6 Signs You're in a Codependent Relationship (and How to Avoid It in the Future)

A licensed therapist weighs in on what to watch out for

codependent relationship illustration of a woman vaccuuming while a man lounges
Malte Mueller/getty images

Relationships of any kind require balance. Whether we’re talking about your relationship with your spouse, your mom or your best friend, partnerships should be mutually beneficial, with each person feeling supported by the other. But what happens when that balance is out of whack? That relationship might be codependent. A codependent relationship is when there’s a power imbalance between two people. Therapist Jeffrey Yoo, LMFT, puts it simply: “If you are doing for others what they are capable of doing for themselves or without asking for help, you are using codependent behavior.” Think: a mother doing her grown daughter’s laundry, a girlfriend cleaning her boyfriend’s bedroom at his parents’ home or a father paying his grown son’s bills. Below, more information on how to recognize you’re in a codependent relationship (and why that’s a bad thing), how to fix it and how to prevent it in future relationships.

Meet the Expert

Jeffrey Yoo, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Moment of Clarity Mental Health Center in Orange County, California. He specializes in adults struggling with addiction, anxiety, depression, ADHD and stress from relationships and work.

What Is a Codependent Relationship?

Per Psychology Today, “Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person assumes the role of ‘the giver,’ sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other, ‘the taker.’” It’s important to note that any relationship can be codependent, not just romantic relationships. Friends can be codependent, as can mothers and daughters, friends, etc. “Once you put others wants and needs before your own, ignoring boundaries, you have officially become codependent,” Yoo explains. So why is codependency harmful? Yoo tells us that in codependent relationships, the person who is putting the needs and wants of the other over their own is harming their sense of self-worth. Psychology Today adds that the giver wants to help their loved one, but may end up enabling harmful behaviors instead. “Eventually, the giver winds up exhausted, frustrated, and burned out, leading to increased conflicts and dissatisfaction with the relationship.”

6 Signs You’re in a Codependent Relationship

Here are six signs to look out for, per Yoo:

  1. Overly Concerned: You find yourself constantly worrying about what the other person is doing, thinking and feeling. You feel compelled to fix or rescue them from their problems.
  2. One-Sided Relationship: Your relationship feels constantly unbalanced. One person is hardworking and responsible, while the other is allowed to be irresponsible or avoid facing the consequences of their actions.
  3. Self-Sacrifice: You sacrifice your own well-being to make the other person happy. This can include your health, time, energy, money, values, goals or friendships.
  4. Revolved Around Them: Your life revolves around the other person—making them happy, taking care of their needs and doing what they want to do.
  5. Walking on Eggshells: You feel like you’re treading carefully, afraid of saying or doing something that might displease or anger them. You may suppress your opinions and feelings to avoid conflict.
  6. Fear of Rejection: You’re afraid of being rejected, criticized or abandoned. Despite repeated hurtful behavior from the other person, you continue the relationship.

17 Relationship Red Flags Every Grown Woman Should Look Out For

codependent relationship couple in a fight
Malte Mueller/getty images

If You’re in a Codependent Relationship, How Can You Fix the Power Imbalance?

Step one, Yoo says, should be one-on-one therapy to identify the core issue is that’s preventing you from having a healthy relationships. “Healthy people have healthy relationships,” he says. “If yours is unhealthy then your goals may include learning how to be a better partner by self-improvement.” From there:

  • Engage in Open Communication About Your Dynamic
    “Remember your partner or others are not mind readers, they are not aware of what is going on with you or why you are feeling any sort of way,” Yoo says. “Often you may not be aware of yourself. That's what therapy does, it unwinds the confusion and conflicts to get to the root of codependency.” He recommends being totally transparent in order to identify and define what needs to change. “This may also require one or both people in the relationship to learn how to stop enabling their partner’s dependency by both pointing it out when it occurs and avoiding any kind of positive reinforcement for such behavior.”
  • Focus on Your Own Needs
    “When we are focused on the needs of a partner, we are not focused on what we personally need,” Yoo says, mentioning that when we’re on a flight, we're told to put the airbag on ourselves before helping others. “That concept teaches us that when we take care of ourselves first, we will then be able to be helpful to others.” Staying focused on what our physical, mental and emotional needs is necessary to being healthy in all areas of our lives. “Set (or strengthen) boundaries around your time and energy: When there are no set boundaries codependency will spread through a relationship and a family life a wildfire.” Whether you choose to go to the gym, read or pencil in a massage, it’s crucial to set aside time to reenergize and preserve your sense of calm.
  • Develop a Healthy Support System
    Having other people to confide in is crucial, whether that’s a licensed therapist, family member or friend. In addition to acting as a sounding board, this person is an unbiased third party who can reality check the situation and remind you that what you’re feeling isn’t “crazy” or “exaggerated.” In terms of professional help, Yoo says, “Having conversations with a professional will help you with being more productive in finding solutions to balance and boundaries in your life and relationships.”

How Can You Prevent Your Relationship from Becoming Codependent Before It’s Too Late?  

1. Be Aware of Codependent Behaviors

Being aware of behavior is the ultimate key to recognizing you may be exhibiting codependency, Yoo explains. “It is possible you were taught to caretake [and] be responsible for other people. It is something that can be redirected or unlearned by changing your behavior.” Here are some common codependent behaviors to be on the lookout for:

  • Manipulation
  • Emotional bullying
  • Caretaking to the detriment of our own wellness
  • Caregiving
  • Suffocating
  • People-pleasing (ignoring your own needs, then getting frustrated or angry)
  • Obsession with a partner
  • Excusing bad or abusive behavior

2. Build Up Your Self-Esteem

“When a person has low self-esteem, they are in a sense begging to be loved or admired,” Yoo tells us. “Codependency is related to shame and guilt, remorse and feeling lower than others.” By building self-confidence and knowing your worth—by learning positive self-talk through therapy and support groups—you’ll be better equipped to stop seeking approval from others.

3. Develop Healthy Boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries is important for self-care, well-being and to develop healthy relationships. “A healthy boundary is when you do what is right for you, by taking the moment to clarify with yourself what it is exactly what you are willing to do, or not do,” Yoo says. “When you agree to do something you really do not want to do, be aware of how that makes you feel.” Here are some tips for learning how to set boundaries with the people around you.

4. Practice Effective Communication

Especially if you’re used to people pleasing, being honest and direct can make you feel like you’re being rude. It’s not. Yoo says, “The goal is to take care of yourself, even if others have a difficult time with your answer.” He gives the example of a client who struggled with saying no to anyone about anything. He gave her a task to say ‘no’ to everything and everyone, by using these words: “No, I am not willing.” He then instructed her to journal how she felt and how they responded to her. “She found at first she would fall back to old behavior and try to explain that she was working on her codependent behavior, later she explained that it stopped the conversation immediately,” he shares. “She stopped feeling guilty or embarrassed and began to feel empowered.”

5. Seek Professional Help

Perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing a therapist can help you to identify the causes of codependent behavior. “Learning how to develop new coping skills is done through prioritizing your own well-being,” Yoo says. “Learning to be independent of others emotionally and physically we are taking care of our needs. Learning to love yourself and knowing your worth may be something that will take practice and need guidance from a trained professional.”

6. Take Time for Introspection

Un-learning codependent behaviors can be hard work—work that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Yoo tells us it’s important to reflect on the changes you’ve made. “Changing old behaviors to new ones is not a small feat, however it is possible…Get help learning and grow, you have no idea how much better your life can be.”

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...