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Are You in a Codependent Relationship?

By Feifei Sun
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD

Do find yourself making lots of sacrifices for your partner's happiness, but not getting much in return? If that kind of one-sided pattern sounds like yours, you don't have to feel trapped. There are lots of ways to change a codependent relationship and get your life back on an even keel.

What Is a Codependent Relationship?

The first step in getting things back on track is to understand the meaning of a codependent relationship. Experts say it's a pattern of behavior in which you find yourself dependent on approval from someone else for your self-worth and identity.

One key sign is when your sense of purpose in life wraps around making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner's needs.

"Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person doesn't have self-sufficiency or autonomy," says Scott Wetzler, PhD, psychology division chief at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "One or both parties depend on their loved ones for fulfillment."

Anyone can become codependent. Some research suggests that people who have parents who emotionally abused or neglected them in their teens are more likely to enter codependent relationships.

"These kids are often taught to subvert their own needs to please a difficult parent, and it sets them up for a long-standing pattern of trying to get love and care from a difficult person," says Shawn Burn, PhD, a psychology professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

"They're often replaying a childhood pattern filled with development gaps," Wetzler says.

How to Know You're in a Codependent Relationship

Watch out for these signs that you might be in a codependent relationship:

  • Are you unable to find satisfaction in your life outside of a specific person?
  • Do you recognize unhealthy behaviors in your partner but stay with him or her in spite of them?
  • Are you giving support to your partner at the cost of your own mental, emotional, and physical health?

"Individuals can also assume they are in a codependent relationship if people around them have given them feedback that they are too dependent on their partner or if they have a desire, at times, for more independence but feel an even stronger conflict when they attempt to separate in any way," says psychologist Seth Meyers.

"They'll feel anxiety more consistently than any other emotion in the relationship," Meyers says, "and they'll spend a great deal of time and energy either trying to change their partner or … trying to conform to their partner's wishes."

Impact of a Codependent Relationship

Giving up your own needs and identity to meet the needs of a partner has unhealthy short-term and long-term consequences.

"You can become burned out, exhausted, and begin to neglect other important relationships," Burn says. "And if you're the enabler in a codependent relationship -- meaning you promote the other person's dysfunctions -- you can prevent them from learning common and needed life lessons."

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