You’ve probably already heard about codependent relationships and know that they’re generally not considered healthy. But what can you do when you realize that your relationship is codependent? Does that mean that there’s no point trying or that you’re guaranteed to be unhappy in this relationship?
Luckily, the answer to this question is no. There are lots of things that can save a codependent relationship… but it’s not easy. We can’t promise that all codependent relationships can be fixed or that it’s even always worth it.
In this article, I’m going to explain what’s going on with codependent relationships (including why you might keep finding yourself in them) and then look at the best tips to fix them.
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There are two people involved in a codependent relationship.1 The caregiver and the receiver. Both of you need to accept these roles for the relationship to be codependent. When we talk about a person being codependent, we usually mean that they take the caregiver role.
Let’s look at important aspects of a relationship and how they look different in a healthy relationship to a codependent one.
In a healthy relationship, both you and your partner are able to meet your own needs. Importantly, you’re able to talk about them openly. You will probably use I statements to explain what you need from your partner, but you’ll also be able to meet many of your needs by yourself.
Both you and your partner will recognize that meeting your own needs is important. Your partner will support you in taking time for your own self-care and will make time for theirs. You’ll have a balance between anticipating each other’s needs and making space for them to ask for things that will make them happy.
Crucially, both partners’ needs will be seen as equally important.
In a codependent relationship, one person’s needs consistently take priority over the other’s.2 If you’re the caretaker, you’ll probably feel guilty or selfish for spending time or resources on self-care. If you can only do one thing, you’ll make sure that your partner’s needs get met at the expense of your own.
This leads you to start to feel ignored and taken for granted, not to mention burned out. Looking after others and ignoring your own needs isn’t sustainable.
Things aren’t much better if you’re the receiver in your codependent relationship. You start to rely on your partner meeting all of your needs for you. Often, your partner will anticipate your needs before you’ve even realized that there’s something missing in your life.
This makes you incredibly reliant on the other person. You lose faith in yourself and you’re not motivated to grow and learn. You might start to feel uncomfortable because you’re just ‘treading water.’
In a healthy relationship, both of you will spend time apart. You’ll probably spend some time with other friends or with groups that don’t include your partner. You’ll also spend some time alone.
Different couples will have different preferences for how much time to spend alone. The important thing is that there won’t be anything scary or uncomfortable about being apart.
In a codependent relationship, that isn’t the case. Both partners are uncomfortable being alone or away from each other. The caretaker often feels lost without their partner and may worry about whether their partner’s needs are being met. When separated, they’ll feel anxious and lonely.3
The receiver will also be unhappy spending time alone. They might not be as anxious as the caregiver, but they will often still be uncomfortable. They’re largely used to their needs being met by their partner and time spent alone can feel like significant emotional and practical labor.
In a healthy relationship, both people will have their own sets of boundaries. There will be things that they will and won’t accept from their partner. Most couples will also have shared boundaries, which describe what kind of behavior they expect in their relationship.
For example, many people don’t like being shouted at. They would set a boundary that their partner can’t shout at them, even during an argument. A couple might have a shared boundary that they only attend events that they’re both invited to.
These boundaries aren’t right or wrong. Everyone’s allowed to set their own boundaries. The important thing is that both people in the relationship understand and agree to the boundaries they’ve set.
In a codependent relationship, the receiver sets all of the boundaries.4 The caretaker might have boundaries that they would like to set, but they either don’t feel able to explain and enforce them or their efforts at boundary-setting are ignored.
When the receiver sets a boundary in a codependent relationship, the caretaker doesn’t usually get a say in that boundary. For example, the receiver might say that they don’t want the caregiver to be away from home overnight. They don’t ask whether that’s something their partner is ok with.
One of the reasons that the caretaker in a codependent relationship often struggles with boundaries is that they can’t imagine leaving the relationship. They are so devoted to their relationship that they are scared of doing anything that might damage or destabilize it.
