6 major mistakes codependent people make in relationships

In 2020, when she was promoting her memoir, Inside Out, actor Demi Moore appeared on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Facebook series, Red Table Talk.

On the show, Moore opened up about how it was during her marriage to actor Ashton Kutcher in the early 2000s that she relapsed after almost 20 years of sobriety.

Moore called the relationship and marriage an “addiction.”

“The addiction in the codependency—like my addiction to Ashton—that was probably almost more devastating because it took me seriously away emotionally,” she said on Red Table Talk.

We hear the term codependency a lot in our times, but what does it really mean?

The term codependency first originated in the 1950s.

It was initially coined by the addiction support group, Alcoholics Anonymous, to describe how people’s unhealthy choices enabled and encouraged partners who struggled with addiction.

Although this still applies, today, the term carries a far wider connotation.

Psychologists today define codependency as a relationship where each person is mentally, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually reliant on the other.

A codependent relationship usually exists as a dysfunctional dynamic between romantic partners, but you can also have a codependent relationship with family members and friends.

Could you, yourself, be in a codependent relationship?

Here are six relationship signs to look out for that will tell you if codependency is the way you naturally fall into your relationships—be they romantic, family, or friendships.

1) You need to be needed

Psychologists say that in its simplest terms, a codependent relationship is when one partner needs the other partner, who in turn, needs to be needed.

At its core, a codependent relationship is a dysfunctional one in that one person takes on the role of a caretaker, and the other person takes advantage—relying heavily, even completely—on their partner.

Like we mentioned with Alcoholics Anonymous, codependent relationships are extremely common among people with substance use issues.

“Codependency is a circular relationship in which one person needs the other person, who in turn, needs to be needed,” says New York City-based licensed psychologist and author, Dr. Renee Exelbert.

“The codependent person, known as ‘the giver,’ feels worthless unless they are needed by—and making sacrifices for—the enabler, otherwise known as ‘the taker.’”

Codependency isn’t a clinical diagnosis, says health and wellness reporter Wendy Rose Gould. It also isn’t formally categorized as a personality disorder.

Rather, codependency comes from attachment style patterns that have been developed in early childhood. “Codependency can also overlap with other personality disorders, including dependent personality disorder,” she says.

An example of needing to feel needed could be a woman who is married to an alcoholic. One woman puts it this way: “It made all the difficulties worth it when my husband said he’d have been in the gutter if it weren’t for me. He made me feel needed.”

Needing to feel needed need not happen in romantic relationships. Many teenagers have said that the reason they became mothers so early in life was because they wanted to have someone to love them. “I want to feel needed.”

2) You have a deep desire for approval

Do you feel a deep need for approval from other people? 

A trait of codependency includes an extreme need for approval and recognition, say experts. Their self-worth depends on what others think about them.

Approval from others also gives them a sense of identity and well-being that they are unable to give to themselves.

This is a big reason why the codependent will often do anything to hold onto the relationship as a way to avoid the feeling of abandonment.

They tend to feel guilt whenever they assert themselves, and they also have a compelling need to control other people.

Codependents also have poor boundaries and they feel that taking on the role of rescuer or the caretaker wins them approval.

3) You cater to your partner’s needs—or what experts call “chameleoning”

Life coach Victoria Albina says that a codependent person believes that they have to be everything to everyone and that it is their job to keep everyone happy.

“We become these masterful manipulators without realizing it,” Albina emphasizes. “We learn how to scan a room or a date or a friend to try to read their minds, to assess what everyone else wants—and what we want them to want. And attempt to give it to them whether they actually want it or not.”

This often looks like hypervigilance, she says. This is actually part of the sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight. “We get habituated to scanning the world for danger, and learn to chameleon to try to get ahead of any potential danger by being different, by code-switching, by being strategically inauthentic.”

Chameleoning comes from childhood and it’s a form of self-protection or self-preservation, psychologists say.

Children learn to navigate a parent prone to rages, for example, by trying to anticipate their needs. Cooking dinner for the parent before they come home from work can be a strategy a child implements so that the parent will be less likely to feel agitated.

4) You’re people-pleasing rather than prioritizing yourself

signs youre in a relationship with a covert narcissist 1 6 major mistakes codependent people make in relationships

It’s no wonder then, that people-pleasing is a big part of chameleoning. A person who is codependent will plan their entire life around pleasing the other person, or the enabler.

This means being at-the-ready to fulfill their every need, desire, and whim. Not only do you feel needed, but you feel that taking care of your partner is a form of love.

The problem is that a codependent person will completely lose themselves in the relationship. A behavior learned in childhood, by adulthood, Albina says this protective habit often mutates to the person continuing to disassociate from their own feelings.

This happens so much that they don’t know what they feel or what they want. They become disconnected from their own needs and desires.

Codependent people have learned not to trust themselves. Instead, they’ll easily trust someone else’s opinion of them over their own.

5) You’re choosing a false sense of comfort because you don’t feel comfortable being alone

Even though the relationship is definitely a toxic one, a codependent person will continue to put up with any rage, outbursts, verbal abuse, and even violence because they think that going through these “storms” is still easier than facing their own issues and the terror of being alone.

This false comfort and insecure attachment keeps them stuck and it cocoons them from having to deal with their own role in not just the relationship, but also the childhood issues that created this persona to begin with.

It also “shields” them from figuring out how to change their own codependency and heal. So they stay committed to staying in the toxic relationship.

6) You’re self-sacrificing

It’s easy to understand how a codependent person can become martyrs in their marriages and relationships.

A person who is in a relationship with someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, for example, will put their own mental health, goals and dreams to the side because the never-ending drama cycle they’re in takes up all of their time, headspace, and energy.

Even their jobs will suffer because they have to tend to their partner’s needs.

British counselor Dr. Sheri Jacobson—also the founder of Harley Therapy, a mental health blog—says that codependency is an extreme force of self-sacrifice. “It happens when a person takes caring for someone else to an extreme, looking after their needs at the sacrifice of their own,” she says.

“This behavior leads to an erosion of the self and leaves an individual open to manipulation and controlling behavior.”

So how do you even begin to help yourself if you’re in a codependent relationship?

Recognizing that you’re in a codependent relationship is a huge first step that sets you on the path to healing and change.

You can start with observing if you are always putting others before yourself.

If you believe you are, then start taking baby steps to change the dynamic. Start putting yourself first once in a while, even if it makes you feel guilty or like you’re “betraying” your partner. Over time, this will get easier.

One insightful resource is this free Love and Intimacy masterclass that can help shed light on your own codependent habits and help you change your relationship dynamic for the better.

It was created by Rudá Iandê, a world-class shaman who has deep knowledge of love and relationships. 

The exercises, question prompts, and informative teachings are worth taking just a few hours out to uncover things you didn’t know about yourself, that might be keeping you in codependent situations.

By educating yourself on your situation, this masterclass can help you begin the healing process. 

So go ahead and take charge of your own healing now by checking it out. 

Aside from that, according to Dr. Jacobson, another thing you can do is join a support group. “If you fall into a particular category, e.g. suffering abuse or being involved with an addict, open up to others about your fears and problems—this will help you,” she says.

She also highly recommends finding a therapist. “Whatever your level of codependency, it is likely that you will need and benefit from therapeutic support and intervention—you may even need to build your self-esteem and life from rock bottom.”

And last, but certainly not least

Start to see yourself as an individual, says Dr. Jacobson. “You are not just a partner, son/daughter, mother/father. Begin to form your own dreams, goals, and ambitions and make these independent of anyone else.”

Take small and steady steps towards your dreams. With every step, you’ll become more confident and determined.

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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