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What does unhealthy codependency look like?

Codependency refers to a relationship dynamic where one person enables or facilitates another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. The codependent person attempts to derive a sense of purpose and self-worth from their relationships with others, usually by trying to help, protect or control them. This leads to unhealthy behaviors that often do more harm than good for both people in the relationship. While the intentions may be good, codependency can become dysfunctional and destructive if left unchecked.

What are the signs of an unhealthy codependent relationship?

There are several common signs that can indicate an unhealthy codependent relationship:

  • Constant caretaking – The codependent person feels compelled to take care of and fix their partner’s problems.
  • Poor boundaries – The codependent person has difficulty understanding where they end and their partner begins.
  • People pleasing – The codependent person seeks validation and worth from making sacrifices to please their partner.
  • Low self-esteem – The codependent person’s sense of self is determined almost exclusively by the needs of their partner and the relationship.
  • Addiction enabling – The codependent person helps conceal or enable their partner’s addictions or unhealthy behaviors.
  • Control – The codependent person seeks to control their partner’s behaviors and choices.
  • Dysfunctional communication – The codependent person avoids expressing their own needs or may be passive aggressive.
  • Codependents often ignore their own emotions and instincts in order to keep the peace.

In an unhealthy codependent relationship, the codependent person loses touch with their own needs, desires, and sense of self as they become obsessed with their partner and the relationship. The other partner’s poor coping strategies are enabled, allowing problems to worsen. Resentment builds as the codependent person feels overwhelmed and unable to make themselves a priority or set healthy boundaries. Both people feel angry, trapped, and unhappy in the relationship.

What causes codependency?

There are a few key factors that often contribute to codependent patterns:

  • Childhood trauma – Having abusive, addicted, or emotionally unavailable parents can impair a person’s ability to develop a strong sense of self and trust their own emotions. The child learns to focus excessively on their parents’ moods, needs, and behaviors at the expense of their own.
  • Low self-esteem – Feelings of low self-worth and inadequacy make the codependent person believe they have value only when sacrificing themselves for others.
  • People pleasing tendencies – The codependent person believes they must earn love, attachment, and approval by being helpful and servile.
  • Dysfunctional relationship models – Growing up with destructive relationship dynamicsnormalizesenabling, control, lack of boundaries, and poor communication.
  • Feeling responsible for others – A misplaced sense of responsibility for other people’s choices and emotions makes it hard for codependents to allow natural consequences.

Essentially, codependency arises when a person’s identity becomes built around someone else to fill an emotional void or gain a sense of purpose. Healthy self-care, self-confidence, and independence are underdeveloped.

How does codependency harm relationships?

Codependent relationship patterns can undermine intimacy, trust, and equality between partners. Specific ways codependency damages relationships include:

  • Breeding resentment – The codependent person feels ovewhelmed and taken for granted, while the other partner feels controlled.
  • Enabling dysfunction – The codependent partner helps the other avoid responsibility and consequences, allowing problems to worsen.
  • Poor communication – Codependents have trouble expressing their own needs and setting boundaries.
  • Lack of dependability – The codependent person’s attempts to anticipate their partner’s needs leads to unreliable follow-through.
  • Loss of autonomy – Both people lack opportunities for self-development and pursuit of their own interests.
  • Intimacy problems – With so much focus on caretaking, little energy goes to building affection and closeness.
  • Toxic stress – The burden of constant overfunctioning increases anxiety and depression.

When one partner carries the bulk of the emotional labor and responsibility in the relationship, it breeds instability. The codependent partner grows exhausted and resentful, while the other partner behaves irresponsibly. This creates an escalating cycle of dysfunction.

What are some examples of codependent behavior?

Some tangible examples of how codependency can manifest in a relationship include:

  • Micromanaging a partner’s responsibilities to ensure they do things “the right way.”
  • Staying in a relationship with physical or emotional abuse and making excuses for the partner’s behavior.
  • Giving up enjoyable hobbies or friendships to spend all free time with a possessive partner.
  • Taking the blame for a partner’s destructive actions to avoid conflict or protect their ego.
  • Hiding or lying about a partner’s substance abuse or infidelity to present a happy image of the relationship.
  • Constantly seeking validation from a partner and basing your mood on their approval or attention.
  • Feeling guilty when taking care of your own needs instead of serving a partner.
  • Working excessively to financially support a partner who refuses to hold a job.
  • Having an affair because you feel trapped in an unhappy marriage but are afraid to leave.

These examples demonstrate the loss of self, poor boundaries, and denial of reality that occur when someone makes the dysfunctions of another person the dominant focus of the relationship. The codependent partner accommodates and enables the other partner’s unhealthy behavior.

How can you overcome unhealthy codependency?

It takes insight, courage, and strong support to break out of deeply ingrained codependent patterns. Some steps to overcome unhealthy codependency include:

  • Seek counseling to understand root causes of codependency like childhood trauma or insecurity issues.
  • Join a support group to realize you are not alone and be inspired by others’ recovery.
  • Practice self-care and assertiveness training to develop your identity beyond the relationship.
  • Set firm boundaries with consequences when your partner disrespects or exploits you.
  • Abstain from substance abuse and limit time spent with enablers of codependency.
  • Build your self-esteem through activities and achievements separate from your partner.
  • Don’t tolerate abuse or toxicity just to hold onto a relationship.
  • Limit caretaking behaviors so your partner experiences natural consequences.
  • Increase social connections with healthy people who support your autonomy.
  • Accept that you cannot control your partner – only your own responses.

The recovery process also requires you to address any trauma, perfectionistic tendencies, people pleasing, or conflict avoidance within yourself that feeds into codependent patterns. Learning to identify and honor your own needs and feelings again is essential.

How can you avoid codependency in new relationships?

Once you have greater self-knowledge, you can be proactive about avoiding codependency in future relationships. Strategies include:

  • Commit to only dating partners with qualities like responsibility, independence, honesty, and respect.
  • Take it slowly when getting to know new partners to assess their true character before getting attached.
  • Seek balance between coupled activities and maintaining your own interests and friendships.
  • Listen to your intuition – if you feel constantly worried about or drained by a new partner, take it as a red flag.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into commitments too quickly like moving in, combining finances, or having a child.
  • Communicate your boundaries clearly and leave if they are not respected.
  • Tune into your feelings and needs in the relationship – don’t suppress any signs of resentment.
  • Model healthy relationship behaviors like good conflict resolution skills, autonomy, and speaking up for your needs.
  • Get support from friends, family, or professionals if you slip into old codependent habits again.

Remaining mindful, setting boundaries, and choosing emotionally healthy partners can help you build relationships where codependency does not take hold.


Codependency has severe consequences for relationships when one partner’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors become compulsively centered around the dysfunction of the other partner. Recognizing the unhealthy caretaking, poor boundaries, low self-worth, and denial that comprise codependency is the first step. Seeking counseling, boosting self-esteem, establishing consequences, and focusing on your own needs are proactive ways to overcome these destructive patterns. With self-knowledge, assertiveness, and perseverance, you can break cycles of codependency and build authentic, balanced relationships.