Enforcing boundaries is exceptionally difficult if you know that you’re not willing to create any consequences for your partner for violating your boundaries.
Being in a great relationship doesn’t mean that everything’s always easy. There will be times when you have to compromise with your partner. In an ideal relationship, both of you will work together to formulate a compromise that works for both of you.
That’s not always possible, but a healthy relationship will always have at least some balance and compromise between you and your partner. You won’t always find a win-win solution, but you will feel as though both of you had an equal say in trying to find the least-bad option.
You might also try to find ways to make it up to your partner when they have to compromise more than you over something. There will be a strong sense of give and take.
That doesn’t exist in a codependent relationship. The caretaker doesn’t so much compromise as self-sacrifice. They push all of their own needs, preferences, and boundaries away and put up with things that they don’t have to in order to preserve the relationship.
The receiver in a codependent relationship might not always realize how much their partner is sacrificing. Sometimes they are aware but in other cases, they simply don’t think enough about their partner’s experiences of the relationship to understand just how much their partner is giving up.
In a healthy relationship, both people take responsibility for their own actions. They also hold each other accountable in a loving, supportive, and respectful way.
For example, if you want to get fitter, you know it’s your responsibility to make it to the gym more often. You might ask your partner to help you by asking whether they’d like to go with you on a run, but your fitness remains your responsibility.
The opposite is true in a codependent relationship. In a codependent relationship, both people expect the caretaker to be responsible for almost everything.
This is especially true if your codependent relationship is with someone who struggles with addiction issues.5 The caretaker will take responsibility for their addicted partner’s actions, saying things like “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left the alcohol cabinet unlocked,” rather than holding them accountable.
They will also often make excuses for their partner’s behavior or try to repair any damage so that their partner doesn’t face the consequences of their own actions.
Unless you’re engaged in a consensual (and negotiated) Power Exchange, healthy relationships are between two people with equal power. Both of you know that your thoughts and feelings matter and it’s important for your relationship that both of you are happy.
Both of you will agree on the basic rules of your relationship. Even if one of you earns more or is able to do more for the relationship, the basic principle is that you’re both equally important and equally deserving of respect.
A codependent relationship is inherently unbalanced. Both the caretaker and the receiver see the receiver’s needs and feelings as more important than those of the caretaker.
No matter how healthy your relationship is, there will always be times when you will want to seek some reassurance from your partner. In a great relationship, asking for reassurance is a straightforward task.
It probably won’t happen very often, because you trust that your partner will be there when you need them. When you do ask for reassurance, however, your partner provides it.
The caretaker in a codependent relationship usually wants a lot more reassurance than they’re getting. That’s part of what drives their behavior. They’re trying to be indispensable to their partner so that they feel reassured in the strength of their relationship.
Healthy relationships are between two people who each have a strong sense of their own identity. As much as you might love your partner, you’ll be able to draw a clear line between your feelings and theirs.
Caretakers in a codependent relationship can sometimes be so focused on their partner’s thoughts and feelings that they struggle to talk about what they think and feel. If someone asks them how they feel about their relationship, they’ll often answer by talking about how their partner sees things or what their partner feels.
They might also find themselves heavily influenced by their partner’s mood. Lots of us pick up someone else’s mood through something known as emotional contagion. That’s normal, but in a codependent relationship, it’s taken to an extreme.
We can see that codependency isn’t a healthy approach to relationships. It leaves both people less fulfilled than they would be in something more balanced. So why do some people become codependent in the first place?
Typically, this is the result of a pattern or way of behaving that they learned in childhood.6 Someone who tends to take on the caregiver role will have learned to look after others and put their own needs last. Someone who falls into the receiver role might have learned to be passive and wait for others to fulfill their needs.
Overprotective parents can lead to a child taking on either role. If your parents did everything for you, you might develop a form of “learned helplessness,” where you don’t really believe that you can solve your own problems. This pushes you to look for caregivers in your romantic relationships.
