Co-Dependence In Romantic Relationships

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Have you ever experienced co-dependence in a relationship?

If you have, you know it can be a real challenge. Not only to the relationship but to your mental health as well.

So today, we’re going to explore co-dependency. This includes knowing what it is, how to recognize it, and how to move towards a healthier dynamic.

What is Co-Dependence?

Co-dependence occurs in a romantic relationship when a person relies on their partner or to define their identity and happiness. This is often caused by lack of self esteem.

It can look like:

  1. Constantly seeking a partner’s approval
  2. Excessive clinginess
  3. Mood swings
  4. Lack of individual self expression
  5. A need for control
  6. Excessive worry
  7. Inability to set or respect boundaries
  8. Separation anxiety, and many more unhelpful behaviors.

These behaviors are cyclical, often existing on a feedback loop: the more one partner clings, the further back the other pulls, the more the other partner scrambles to hold on. And so on.

The Co-Dependence Scale

Co-dependence exist on a scale. It can be mild as being indecisive (can’t make a decision without partner’s approval). Or it can be as extreme as being so focused on your beau that you forget your own needs.

Where you are on the co-dependency scale changes frequently depending on a lot of things. Environment, up-bringing, relationship experience, age, and past trauma can all be factors that move you from victim, to persecutor, to rescuer all the way back to victim.

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***You can check out the Spann-Fischer Co-Dependency Scale if you want to know where you are on the spectrum. Speak to a therapist if the results indicate a trend towards co-dependent behaviors***

Co-dependence can be an indicator of a deeper issue such as Dependent Personality Disorder or Substance Abuse Disorder. It can also be linked to a variety of other mental health issues.

However, for a lot of people, co-dependence is more likely to be a function of a negative relationship dynamic.

What is a Relationship Dynamic?

According to LCSW Irina Firstein, a relationship dynamic is a “predicatable pattern of interaction or communication between a couple (or family).”

Basically, it’s the behaviors you’ve developed to relate to your loved ones. There can be multiple dynamics of varying types within a family unit or even between just two people. They can be contradictory or complementary.

Take the dynamics in my family for example. We we taught to hold in our emotions unless we were expressing them through anger. Not very healthy.

On the flip side, we were fiercely protective of each other, bonding us a unit, which was healthy.

So dynamics aren’t always always all positive or all negative. It’s when they take an extreme turn, as they do with co-dependence, that they become harmful to a relationship.

How to Recognize Co-Dependence In Your relationship Dynamic

It can be a little hard to suss out what’s co-dependency and what’s a regular relationship pitfall.

Take a new relationship, for instance. You’re enmeshed in the process of falling in love. It’s pretty natural that all you can think of is your partner. But if these feelings persist and cause intense anxiety, you may have a problem with co-dependency.

One of the biggest red flags of co-dependence is a lack of healthy boundaries. Check out the list below to identify unhelpful behaviors.

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If you’re still not sure, here are a few sure-fire indicators of co-dependence in a relationship:

  1. You’re neglecting your own basic needs like eating and sleeping because you’re constantly worried about your partner.
  2. You’ve pulled from back friends and family and only spend time with your partner.
  3. You find yourself doing things you wouldn’t normally do just to please your partner.
  4. You’ve stopped doing things that make you happy, you only do things your partner enjoys
  5. Your mood is dictated by your partner’s mood (i.e. you can’t be happy unless they are too).
  6. Your mental health has gotten noticeably worse by being with your partner.
  7. You constantly feel anxious, stressed, irritable, and depressed. Especially at home.
  8. You feel extreme anxiety when away from your partner.

The exact symptoms vary person to person. But the prevailing theme is you are paying more attention to your partner’s needs and emotions than your own.

What to do about it

It’s important to remember co-dependency is not a personality trait, but a situational reaction to a stimulus. It’s just a pattern of behavior and behavior can be changed with careful attention.

Once you’ve recognized your co-dependent patterns, it’s time to reach out to a therapist, LCSW, or couples counselor. They can help put things in perspective for you and your partner.

It’s also really helpful to check out online resources like MSB’s Pinterest. There we’ve curated volumes of the best worksheets, education, TED Talks, and co-dependence recovery steps like those below from Michelle Farris

Learning how to heal your codependency starts with specific tasks to keep you on the path of recovery.
Recovery from co-dependence starts with putting yourself first <3

Maria’s Tips for Healing from Co-Dependence

Like I said, I’ve been there.

