We’ve all heard the saying, “Relationships are about give and take.” And it’s true — when you love someone, it’s natural to make small concessions so that your partner feels loved and appreciated.
But what happens when one person in the relationship gives too much—sacrificing his or her own responsibilities, friendships and even identity? That person might be participating in what psychologists call a “codependent relationship.”
Here’s what you need to know about codependent relationships:
What is a codependent relationship?
“In the codependent relationship, one person is doing the bulk of the caring, and often ends up losing themselves in the process,” says Dr. Shawn Burn, author of Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving. Conversely, in a healthy relationship, the give-and-take is relatively balanced and equal.
There are two opposing roles that each person in a codependent relationship typically plays: the giver and the taker, says Burn. Givers tend to have an incessant, subconscious need to keep their relationship alive; the fear of being alone causes them to overexert themselves physically and emotionally in order to please their partners, according to Burn. Takers, on the other hand, benefit from this dynamic of getting much more than they give. The typical taker lacks maturity, or suffers from an addiction or personality disorder, Burn says.
This relationship dynamic forms a cycle that’s not easy to break: The giver continues to overcompensate for his or her partner, while the taker avoids assuming responsibility, according to Burn. They become codependent, relying on each other not for love and care, but for relief from insecurity.
Why do people get into codependent relationships?
To understand how codependent relationships form, it’s important to know the characteristics of people who are predisposed to getting into them. Codependent tendencies often trace back to childhood, when we start to develop patterns in how we connect with people, or what psychologists call “attachment styles,” says Dr. Holly Daniels, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.
A 2012 study in The American Journal of Family Therapy found that those who perceived conflict between their parents growing up were more likely to become codependent in adulthood.
“The reason you develop an insecure attachment style is because you probably didn’t have secure attachments with your parents,” Daniels says.
In codependent relationships, givers have anxious attachment styles—they define themselves by their relationship, and will do whatever it takes to stay in it, according to Daniels. Takers, she says, tend to have avoidant attachment styles, meaning they try to avoid emotional connection at all costs. They make exceptions for anxiously attached people, however, because they get much more out of the relationship than they have to put in.
Givers and takers are drawn to each other — often subconsciously, says Daniels. Over time, givers wear themselves out as they fight for the reassurance they may never get from the taker, while the takers continue avoiding their emotions and taking responsibility for their actions.
How can you tell if you’re in a codependent relationship?
One question you should ask yourself is: how much time in a given day do you spend thinking about your relationship? If the answer is most of the time, Daniels says your relationship is probably codependent.
Also, if you are constantly seeking reassurance, asking questions like, “Do you love me? “ and “Do you promise you won’t leave me?,” you may be codependent, according to Daniels.
Other signs of codependency include putting your partner on a pedestal, idealizing that person despite his or her faults and making excuses for your loved one when he or she neglects important tasks. Givers often think they’re helping their partners, when in reality they’re actually preventing them from personal growth, Daniels says.
And if one partner in your relationship has an addiction, it’s much more likely to become codependent, says Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More. One partner’s addiction to alcohol or drugs can take a toll on both partners, and can cause more imbalances in the relationship. “So can addiction to money, ego, power, lying, or love and sex,” Beattie says. The person with the addiction can neglect his or her partner in the process, while the other may feel the need to give more to that person out of fear, guilt, or habit, according to Beattie.
It’s important to take note of the signs, as codependent relationships can often mimic healthy relationships at first, says Daniels. As time passes, givers become laden with their responsibilities to the takers, and takers become overwhelmed by the giver’s emotional neediness. Without changing course, the relationship will ultimately become unhappy and unsustainable, according to Daniels.
What should you do if you’re in a codependent relationship?
If you’ve noticed traits of codependency in your relationship, Daniels advises seeking professional help. Through therapy, codependent relationships can become more balanced and fulfilling—but both parties need to be committed to making the relationship work, Daniels says.
Daniels, who works with codependent couples, says the anxiously attached partner shouldn’t let the fear of losing his or her loved one prevent the suggestion of professional help. “It’s important to take that risk anyway,” Daniels says. “If that person is going to run away, they’re going to run away anyway.”
When both partners are on board, Daniels says she helps couples identify their insecure attachment styles, and then advises that they “take opposite action.” For givers, that means learning to be on their own, strengthening their friendships, or focusing on passions outside of their relationship. For takers, it involves taking time to initiate meaningful conversations with their partners and showing more affection.
“People in codependent relationships aren’t bad people,” says Daniels. In fact, most people have some degree of insecure attachment. But the key, she says, is to learn when it’s time to give, take, or walk away.