Needless to say, relationships are complicated, and it can be difficult to objectively evaluate the ones you're in whether they be friendships or romantic partnerships. For that reason, we often turn to relationship experts when we want to determine why people cheat, learn how to identify toxic friendships, and figure out when to end a relationship. We seek out experts who will give us the facts (and give them to us straight).
So to get a better understanding of codependent relationships, we asked Kelly Campbell, PhD, associate professor of psychology and human development at California State University, San Bernardino, all our burning questions, starting with the most basic: What is a codependent relationship? According to Campbell, you know a relationship is a codependent one when "a person forgoes their own needs in order to please or gain acceptance from the other person."
Ahead, a relationship expert explains everything you need to know about codependent relationships, including the signs, the psychology behind them, and what to do if you're in one.
To get a better sense of codependence, we asked Campbell to explain the dynamics of the relationship. "One person is reliant on the assistance of the other (the codependent) in order to get their needs met," she says. "They often cannot function on their own (e.g., they are ill or have an addiction)—but yet may have psychological power over the codependent and manipulate them to get their needs met."
Campbell explains that both people are responsible for maintaining this relationship. "The dependent person seeks assistance, whether intentionally or not, and the codependent sacrifices their own health and well-being in order to fulfill that person's needs," she says. There's a cycle that happens in order to fuel codependence, according to Campbell.
The dysfunction is, as you'd expect, based upon depending on someone else and creating that dynamic. "The codependent creates ways to keep the other person overly dependent on them (e.g., not sharing information, lying, controlling things)," she explains. "This makes the codependent feel needed and good about themselves, but it's a cycle because the codependent is forgoing their own needs. So although their caretaking brings them temporary satisfaction, it also builds resentment and anger."
There are a number of signs that indicate you may be in a codependent relationship. For example:
They never feel loved or appreciated for their sacrifices.
"The codependent feels overly responsible for the actions and outcomes of the other person," says Campbell. "Their self-esteem is tied to the outcomes or well-being of the dependent person."
They don't know who they are outside of their relationship.
"If the relationship were to end, their sense of self would be lost," she says. "They don't even know who they are anymore because their sense of self is defined by their caretaking role."
They feel angry and resentful of their partner.
"They can feel angry and resentful because they've sacrificed so much yet don't feel their sacrifices are appreciated or acknowledged," she explains.
The psychology behind codependence is relatively straightforward, explains Campbell. "Oftentimes, codependent people didn't get the love they needed while growing up," she says. "As adults, they are still seeking that love, and they tend to select partners who are unlikely to give it to them."
Why do codependents gravitate toward partners who are less likely to let them in? According to Campbell, "there are a number of reasons they select such partners (e.g., not believing they deserve anything better, modeling the only other intimate relationship they've known, and trying to fix their childhood problems through their adult relationships—they want to rescue or fix their partner and secure their love because this will help them resolve the unresolved issues from childhood)."
The pattern of codependence can be hard to break since it's rooted in childhood, but there are active steps you can take, as Campbell explains below.
The Next Steps
If you've determined that you're in a codependent relationship, Campbell suggests therapy as a productive next step. "[The codependent] need[s] to learn the origins of this pattern and recognize its impact," explains Campbell. "Through therapy, the codependent learns a new relationship model that they can apply to other close relationships."
But beyond breaking the pattern, "the codependent also needs to learn who they are as an individual," continues Campbell. Taking time to evaluate your own needs is crucial for codependents, she explains. "They have been too enmeshed with their significant other and lost their sense of self, so this needs to be rediscovered—what are their needs, interests, hobbies, feelings, and preferences."
Finally, she explains that "[codependents] need to build up their self-esteem and learn to say 'no' when something compromises their health and well-being and pushes their personal boundaries." In other words, putting yourself first is an important step in reestablishing your independence.