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How to Recognize the Signs of Codependency and Establish Healthy Boundaries

Codependency occurs when there is an imbalance within a relationship. Often there will be one person who is the sole giver and has almost built their identity around caring for the other person. There is also usually someone who is the taker, this person depends on their spouse, friend, family member, etc. to care for them and provide for them. They often display manipulative and controlling behaviors. Codependency can also look like one person taking on the “saver” role. This often happens when one person in a relationship is struggling with addiction. Codependency can happen in romantic relationships, friendships, and within families. The goal for a healthy relationship is to reach interdependency. This is when both people are mutually reliant with one another and have been able to maintain a balance within the relationship. 


While there are negatives to codependency there are several positives. People who are codependent are often good at asking for help and engaging with their community. In addition, someone who is codependent can be highly empathic and willing to help others. These types of behaviors and traits are often received positively and people usually gravitate towards someone like this.


Codependency was first used to describe enabling behaviors displayed by one family member towards another family member or partner who was struggling with addiction. Today, codependency is not just limited to addiction and is seen in a myriad of different relationship types. It has been positively correlated with narcissistic personality disorders, depression, borderline and dependent personality disorders. Individuals in codependent relationships have been found to display a dysfunctional pattern of personality organization, difficulty relating to others, trouble maintaining outside relationships, and low self-esteem/self-worth. Codependency is not just seen in one relationship, there are people who display codependent behaviors in all of their relationships. Parents can be codependent with their children, as well as their spouse. Children raised in a codependent home pose a higher risk of codependency in their adult relationships/friendships. 


codependent relationship

Collective vs Codependent

In many cultures, collectivism is honored and not viewed as maladaptive or codependent. Collective communities are rooted in the family and tend to prioritize the family needs over individual needs. Collective communities value the sacrifice of one’s needs for the family and identity is often rooted in family values. While this may parallel some key traits in a codependent relationship, it is important to consider the different values and beliefs among other cultures. A westerner may consider the values of a collective community as toxic, however, for the members of this community this is seen as normal. 


Signs That You May Be In a Codependent Relationship

While it may seem impossible to break out of the cycle of codependency, or to even identify when you’re in one, there are signs that you may be in one of these relationships. One sign is that people who are codependent tend to be other-focused. For example, someone who is other-focused only thinks about their partner’s needs and is only happy when their partner is cared for. Someone who is codependent may struggle with their identity and only define themselves through their relationships. These people often struggle with questions like “What are your likes and dislikes?”. 


Codependency is a learned behavior that people typically develop during childhood. An anxious attachment style is usually displayed in someone who is in this type of relationship. Someone with this type of attachment style may become highly emotional and nervous whenever there is conflict within the relationship. They may fear being alone and struggle to separate themselves from the other. People in codependent relationships tend to engage in isolative behaviors and lack a community outside of their direct relationship. 


Breaking Codependency

While it is a learned behavior, it can also be unlearned. It is important for people to work on setting strong and consistent boundaries and to develop stronger assertiveness skills. This can be achieved by establishing what your hard and soft boundaries are and working on keeping them consistent. When setting boundaries, it is important to notice when people are not respecting them. If you notice people ignoring your boundaries and not making any changes, it’s a good sign that the relationship is unhealthy and may need some changes. Another example of a strong boundary would be setting “if…then” boundaries. These boundaries can be very helpful because they utilize a consequence. An example of this type of boundary is “if you keep yelling at me, then I will remove myself from the situation.”

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