Signs you're in a codependent relationship – and what to do about it

Signs you're in a codependent relationship – and what to do about it

At first, being in a ‘codependent’ relationship doesn’t sound so bad.

You rely on each other – that’s nice, right?

But the problem with codependency is that it’s not just two people trusting each other to be there.

Codependency is about a need. Your entire life is centred around your partner, and your individual identity gets sucked into the relationship.

If you’re experiencing codependency, you’ll centre your entire life around your partner, who will soak up the sacrifices you make as a sign you really like them.

Your self-worth will be entire dependent on your partner’s approval, and you’ll do whatever you can – even if that means making yourself miserable or entirely changing who you are – to please them.

The tricky thing is that when you’re in that pattern, it can be hard to recognise it.

So, what are some signs you can watch out for?

We spoke with Mary Joye, a therapist and the author of Codependent Recovery and Discovery 2.0, to find out.

Signs you could be in a codependent relationship

You change for someone

‘If you find you are acquiescing to others or giving up things you like or love for someone else’s desires, you are in danger of giving up your rights to live a fulfilled life,’ Mary tells Metro.co.uk.

‘This can happen in the tiniest increments, but it adds up. If your partner doesn’t like red and your favorite color is red, you may quit wearing it or go so far as to convince yourself you don’t like it either.’

Your partner is critical and controlling – and you comply to keep the peace

Mary explains: ‘This is a sign of narcissistic abuse, and many codependents find themselves in relationships with users, abusers, and controllers.

‘Narcissists love to be pleased and codependents are people pleasers by nature.

‘Be aware of anyone who puts you down, dismisses or diminishes you as they are doing this to feel better about themselves and sadly, it is intentional.

‘If you find yourself doing whatever it takes to win another’s approval at your expense, stop and reassess what it will take to make you feel better about yourself.

‘You will be a self-doubting, confused, and conflicted codependent if you play into this convoluted dynamic.’

The relationship is one-sided

The ‘co’ part of codependent can make you think codependency is coming from both sides.

But often it’s actually one person needing their partner and the other who depends on the feeling of being a necessity.

A codependent might find themselves putting their partner’s needs above their own, and putting in all the effort to keep the relationship sailing smoothly.

‘Many codependents feel uncomfortable being on the receiving end of a relationship, but healthy relationships are reciprocal,’ notes Mary.

‘If you have no self-esteem and are constantly doing for others to feel better about yourself, the intention may feel altruistic, but it is another form of self-denial.’

Breaking up feels like the worst thing in the world

If you feel like you genuinely can’t live without someone, that’s a problem.

The same goes for having a constant fear of leaving someone – or being left – even when you know, deep down, that a relationship isn’t right.

‘It may be a trauma bond if you keep going back or taking back someone who has harmed you,’ says Mary.

You feel guilty for saying ‘no’

‘It is common for codependents to feel extremely guilty about saying no to others and yes to themselves,’ Mary tells us. ‘They also pretend to agree even when it is not genuine to their values or beliefs.

‘This loss of self can result in anxiety and a feeling of dissociation and creates a disconnect with the relationship you have to yourself and in turn, with others.’

What to do if you’re in a codependent relationship

Let’s say you’ve nodded along to some of the signs above, whether they apply to a relationship you’re in now or a previous experience. Now what?

‘Losing yourself for others is how you become codependent,’ explains Mary. ‘Finding your true self is how you heal.’

Get to know yourself

When you’ve been stuck in a codependency pattern for a while, your sense of self – unattached from another person – gets muddled.

Take some time to explore who you are and what you want.

‘Being true to yourself and what you really want is difficult at first,’ Mary says. ‘Making a list of all your best qualities is a good place to begin.’

Break the trauma bond

A trauma bond feels like love, but it’s manipulation. It’s a way to keep you stuck and feeling like you need this person to survive.

‘A trauma bond is manipulated by one person, mainly by a tool called intermittent reinforcement,’ explains Mary. ‘It is created by intermittent kindness and some form of cruelty. A codependent is highly susceptible to this type of bond as they are trying to keep others happy, and the manipulative person knows it and uses your own kindness against you.

‘When they love bomb or are kind, feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin (the trust hormone) are released, and you feel wonderful. Then, when you least expect it, but they have planned it, they discard, dismiss, or abuse you. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released, and the hook is established.

‘If the trauma bond has gone on long-term it can make the recipient self-doubt and feel crazy and this is often referred to as crazy-making behavior or gaslighting. It will feel like you addicted to the person, and you are by your physiological and often subconscious reactions.’

The way to break this bond is to completely detach.

You need to remove yourself from the situation, cut off contact, and surround yourself with people who are supportive of you.

Mary advises: ‘If the trauma bond is severe, it may require a professional to help you understand how this person has harmed you and how you have played into their hand – and more importantly how you can get out of this relationship.’

Acknowledge any attachment issues

Some people are more susceptible to falling into codependent relationships.

This is often due to attachment issues formed in childhood – we’ll learn one pattern and keep reenacting it.

Getting to understand your own experiences through therapy can help you to recognise why unhealthy relationships happen and to avoid them in the future.

Slow things down

‘Be wary of instant attractions going forward,’ says Mary. ‘From working with codependents and being one myself, friendships or love relationships formed instantly are usually related to childhood attachment issues.

‘This can be wonderful if your childhood was great but horrible if there was any dysfunction.’

Start saying no

Mary says: ‘Codependents often feel rude when they say no but you must start somewhere to take your power and your life back.

‘I employ a diplomatic technique called “The Gratitude Sandwich”. If someone asks you to use a skill you have, at the expense of your time, talent, finances, and energy, you may become exhausted or resentful if you comply.

‘For example, if you are an excellent baker and someone asks you to make an elaborate wedding cake, you may be flattered, but they may be trying to save a lot of money by tapping into your delight in feeling needed and appreciated.

‘You can say no by applying the ‘thank you, no, thank you’ formula of the gratitude sandwich.

‘A reply to this example would be, “Thank you for your kind compliments but I am overextended and won’t be able to do this. But thank you for thinking of me and congratulations on your wedding.”’

Don’t panic if this isn’t an easy process – it’ll take a while to get out of the always-saying-yes habit.

‘You will still feel guilty at first because, like the trauma bond, you are breaking the addictive physiologic cues from your vagus nerve and fight/flight/frozen responses,’ notes Mary.

Prioritise self-care

When you’ve spent so much of your life prioritising someone else’s needs above your own, it’s high time to make a radical change.

‘Codependency is not a formal psychiatric disorder, but it is a constellation of symptoms that can be expressed as someone who loses themselves while caring for others,’ says Mary.

‘As a therapist, I’ve been asked many times what the difference is between being compassionate or being codependent.

‘It can seem like a blurry line at times, but if your compassion turns to a compulsion to be overly responsible or hyper-focused on another person while neglecting self-care, you might be codependent.

‘When a codependent gives, the reward centre in their brain lights up, but the effects are momentary. The “codependent hangover” can be resentment, remorse, feeling unappreciated, taken advantage of or angry.

‘This is almost always because you did more for others than you would do for yourself, thinking they would reciprocate.

‘Detaching from these one-sided relationships is as simple as doing what you did for them for yourself.

‘It isn’t selfish to self-care. Though it might feel this way at first you will learn that being good to yourself projects self-respect, and others will treat you with respect or move on to take advantage of someone else.

‘It may feel like you have lost someone, but you have really found yourself.’

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