We throw the word “codependent” around a lot nowadays; we often use it to mean “close-knit,” or “deeply enmeshed.” If you’re a member of the queer community, you may hear it thrown around even more; we love talking about how codependent a long-term or newly-U-hauled couple can be. But much like “gaslight” or “boundaries,” it’s easy to lose sight of the original context and meaning of this term — and the way it may be showing up in your relationships. What does codependency really mean, and does it describe you or your relationship?
What is codependency?
You’ve likely heard the term before — it may have been used to describe someone who seems overly invested in their relationships with others, or maybe someone who can’t be alone, or without their partner: “She brings Susie to everything, I haven’t seen her solo in months — they’re so codependent.”
Although the meanings of words can change through use over time, the original and clinical definition of codependency actually comes from work around substance abuse and addiction. It reflects an evolving understanding that addiction doesn’t just impact the person who uses substances, but everyone around them; it can define a family dynamic, or form a system that influences the behavior in it. Often, within a system like this, there’s an active addict and there may be a person who is codependent with the addict. This codependent person isn’t addicted to anything, but their life is nonetheless organized largely around the other person’s substance use.
If you grew up in a home with addiction, you may have a sense of what this entails: the codependent person often manages all the day-to-day responsibilities that tend to fall by the wayside in active addiction, like paying bills or getting meals on the table, as well as managing the fallout of consequences related to substance abuse to try to mitigate their impact.
This concept of codependency is discussed in detail in Melody Beattie’s popular work Codependent No More, often read along with participation in some kind of twelve-step Al-Anon program aimed at codependents rather than addicts. Beattie defines a codependent person as “one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”
This can sound very harsh! It may feel like a codependent person is being described as manipulative, sick, abusive or toxic. In the case of addiction, however, and many instances like it — like mental illness, for instance — “controlling [your partner’s] behavior” may have different connotations. Here are some examples of behaviors that a codependent partner might display — do any of them look familiar?
- My partner is out drinking with their friends, and when they come home they’ll want to just keep the good times going, but I know they need to be up early for work tomorrow — I’ll just put the liquor in the cabinet instead of on the counter so it doesn’t occur to them to pour another drink, and maybe they’ll just come to bed.
- I know my partner needs therapy for her trauma, but she isn’t taking initiative on it; I’m just going to leave messages with some therapists I’ve researched and think might be a good fit for her, so if they reach out, she has options.
- My partner has been having such a bad time at work lately, and they stayed late again today — they’ve been too stressed to do any of their chores around the house. I’ll just do the dishes and put away the laundry even though it’s their turn so that they don’t have a meltdown about how messy the house is when they get home.
All of these actions are well-intentioned and probably actually do benefit the person they’re aimed at helping; they also do have an end goal of maneuvering our partner into behaving a certain way or getting a certain outcome. This is codependency: wanting so badly to help, both for your partner’s sake and for trying to make the relationship one that’s stable enough you feel you can stay in it, that you begin going to great lengths to manage your partner as a full-time job.
Am I codependent?
Possibly! If you did grow up with addiction or mental illness in your home or have had previous significant relationships with other adults who struggle with these things, you may have learned these codependent behaviors as a coping mechanism, and still carry them forward into other relationships in your life that aren’t marked by the same dynamics. Codependence is a dynamic first described in the context of addiction; that doesn’t mean that’s the only circumstance it occurs in.
It’s also possible that you didn’t have that dynamic, and are still codependent; especially for women, caretaking is often an unspoken expectation from childhood, and women who date men in particular are often given the responsibility for their male partner’s actions as well as their own, essentially asked to be parents as well as partners. All of these situations can evolve into a codependent dynamic. Here are some things to consider:
Do you often feel more preoccupied with your partner’s problems or life than your own?
It’s of course normal to be invested in your partner’s wellbeing and to feel upset if they’re upset, or worried on their behalf if they’re facing big challenges. However, it’s less normal to be invested in these problems at the expense of your own. What does this look like? Do you find yourself canceling your own plans when your partner is having a hard time or had a bad day? Do you spend your therapy appointments talking about how you could be helping them, or problem solving their issues? When friends ask how you are, do you find yourself responding with what’s going on with your partner currently?
Do you feel persistent anxiety over helping your partner make the right choices, or “getting them to see” why they should handle things a certain way?
Perhaps the clearest flag for some kind of codependent dynamic is when I hear one person musing about how to “get” their partner to take some action that’s for their own good, or “get them” to see what you know is best for them. Again, these aren’t on malevolent topics: I often hear people wondering how to “get their” partner to begin therapy, or “get their” partner to work on their relationship with their toxic mother. First and foremost, while well-intentioned, this is unlikely to go anywhere helpful; as we know, you can’t control others’ actions, even when your ideas really would help them. All you can do is control your own actions by setting boundaries.
Do you love feeling “needed” in a relationship?
It always feels good to hear something like “I can’t live without you” from a partner, or to get feedback about how important we are to them. That’s different, however, than feeling like our sense of self-worth and value in a relationship derives entirely from our partner being dependent on us — hence “codependent.” When your partner ably handles something independently, does that feel like a satisfying relief for you, or do you feel a pang of anxiety or resentment that you weren’t involved?
Do you feel anxiety or guilt around taking vacations without your partner, going out without them, or leaving them to handle household tasks alone?
The flip side of the rush of good brain chemicals we receive from feeling needed can be the fact that leaving our partner without our constant support can make us feel immense guilt. Do you feel like you can easily and confidently take vacations away from your partner, work extra shifts, or spend plenty of time with friends — or do you feel anxious about how your partner will manage, or what will go wrong while you’re gone? Do you feel the need to prepare extensively if you’re going to be out of the house, prepping meals for a visit to see your folks, or making sure your partner has a new video game to play if you have plans with friends?
What do I do if I think I might be codependent?
First, it’s important to recognize that any dynamic of codependency doesn’t mean you — or your partner! — are bad people or bad partners. It does, however, mean that there could be changes made to your relationship to make it healthier. Books like Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More can help, and if you do feel like you have some history with living with an addict, some may find Al-Anon useful.
But for pretty much everyone, a good first step is to seek out therapy — or, if you’re already in individual therapy, to bring up codependency as an issue you’d like to work on. It may be helpful for you and your partner to consider couples therapy if you’re both on board and ready to do the work. It’s important to recognize that codependency isn’t something one person “does” to the other, even if one person is “the codependent” — it’s a dynamic that both of you participate in and both of you can work to change.