It’s taken me years to unlearn a lot of the bad behaviors I accrued as a young adult but I’m getting there.

And if I can change my ways, you can definitely do it too! To help out: here are some of the most important lessons I learned along the way:

  1. Get out of the house. Those of us with co-dependent behaviors also tend to isolate and that makes things worse not better. Going to a support group, a fun Meetup, or even just to the tea shop down the street can give you some space to think clearly.
  2. Build a Support Network. Depending solely on your partner to attend to your emotional needs can be really overwhelming for the other person. It’s good to seek outside help both from your peers and professionally.
  3. Focus on yourself. Co-dependency prevents you from developing your own sense of self. It’s important to take time to discover things you like to do, even if they’re weird, silly, or not something your partner is interested in. This behavioral activation will make you feel good and help you get to know yourself.
  4. Have Self-Compassion. It’s crucial to be kind to yourself as you unlearn these behaviors. You’re going to backslide, you’re going to “mess up” because recovery isn’t linear. Remember to give yourself some slack.

Wrap Up

To wrap up, I want to have some real talk with you.

I know a lot of people have shame attached to their co-dependency. I know because I do too.

A lot of people develop this particular relationship dynamic because it’s worked to combat trauma in the past. It’s just one way of relating to a crazy world and not a personal failing. It’s just behavior.

So cut yourself some slack as you move forward. You are beautiful and deserve to be happy, co-dependence or no. <3

Much Love,


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13 thoughts on “Co-Dependence In Romantic Relationships”

    1. Absolutely, attachment theory really ties into co-dependence! I have an anxious insecure attachment style which makes me more prone to co-dependent behaviors.

      1. Dear MM,

        I am glad you recognize that! But I would like to remind you that in the dating world, and like everything in life, we have to choose or peers. So my question for you is, are you choosing the right peers?

        Avoidant or unavailable people want to have intimate relationships like anybody else, but they are experts at making people feel uncertain and anxious with their “nonsense” behavior.

        You are one wonderful woman and with emotional intelligence enough to work your “issues” and fly high. 😉 <3

      2. Thank you for your lovely and thoughtful words ❤️

        You’re correct in saying I wasn’t choosing complementary peers!! Rather I was just going with whomever liked me. This made me a prime target for an emotionally abusive ex with narcissistic personality traits.

        Since that experience, I’ve done a lot of work to protect myself. I’m proud to say now that my attachment style hasn’t held me back from true love ❤️ I’m now married to a wonderful, caring partner who accepts and helps me understand the nonsense behavior 🥰

        Thanks again for reading and commenting, you are likewise wonderful 😄

      3. I am so happy to read what you wrote. I am for real.

        I had a relationship of almost two years with one avoidant man, and even though I don’t like to give labels to people when it comes to human psychology. We have to.
        Are they bad people? What I see is they are completely out of touch with their internal feelings and reality, which is very bad to sustain one healthy relationship with someone.

        I am majority secure, but I can tell you, there were times I was so anxious because I was dealing with life changes at work and having breadcrumbing support from him.

        The breakup came out of nowhere, but you know what? I feel sorry for him. And unfortunately, if these people ever got married or have kids, the cycle will repeat, and kids will be like them.

        Wishing you love! <3

      4. Aw, I’m so sorry you had a bad experience and glad it didn’t last!

        I agree, my ex wasn’t a bad person, he was just one with lots of personal struggle, not unlike myself.

        I feel compassion for him too. He hasn’t ever a been able to hold down a meaningful relationship, unable to let people in.

        For me I wanted to stop the cycle I saw him repeating. I think my husband and I’s future children will have a good chance at a normal life now, even despite my issues. And for that I’m very grateful!!

      5. Two years is the maximum length of time to these relationships because their deactivating strategies are a pain in the ass. And unlike other people, they don’t want to find solutions for problems. So ending the relationship and find out new pursuits is much better.

        Enjoy your marriage and if you want to read more things about this topic, I can give you some links.

        “Attached”, is one amazing book 😉

        I can tell you, I am so in peace <3

  1. Intriguing article. I opened it to check if I’m co-dependent on my partner, thankfully, I’m not. But definitely helped me realize that I need to not seek approval — and it’s what I’ve been working on in the past few weeks. 🙂

    I took the the Spann-Fischer test, but I don’t understand how it works.

    1. Thanks for reading! I’m glad you’re working on the affirmation seeking, it’s something I struggle with as well and it’s not easy to stop!

      What are you doing to work on it, I’m curious because I could use some tips myself!

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