How Can You Overcome Co-Dependency in Relationships?
Co-dependency is one of those terms frequently tossed around in conversations about relationships, but it’s a term that often holds a deeper and more profound implication than many of us may realize.
At its core, co-dependency represents a complex web of emotional reliance, where an individual finds themselves continually seeking validation and support from the other, often at the expense of their own well-being. This can happen in romantic relationships, friendships, and in familial dynamics.
Do you remember playing tug-of-war as a kid? Co-dependency call feel like that. There is one person at each end pulling at the other for more reassurance and more love. Their emotions, self-worth, and independence are constantly at stake if they don’t “win.”
Like all challenges we face, open lines of communication and understanding are the first step to making positive and long-lasting changes in our relationships. You don’t have to live with co-dependency – you have the power to implement changes in your relationship.
Healthy Dependency vs. Co-Dependency
Before we delve deeper into co-dependency, it’s important to make a distinction between it and healthy dependency in relationships. Every relationship should have a certain level of mutual reliance – it’s part of sharing a normal human connection. Healthy dependency in a relationship means leaning on each other in times of vulnerability while maintaining one’s individuality. These relationships have mutual respect, trust, and shared responsibilities, with both people growing individually and together.
On the other hand, co-dependency is an extreme emotional and psychological reliance on a partner. Instead of two independent individuals choosing to share their journey, co-dependency often manifests as one person, or both people, feeling lost without the constant approval or presence of the other. There becomes this blurred boundary between self and other, and an overshadowing of personal needs and desires.
Signs of Co-Dependency
Co-dependency can manifest subtly and take control of your relationship without you being aware of what’s happening. Remember, you can take a step back at any point in your relationship (whether you’ve been together for 3 months or 10 years) to assess your dependency levels and re-adjust your dynamic if needed. A healthy relationship is not one without issues, but rather one that is able to evolve when issues arise.
Here are some signs to look out for:
- An almost insatiable need for constant reassurance and approval from the other
- Consistently ignoring personal needs or desires to cater to the needs and desires of the other
- Feeling overwhelmingly anxious or resentful when you two are separated, even briefly
- An overpowering fear of abandonment that often dictates your actions and decisions
- A tendency to derive self-worth predominantly from the person’s validation
- Regularly suppressing your personal feelings or opinions to avoid conflicts or disagreements
The Roots of Co-dependency
Understanding co-dependency often involves reflecting on the past, whether it’s past relationships or childhood. For many, co-dependent behaviours first arise during childhood in their relationships with their parents. Those who grew up in environments that were unpredictable or unstable, and where emotions were routinely suppressed, often carry those learned behaviours into their adult relationships. These children might have been prematurely forced into roles meant for adults (such as having to act as a parent to their parents) or continually adjusted their behaviours to appease the volatile moods of their parents.
Over time, these experiences inform certain beliefs about how relationships should function. They learn that affection, validation, and acknowledgment are earned through perpetual appeasement and self-sacrifice.
Understanding where your co-dependency stems from, and taking steps to heal those early wounds, can help strengthen your current relationships.
Rebuilding Your Concept of “Self”
Once you begin to break away from co-dependency, you can also begin to reconstruct your self-image and worth. This can be a really difficult journey, especially if you have no prior experience with healthy dependency. You may feel like you are suddenly confronted with the responsibility of being alone, or having to rely totally on yourself.
During this time, remember that the goal isn’t complete and total independence. You are still allowed to need other people – in fact, it’s totally normal! Instead, take your time as you get to know yourself, and cut yourself some slack when you fall back to old behaviours. The path to overcoming co-dependency is not linear.
Here are some steps you can take to help you on your journey:
- Actively indulge in solo activities or hobbies that ignite passion and joy for you
- Set, work towards, and celebrate personal milestones and goals that are entirely independent of the relationship
- Allocate dedicated time for introspection, self-love, and self-care rituals
- Reconnect with long-lost passions or interests that may have once defined your individuality
- Cultivate a supportive circle of friends who reinforce positive self-worth
Setting boundaries in a relationship that’s healing from co-dependency is so important for ensuring long-lasting mutual respect and understanding. The boundaries may feel uncomfortable at first, but trust the fact that they will become more natural with time. It’s important to set boundaries around personal space, shared responsibilities, emotional expectations, and decision-making.
For example, if you are hoping to dedicate time for self-care rituals in a romantic relationship, you can set a clear time and space boundary with your partner: “On Sunday evenings, I want to take baths alone and I would prefer not to be disturbed during this time.” We know that saying this out loud to your partner can be scary – you don’t want to hurt their feelings or miss out on time with them. However, healing from co-dependency will require a commitment to confront things that scare you. You owe it to yourself to take these first steps, and trust that a strong relationship will be made stronger for it.
Seeking Professional Guidance
Co-dependency can sometimes feel overwhelming to navigate alone, and that’s perfectly okay. Seeking support from a therapist can offer a fresh perspective, tools, and coping mechanisms. They can help uncover where certain behavioural patterns stem from and then help you carve a path forward. Individual, couples, or family therapy can all be great options for overcoming co-dependency.
If you’re suffering from co-dependency, no matter what type of relationship you’re in or what stage you’re at, recognizing the signs and building a plan for change are possible. It can be a difficult yet exciting and fulfilling journey of rediscovery, redefinition, and rejuvenation. Co-dependency is a cycle that can be broken, paving the way for relationships built on mutual respect, love, and independent identities.
Until next time!
Zainib Abdullah (MSW, RSW) is the founder and executive director at Wellnest, a Toronto-based mental health clinic. The Wellnest team – a collective of diverse psychotherapists – focuses on supporting the needs of the BIPOC community. As a trauma therapist, her approach is client-centred, anti-racist/oppressive and trauma-informed, incorporating various therapeutic modalities. She uses somatic based therapy to help clients heal and manage trauma experiences. She supports clients in accessing greater connectedness to their inner wisdom and peace.