This was a term that originally gained notoriety in the context of families struggling with alcoholism and/or substance abuse. While the term can certainly be applicable in that content, it also has a much wider reach. Someone who has experienced significant trauma or grows up in a household where emotional intelligence is not a priority can develop co-dependent relationship patterns. There are usually a few typical signs that you are in a co-dependent relationship or tend towards being in co-dependent relationships but because it is not a diagnosable condition, there is not a specific set of diagnostic criteria to determine this. Similarly, having some of the signs doesn’t necessarily mean you are in a co-dependent relationship. However, there are some generally accepted symptoms in the mental health community.
Low Self-Esteem – One or both persons in the relationship feel inadequate or unworthy and act in such a way that their relationship reflects it. For example, the person may intentionally or unintentionally put the other person down or treat them in such a manner that makes them feel similarly inadequate. The person may also act overly boisterous to try to mask their low self-esteem.
Unhealthy Attachments – A co-dependent person may become jealous if their partner or family member does something to better themselves which could lead to, in the co-dependent’s mind, that person leaving. The co-dependent person may intentionally or unintentionally sabotage the other’s success to try to keep them close. Again, the reason being that they are afraid the person will leave.
Poor Self-Care – People in co-dependent relationships often find themselves giving too much in the relationship (although it doesn’t necessarily feel that way at the time). They may also find themselves caring for their partner or family member at the expense of their own self-care or cultivating their own personal, social, educational, and other needs.
Catering Too Much – People in co-dependent relationships often cater too much to one another’s anxieties or fears rather than working together or with the help of a professional to overcome them. Even if you know it is wrong, you may find yourself washing that spoon a 6th time, for example, just to curb your mother’s fear that there are germs on it. You don’t do this because it is the right thing to do (part of you knows, even if you aren’t a mental health professional, that it isn’t). You do it because you don’t want the person feeling anxious anymore and it seems easier. Also the person may demand it and have little insight into what they are asking of you.
Poor Boundaries – You may be in a co-dependent relationship if you have difficulty working within generally understood boundaries. For example, your 56-year-old father may want you to come over and cook his meals for him after your mother dies. This may be appropriate for a few weeks after she passes as he processes and deals with his grief. However, past a certain amount of time we get into possible co-dependency territory. Your father is a grown man who is capable of finding and/or preparing his own meals. Your role as the daughter or son is not to provide for the parent who is fully capable of taking care of themselves.
Does any of this sound like you, your family, or your other relationships? Don’t automatically assume you are in a co-dependent relationship. Only a mental health professional with the time to properly assess and evaluate your particular situation can help you figure out if your relationships or relationship patterns are unhealthy. Interested in getting help with this? Schedule an appointment here.