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Are You in a Codependent Relationship?

Three simple questions to ask yourself that can help create a healthier bond.
By Eric Metcalf, MPH
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

You can learn a lot about codependent relationships in the library, even if you aren't in the self-help section.

Marriage and family therapist Tina Tessina says that in the drama section you can find Romeo and Juliet, which features a couple who felt their relationship was more important than their own lives. And over in the history section, you'll encounter the wives of Henry the Eighth who found that marriage to the self-absorbed king could lead to misery (or worse) if they didn't produce the son he craved.

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Most codependent relationships don't end in tragedy, of course. But they do keep people from living the full, rewarding lives they could be enjoying.

"Codependency, by definition, means making the relationship more important to you than you are to yourself," Tessina says. "It's kind of a weird phrase, and it doesn't sound like it means a one-sided relationship. But that's what it is. It means you're trying to make the relationship work with someone else who's not."

The good news is that if you're a codependent partner, you can, under your own power, find a solution to the problem.

A Closer Look at Codependency

Scott Wetzler, author of Is It You or Is It Me? How We Turn Our Feelings Inside Out and Blame Each Other, says the concept of codependency was first applied to couples in which one partner has an alcohol or drug problem.

But other issues in a couple's lives can foster codependence too. One partner may have trouble controlling other impulses or simply not show much interest in the partnership. Then the other partner -- who is the codependent one -- goes all-out to try to "fix" the problem.

For example, if someone is with an alcoholic, taking care of that person or kowtowing to that person's needs, addresses something in the codependent partner's personality, says psychologist and author of The Emotional Toolbox, Daniel Bochner. "They have a hard time leaving it,"  he says. "They get locked into trying to save their partner or the relationship over and over."

Codependency can also arise when a partner is self-absorbed or uninterested, Tessina says. "This may happen in a relationship where only one of you is ever asking to get together or making moves toward the other one."

Still, the codependent partner often finds some type of reward in this setup. "Probably the most significant theme is a sense of control," Bochner says. "The other person plays the out-of-control person, and so the codependent partner gets to be the person who is in control and thus respected."

He says the partner who is codependent can be "the better person, the smarter person, the person who's recognized as having it all together. They're defining themselves as strong enough to deal with it when actually they need to realize that maybe they should be taking care of themselves instead of proving their strength."

Wetzler says simply being in a relationship -- even one that's not ideal -- may also be comforting. "A lot of times, people have low self-esteem and say, 'I'm no good, no one would want me, and therefore I have to put up with this.' These negative thoughts are very common," he says, "and they have a big impact on why people stay in relationships that may not be good for them."

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