difficulty adjusting to or accepting change
- difficulty communicating with others about needs
- feeling the need to lie or be dishonest to avoid conflict
- having trouble making decisions for oneself
- experiencing strong emotions like anger, fear, or guilt
And some research suggests that being in a codependent relationship can even change the way you perceive your own behaviors, as well as the behaviors of others.
One recent study from 2022 explored coping skills, relationship perception, and life satisfaction in almost 250 participants. Researchers discovered that participants in codependent relationships were more likely to harshly judge their partners’ coping mechanisms, as well as view their relationship as being problematic.
Codependent relationships are complicated, and sometimes it can be hard to recognize when you’re in one. However, there are ways that you can work through codependent relationships, change your behaviors, and build a healthy relationship instead.
Can you fix or change a codependent relationship?
If you’re in a codependent relationship, you may be wondering if it’s possible to save the relationship. The short answer is yes, it’s possible to heal a codependent relationship. However, the healing must come from both people involved, including the giver and the taker.
One of the first steps in healing a codependent relationship is to reach out for help. This is an important step because if you’ve been in a dysfunctional relationship for a long time, you might not even realize how your actions can harm others and yourself.
With professional help, you can learn how to rediscover yourselves, care for each other, and work together as a couple.
How to help someone else in a codependent relationship
If someone you love is in a codependent relationship, especially someone in the caretaker position, it’s natural to want to step in and help.
However, it’s important to be gentle when you approach the subject, as the person is likely already in a difficult position. Don’t place blame, and don’t judge them — instead, provide them with the tools and resources to get help if they want it. Let them know that you’ll always be there for them, no matter their decision.
It’s also important to support a friend who appears to be in the taker position of a codependent relationship. Depending on their upbringing and personal history, they may be unaware of how their actions are affecting everyone around them. As someone they trust, you’re in a great position to help them gain perspective on their relationships and grow as a person.
How to safely get out of a codependent relationship
Because codependent relationships are built on an uneven power dynamic, many involve some level of emotional abuse.
If you are in a relationship that makes you feel unsafe in any way, help is available:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available with help and resources 24/7 at 800-799-7233 (you can also text START to 88788).
- The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a full page of resources for people who experience abuse or who’re working with people who experience domestic violence and abuse.
- The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence partners with organizations across the country to educate people on domestic violence.
Getting support for codependent relationships
If you or someone you love is in a codependent relationship, there’s no shame in reaching out for help. Here are some resources for organizations that may be able to help:
- Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA): CoDA is an organization geared toward helping people with codependency navigate recovery. You can find more information about their support groups on their website.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): NAMI is a national organization with more than 600 resource centers across the country. You can find more information about local groups and resources on their website.
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT): AAMFT is an organization focused on marriage and family therapists. You can search for therapists in your area directly on their website.
Codependent relationships involve one partner in the “caretaker” position who sees to the needs and wants of the “taker.”
Just remember, you’re not alone, and you don’t have to go through this process alone, either — professional help is available, whenever you’re ready to take that step.