In any kind of relationship — be it with a friend, romantic partner, family member, or even a coworker — it's normal and healthy to have some level of dependence on another person. But if you find yourself making a lot of sacrifices for someone else's happiness and not getting as much as you want in return, that might be a sign that you're in a dysfunctional codependent relationship.
"Codependency is really about one person being reliant on the another to the point of being controlled or manipulated by that person," says Vera Eck, MFT, a relationship therapist in Los Angeles. "Like how an alcoholic is dependent on a substance, the codependent is dependent on the person and their relationship. They use the other person to fill the hole in the soul."
Eck says that codependents, or those who are overly reliant on another person in a relationship, tend to be givers, who will keep going above and beyond for someone else who isn't reciprocating that level of care. Eventually, the codependent person can become angry that they're not getting mutual treatment, and can begin to feel like victims.
"Codependency comes from a low self-esteem and loss of identity," she says. "It becomes a cycle, where the person continues to think, If only I did this one thing better, this person will love me, so let me give in a different way. And the cycle continues."
If this sounds like a relationship you're in, Eck says that you can start working towards addressing that unhealthy dependency through group or individual therapy. If, however, you find yourself on the receiving end of someone's codependency and are uncomfortable with how much they're relying on you, it may be time to have a conversation about your boundaries.
The bottom line is, you have to communicate your needs, even if that's easier said than done. If you think you might be in an unhealthy relationship, read ahead for a few signs that you might be veering towards codependency. It's by no means an exhaustive list, and on the flip side, identifying with one or more of these signs isn't a surefire indication that your relationship is unhealthy. But if you find yourself recognizing most or all of these signs, it may be time to think about setting healthier parameters.
A key sign of codependency is if you or your partner have an overwhelming need to be needed. That can mean being offended when your help isn't wanted, or sacrificing your own needs to be what someone else wants.
"When a codependent person’s help is not wanted, they get mad," Eck says. "It’s part of their identity, and they don’t like that sense of rejection."
Since codependent people can be such people-pleasers, they often have difficulty saying no.
"Whether it’s in an intimate relationship or coworker relationship, they’ll do anything to please the other person," Eck says. "They’ll change who they are just to get someone to like them."
If a person is constantly hesitating to speak up about issues in a relationship to keep the peace, Eck says, it's a sign that they may have become so codependent that they're afraid to do anything that could cause that relationship to end.
Feeling as if someone completes you and makes you feel whole might seem romantic, but Eck says that it can quickly turn into one person feeling incomplete without the other — which is definitely a relationship red flag.
"When that person is gone, they feel totally empty," she says. "And that’s when the clingy behavior comes in — people can act really needy and scared, and start texting their significant other incessantly."
It's not uncommon for your friends not to like someone you're dating. But Eck says that if your friends have concerns about how healthy your relationship is, you might want to hear them out.
"A lot of the time, other people will see that you’re in an unhealthy relationship before you do," she says. "If you hear yourself defending the relationship a lot, that’s a clue that something is wrong."
Owning up to a problem you're responsible for is one thing, but Eck says that if you begin thinking things like, I must be doing something wrong, or, I’m not a good enough girlfriend, that could signify a dysfunction in your relationship.
If you feel like you're constantly trying to "save" people or take care of them, you may want to begin being more careful about who you surround yourself with.
"Codependent people tend to attract people who need someone to take care of them," Eck says. "Usually, the sad part about a codependent relationship is that the recipient is using the codependent."