There are so many ways a relationship can become derailed: cheating, lack of trust, and loss of passion, to name a few. But a less glaring issue is codependency—a dynamic where one or both partners are reliant on the other. Codependency is defined by poor boundaries and can lead to dissatisfaction, even if things look rosy on the outside. However, this pattern can be identified—and rectified—if you know the signs. Read on to hear from therapists about the red flags that signal codependency in a relationship. If you notice them, you may want to address the issue in couples or individual therapy sooner than later.
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One person is always the center of attention.
A major red flag of codependency is that one person's emotional needs regularly require more attention than the other's. "In healthy relationships, there is a balance of give and take," says Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor at Shaded Bough Counseling. "There might be days where one person is the center of attention or support, but they will give that to their partner sometimes, too. In a codependent relationship, the person who's the center of attention and support is almost always in that role." In return, the person who's giving that attention and support doesn't get their needs met.
You become anxious when your partner is gone.
In healthy relationships, each person should be able to occupy themselves when the other is away, whether that be for a few hours or a few days. If anxiety sets in, it could be a sign of codependency. "Anxiety symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, overeating, overuse of technology and screens, substance use, or other behaviors that either distract someone from their feelings or provide superficial relief," says David Helfand, PsyD, a licensed psychologist specializing in couples therapy. "If you feel anxious when your partner is away, that could be a sign that you are dependent on them for your well-being."
Some anxiety is okay, he notes. "Perhaps your partner is visiting their estranged parent and you feel empathy," Helfand says. "It's normal to have a slightly anxious reaction, in this case." However, you should be able to self-soothe within a reasonable period of time. If you can't, you may be dependent on your partner for that calming effect.
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You do everything together.
Spending every second together is the opposite of healthy. "A very easily overlooked red flag that someone in the relationship is codependent is if they do everything together," says Desiree Taranto, LMHC, a licensed therapist with Empower Your Mind Therapy in New York. "Their interests start to mesh, and it is almost like they become one person."
Intertwining your lives in key ways is important, but your partner should not become your whole life. "You should not lose friends, ignore family, or not do the things that interested you prior to the relationship. In doing so, you are losing your identity and if/when the relationship ends, it could be hard to find who you are again," explains Taranto. Set this boundary early to avoid getting lost in the partnership.
You struggle to communicate honestly.
Genuine communication is essential in any relationship. "Codependents are often afraid to share their true feelings and thoughts, especially if they feel like they will be judged or rejected by the other person," says Colleen Wenner, LMHC, a therapist at New Heights Counseling&Consulting. "This can lead to an unhealthy dynamic where both partners are constantly trying to please each other and unable to express themselves honestly." This lack of communication could lead to the inability to meet each other's needs and desires. The codependent person could also be pressured to change into what the other person wants. "This only makes things worse," Wenner adds.
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Breaking up is your worst fear.
No matter how good it is, your relationship shouldn't be your only priority in life. "If one person is expressing that the relationship is their everything and they need it to survive, that is a huge red flag," says Taranto. "This is a sign of codependency because the person expressing this is most likely lacking self-esteem and is using their relationship as a way to feel whole." As Taranto notes, you should go into each partnership as a whole person.
"Another way this shows codependency is if the other person in the relationship is aware of the feelings of the codependent partner, this can make the relationship feel like a burden," Taranto adds. "It can feel very heavy, and that person can live in fear of breaking up with the other person, not knowing what they would do if the relationship ended."