Alternatively, the child might come to see “love” as meaning “doing everything for someone.” This makes them more likely to adopt the caregiver role.
In families that are less protective, children might come to see themselves as a caregiver because this is the role they have adopted in their family more generally. This is particularly common for older children who were expected to look after their younger siblings.
There is also something reassuring about being in the caregiver role. You feel indispensable to your partner. When you feel insecure about your relationship, reminding yourself of all the things you do for your partner can be comforting and reassuring. This is common in people with an anxious attachment style.
Even normal and well-meaning parenting can encourage a child towards codependent relationships in the future if it’s taken too far. For example, you might tend towards codependent relationships if you were taught to value selflessness too much or learned unrealistic ideas about relationships.
Codependence can also be a response to trauma. If you’ve had to appease someone else to maintain your physical or emotional safety, this can become a learned response. You feel safest when you are in the caretaker role.
One of the hardest steps to make in addressing a codependent relationship is also the first one. You need to accept that your relationship is going to have to change. That’s a difficult emotional hurdle to get over, but it’s going to be essential.
A codependent relationship is harmful, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always awful. In fact, it’s almost certainly meeting some of your core needs. You might feel unappreciated and resentful, but you also feel needed and at least slightly secure.
Remind yourself that feeling unappreciated and losing your sense of identity in your relationship isn’t normal or healthy. Acknowledge that changing your codependent relationship is going to be scary and focus on the benefits that you’re looking to achieve.
Many people in codependent relationships have strong beliefs about exactly what a relationship is and how it works. You might have internalized the message about being willing to do anything for your partner, or that self-sacrifice is essential to prove your love.
Take a step back and really think about what you think makes a great romantic relationship. For each item, do what I call the “movie or close friend” test. Ask yourself whether you would be more likely to see that aspect of a relationship in a movie or to recommend it to a friend.
Things that you would recommend to a friend or someone you love are likely to be healthy and fulfilling for them. Things you’d normally see in a movie are most likely to create drama and tension, and they’re not usually parts of a healthy relationship.
For example, you might think that you should know immediately when you see “the one.” You’ve definitely seen that in a movie. If a friend came to you and said that they’d just met their soulmate in a grocery store and they’re moving to live with them in Canada next week, you’d hopefully have some concerns.
You can’t deal with the codependency in your relationship without trying to understand why you’ve found yourself in this situation. Understanding where your way of responding to your partner comes from is your first step in healing any past hurts and starting to rebuild a healthier relationship with yourself and others.
Doing some research into attachment styles can be really helpful here. Attachment styles offer insight into why you might react in certain ways and what you might be trying to achieve.
Remember that you are far more complex than a single category, though. Really understanding your own motivations and drivers will usually mean doing a lot of compassionate self-reflection. Journaling can be really helpful here for helping you to understand both what you are feeling and where it comes from.
Being self-sufficient is the biggest antidote to codependency. This doesn’t mean that you have to do everything for yourself or that you can’t be close to others, but it’s also important to know that you can cope with situations by yourself.
If you’re the caretaker in your relationship, you’ll probably find that you’re already doing many (if not all) of the practical tasks yourself. When your inner voice tells you that you can’t cope alone, try to remind yourself that you’re already doing a huge amount of work and that you’re coping with everything already.
Being self-sufficient will also mean taking responsibility for your own needs and practicing making decisions without consulting your partner or trying to work out what they would want you to do.
Think about the things that you need in your life to be happy. Try to include at least one of them each day. It might be helpful to put things for yourself earlier in the day because leaving them till later makes it more likely that you’ll put them off (which is the same habit you’re trying to break).
Being alone is one of the biggest fears many people in codependent relationships have. Practicing being alone will be uncomfortable in the short term, but it can help you to really overcome that fear.
