12 Steps to Changing the Dynamics or Breaking Free of a Co-Dependent Relationship

  Monday, January 31, 2022
Contributed by Dr. Carrie Jackson

Relationships are the heart of human connection and one of the most important pieces to someone’s wellbeing and overall quality of life. Relationships can come in all types of forms, situations, lengths of time, and more. Research suggests that when someone is involved in a healthy relationship, it can have positive effects on their mental health, stress levels, anxiety, depression, and well-being. On the other hand, if you are involved in an unhealthy relationship, it can have detrimental effects on all of these things.

Exactly what constitutes an unhealthy relationship can be difficult to ascertain. Just as there are variations in healthy relationships, there are also variations in how unhealthy a relationship can be as well. Relationships can be unhealthy for a variety of reasons. At their worst, relationships can become abusive (e.g., emotionally, physically) leading partners to significantly lose themselves and their mental health in the process. However, a relationship does not need to be purely abusive for it to be damaging to someone’s mental health.

Codependent relationships can be a form of an unhealthy relationship. In simple terms, a codependent relationship is one in which someone only depends on the other person in the relationship. They utilize them for all of their needs, including their emotional, physical, and financial needs. Although codependent relationships are commonly thought to occur in the context of romantic relationships, they can occur in any type of relationship.

Understanding what a codependent relationship is is important because it can help you understand some of the potential consequences of being in a codependent relationship. Additionally,knowing how to have a healthy relationship can be important in the way that it will help you create a healthier life with your partner and yourself.

In this article, you will learn what a codependent relationship is by looking at the signs of a codependent relationship. Additionally, you will learn how a codependent relationship can affect you emotionally and mentally, and what to do so that you can create a healthy relationship. This article is a good fit for you if you are unsure of if you are in a codependent relationship, would like to stay in a healthy relationship, or have concerns that someone you know may be in a codependent relationship.

Signs of a Codependent Relationship

Codependent relationships can be difficult to identify at first. The signs of a codependent relationship at first may be subtle, growing into something larger over time. In order to spot a codependent relationship, you will want to look over the following signs. A codependent relationship does not have to have all of these signs but it may have some of these that can clue you in at the start of a relationship whether or not it is unhealthy or not. 

Sign #1: You put too much focus on your relationship.

The hallmark sign of a codependent relationship is one in which you focus almost entirely on the relationship without thinking about your other needs or the other person’s needs. A codependent relationship is one quite literally where you depend on the other person and they depend on you. While this can be normal in relationships to some extent, when you find yourself only caring for the person and not caring for others is when you may be in a codependent relationship.

Sign #2: They become possessive.

People who are in codependent relationships can become possessive of their partner. This may look like them wanting you to only spend time with them and not spending time with other people. If you do spend time with other people, they may make comments that make you feel bad about spending time with other people. Similarly, they may do things to get you to spend less time with other people such as making negative comments about your friends and family. They may also guilt you into not spending time with other people. If you do go out and spend time with other people, they may make negative comments or be passive-aggressive when you return home. 

Sign #3: They are jealous.

Although jealousy can occur in relationships outside of codependent relationships, it is a common sign to occur in codependent relationships. In codependent relationships, someone feels that their entire worth is built upon one person. Therefore, if someone attempts to take that away (e.g., another person), then that person may become jealous. This jealousy may appear as anger or rage when you do something that makes them feel insecure. They may also make backhanded comments towards you when they are feeling jealous. Often, their jealousy stems from you spending time with other people who may be a threat to them.

Sign #4: You feel insecure and worried when not around them.

If you are in a codependent relationship, you may feel insecure when you are not around them. This is because all of your emotional support comes from them, and therefore, when you are not around them, you may feel empty inside and like you don’t know what to do without them. This can breed feelings of insecurity when you are no longer around them. Additionally, you may worry when you are not around them because you may think that they are no longer wanting to be with you or that they will forget about you when you leave.

Sign #5: You stop spending time with family and friends.

