Whether it's a friendship, romantic partner, or family member, a key part of any relationship is to support each other, and to be able to depend on one another on some level. But over-dependence on someone — to the point of being controlled or manipulated by them — can manifest itself in codependency, in which one person goes above and beyond to please someone who isn't reciprocating.
The difference between being codependent and just being super-supportive, though, can be hard to pin down.
"Being supportive is great, you’re there for a friend," says Vera Eck, MFT, a psychotherapist based in Los Angeles. "That’s just being a good friend. But if you’re the person everyone goes to, where it’s just a one way street and you’re doing all the giving and there’s no reciprocity, then that is unhealthy."
The line, she says, should be drawn "when helping others hurts you." In other words, if you're consistently overextending yourself to be there for someone at the cost of your own needs, that could be a sign of an unhealthy dynamic. Other signs of codependency? Feeling the need to be needed by someone, feeling sad or lonely without the other person, and blaming yourself for all the issues in your relationship.
Your needs can’t be met if someone doesn’t know they’re there.
Vera Eck, MFT
Eck says that people predisposed to being codependent on someone else might have something in their own lives that they're trying to avoid, so they compensate by focusing on someone else's.
If you feel as if your relationship with someone is taking a turn into codependent territory, Eck says you can start addressing it by trying to establish some boundaries — maybe by openly communicating your worries to the other person, taking time to yourself, or even seeing a codependent support group to talk out your worries.
"What you have to do is, in general, to have healthy boundaries, so you know when you’re helping someone a lot and you’re getting drained," she says. "You have to stop before it hurts you, before you lose sleep over it."
Of course, that's easier said than done, but if you feel taken advantage of in a relationship, or you feel like you're going out of your way for someone who isn't quite doing the same, it's better to speak up before it eats away at you.
"You can’t change anyone but yourself," she says. "Your needs can’t be met if someone doesn’t know they’re there."