Try spending time just by yourself. Go for a walk with someone that makes you happy or spend some time reading in your local library. If possible, turn your phone off so that you can’t be interrupted. Over time, you might build up to having coffee alone or even going on a weekend break or out for a nice meal by yourself.
And just to be clear, doing errands for someone else (or even for yourself) doesn’t count as spending time alone. This is about focusing on you and your needs. If you’re running errands for someone else, your attention is on them rather than you.
Codependent relationships are hugely intertwined and both of you probably look towards the relationship for all of your emotional needs. Create some space and independence by having a wider support network of people to talk to and spend time with.
This might mean that you work on your relationship with family members or that you try to make more friends. The more people you have to turn to, the easier it is to have some balance in your relationship.
Both you and your partner are going to have to change to fix a codependent relationship. The receiver is going to have to start doing more for themselves and paying attention to their partner’s needs and the caretaker is going to have to be more assertive and prioritize themselves.
Having open and honest conversations about what you’re doing and why is key to your success. Both of you are likely to find it difficult at times and you might want to push back against some of the changes. Talking about it helps you to build a stronger, more equal relationship at the same time as making it easier to overcome those hurdles.
I say experiment with self-care because self-care often isn’t intuitive or natural for someone who has codependent tendencies. Learning what actually recharges you and makes you feel stronger and more centered might take some time.
Try lots of different things that might help you to look after yourself. Create lists. Have whole days off. Spend time with friends. Be alone. Exercise. Have a long bath. Go somewhere new. Give yourself permission to stay home. Journal. Draw. Cry.
Some of these things will make you feel better. Some won’t, or they might even make you feel worse. That’s ok. You need to experiment to really understand your own self-care needs. Once you know what nourishes you, make sure you incorporate it into your everyday life.
Practice saying no to things you’d rather not do. If you’re in a codependent relationship, you might also have poor boundaries in other parts of your life as well. Start small and build up to being able to say no without feeling the need to give excuses.
If you’re struggling with boundaries, use the phrase “I’m not sure. I’ll check and get back to you tomorrow.” That gives you time to think about whether you really want to do the thing you’re being asked about. It’s also often easier to say “I’m sorry. I won’t be able to do that” over text, rather than face-to-face.
A trained therapist or counselor will be able to support you as you try to move your relationship from codependent towards something healthy and happy. They’ll be able to help you understand where your codependent tendencies came from, work through any underlying issues, and learn how to set boundaries and improve your self-worth.
Therapy can be expensive, but there are often cost-effective options available. It’s an investment in yourself as well as your future relationships and happiness. If you’re really struggling, try contacting local charities to see whether there is any free help available.
As hard as you might try, some codependent relationships can’t (and maybe even shouldn’t) be fixed. This includes if there has been domestic violence or abuse. Loving someone isn’t always enough. There are times when you might need to love yourself enough to accept that it’s time to walk away from your relationship.
Moving your codependent relationship to be more healthy is possible, but it’s not easy. Both people need to be willing to change and have to work hard to notice when you’re falling into old patterns of behavior. Realizing that your relationship is codependent is a huge first step, though.
Codependent relationships can often last longer than you might think, but that’s not a good thing. The person who is constantly giving will often feel ignored and taken for granted and the person being supported can feel stifled. Neither person can fulfill their potential in a codependent relationship.
Both people will usually struggle when a codependent relationship ends. You’ve become so entwined with each other that it’s hard to disentangle your lives. It’s important to spend some time healing before you leap into a new relationship.
Neither person in a codependent relationship is really used to being fully independent or autonomous. This makes breakups really difficult. You instinctively reach out to each other in the ways that you’re used to and you have to relearn how to be alone.
Codependent relationships aren’t healthy. They’re inherently unequal and both sides are often left with lower self-esteem and confidence. Luckily, a codependent relationship can be saved if both people are willing to really work at it.
Have you ever fixed a codependent relationship? How did it go? Let us know in the comments. And don’t forget to share this article with someone who needs to read it.