When you are in a codependent relationship, you end up spending all of your time devoted to the person you have a codependent relationship with. Because of this, it is very common to neglect other relationships with friends and family. This can become problematic when this person becomes your only form of social support that you have available. It can be normal to spend a greater amount of time with someone once you’re in a relationship with them; however, they should not be the only person that you are spending time with. Instead, you should be also spending time with other people still. 

Sign #6: You make excuses for their behavior.

If you find yourself excusing behaviors in a relationship that are intolerable or unacceptable for you, this may be a sign that you are in a codependent relationship. Particularly because everything you have depends on this person and so you may think that you are not able to see the bad in them. You may be blind to all of the negative things that they are doing or make excuses if you family or friends point out things they are doing that are not okay. 

Examples of Codependent Relationships

As mentioned previously, codependent relationships can occur in any type of relationship although they’re commonly thought of occurring in romantic relationships. In a romantic relationship, a codependent relationship may look like two partners who spend all of their free time together. They may be completely inseparable in the sense that they do not have any other relationships or they neglect their other relationships. Romantic relationships may also become codependent when one partner becomes jealous and has the other partner distance themselves from their family or friends. This creates a codependent relationship in which the romantic partner is required to depend on their partner purely for all their support and needs.

In codependent relationships among friends, they can be very similar where someone is dependent completely on the other friend and they only spend their time with this one friend. They may not have other friends because they only spend their time with one best friend who they see. In a codependent relationship between friends, each friend may become jealous if the other friend spends more time with other friends. When codependent relationships in friendships occur, this can unfortunately lead to friendship challenges, loneliness, and friends who only have each other as a form of support.

Additionally, codependent relationships can easily occur in family relationships. A codependent relationship can occur between parents and their children or between siblings themselves. For example, a parent may rely on their child for emotional support, caregiving responsibilities, and financial abilities as well. When this happens, family members become enmeshed with each other. This can lead to strained family relationships as well. Within parent-child relationships in particular, there is an inherent assumption that the adult in the relationship will have some authority over the child and it is the child who will depend on the adult. Unfortunately, this does not always happen as parents can become the ones who become too dependent on their children.

Are Codependent Relationships All Bad?

Codependent relationships get a lot of negativity for a good reason. However, are they truly all bad? Is everything about a codependent relationship bad? Some therapists may argue that codependency in relationships is actually nature and to be expected. You should expect to be dependent on someone else in a relationship and because of this, the term codependency has gotten too much of a negative connotation that isn’t warranted.

Codependent relationships can be helpful for someone who has experienced significant loneliness. In the beginning, codependent relationships offer refuge from the loneliness that someone may be experiencing. These relationships can offer emotional support for someone who may be struggling with loneliness, stress, or depression. This is important to recognize that there can be a lot of positives in this type of relationship which is very important to recognize. If codependent relationships were all entirely bad, nobody would be in one. 

Additionally, research indicates that when you enter into a relationship with someone, your body adjusts to emotionally depend on them. Your body adjusts to emotionally depend on them in the way that you regulate your emotions by leaning on them. Given that this occurs at a biological and physiological level, it may not be possible to not have any type of dependency in a relationship. After all, the purpose of a relationship is to have some connection that will help you be able to depend on someone. At the same time, this dependency does not have to reach the point of codependency.

Effects of a Codependent Relationship

Codependent relationships can also have some detrimental effects. When you are in a codependent relationship, it can have some negative effects as well as if a codependent relationship ends. During a codependent relationship, it can become very easy to lose all of your self-worth and self-esteem. This is because your worth has come to depend on someone else and someone else’s happiness. During the relationship, this may make it so that you lose your own value and do not think highly about yourself unless you are thinking about yourself in the context of the other person. Therefore, you may begin to feel that your entire worth depends on the other person and that if you do not have them, you are worth nothing. This can become problematic when you are with someone and you get into an argument. When you get into an argument with them, you may end up believing that your worth and needs do not matter.

Additionally, within a codependent relationship, you may put someone else’s needs over your own. Although this is sometimes okay to do within a relationship, it is still important to consider your needs and what you need to be happy. If you base all of this only on another person, you will likely end up very unhappy because you will be placing their needs above yours all of the time. To be happy in a relationship, you will want to also place importance on your needs. When you place others needs above yours, this can look like making concessions or too many sacrifices that you are uncomfortable with.

Codependent relationships can also lead you to abandon your own hobbies, interests, and career goals. This goes right along with how you are beginning to place the importance of a relationship with someone else over your own. In a codependent relationship, you may find yourself no longer pursuing goals that were once important to you or your career. You may end up changing career plans because of the person who you are with. Similarly, you may also no longer be involved in things you once were very interested in. For example, you may no longer take the time out for you to participate in hobbies, sports, and other interests you have because they take away time from the person you could be spending time with. 

Codependent relationships may also lead to negative effects on your mental health. Specifically, being in a codependent relationship may lead to increased stress and anxiety because there is so much at stake for being with one person. Additionally, when things go wrong within your relationship you will likely feel even more stressed because the relationship takes up all of your stress and you no longer have that person who can support you through the stress.

Getting to the point of choosing to leave a codependent relationship is incredibly difficult. You may think that you do not have the strength to leave the relationship because they have been your only source of support throughout the relationship. If you do make the decision to leave a codependent relationship, you may have a lot of conflicting feelings about whether or not you are making the right choice. The difficulty in deciding if you are making the right choice can lead to a lot of stress, ambivalence, and uncertainty with your decision.

After leaving a codependent relationship, it can also be similarly difficult. This is because your entire worth and self-esteem depended on the person who you were in a relationship with. So when you leave them, it can be a difficult adjustment to feel like once again you are on your own and without the person that was fulfilling all of your needs. You may feel as if you have no self-esteem and no self-worth when you at first leave a relationship that is codependent.

Feeling lonely is another effect of leaving a codependent relationship. Because you likely have neglected your other relationships, you may now feel as if you no longer have social support from other people. You can rebuild these relationships, but it often takes time. The loneliness that you feel when you first leave a codependent relationship can be very difficult to grapple with, but it is not impossible to deal with. 

How to Have a Healthy Relationship

If you are looking to avoid becoming involved in a codependent relationship, it’s important to take steps early on where you can become more clear on how to have a healthy relationship. There are several steps you can take to build a healthy relationship and avoid getting into a codependent relationship. If you would like to get into a healthy relationship even after being in a codependent relationship, take the following steps below to develop a healthy relationship.

Step 1 - Maintain a Healthy Level of Independence

The opposite of a codependent relationship is one in which a healthy level of independence is maintained. To maintain independence within a relationship can be challenging because you have to find a balance between devoting enough time and energy to someone in the relationship while also being your own person. One of the ways to maintain your independence is to set aside time for friends each week without your partner. Additionally, you should continue to engage in the activities you were in once you get into a relationship. If you let go of the activities you enjoyed, you will lose part of yourself in essence due to becoming in the relationship. 

Step 2 - Use assertive communication

It is also essential that you focus on maintaining healthy communication between you and your partner. Healthy communication looks like both of you asserting your needs by using assertive communication that is not accusatory. This may include being open and honest about your needs while speaking to your partner in a positive tone.

Healing from a Codependent Relationship

When you have made the decision to leave a codependent relationship, it is usually not an easy one. It is one that you have thought about for a long time and have made many decisions about regarding whether or not it is the right choice. Leaving a codependent relationship is difficult but can be the start of a healthier and happier relationship. Healing from a codependent relationship can take a significant amount of time and work, but it is possible. Knowing that you are ready to heal from a codependent relationship is the first step. 

Step 3 - Being Self Aware of your Emotions

Building an awareness of your own emotions is incredibly important to beginning to heal from a relationship. If you are unsure of how you feel or are experiencing different emotions, it can be particularly helpful to start to acknowledge your emotions and process them. People have various ways of processing and acknowledging their emotions. One of the most helpful ways to process your emotions can be to write them down through journaling. For some people, writing down your thoughts and feelings in a journal can help you make more sense of them than when they are all in your head. Additionally, this can be helpful to look back on your thoughts and emotions when you do process your emotions by journaling about them. There are a variety of ways that you can journal about your emotions including writing them down on paper or even by just using a digital note app as a way to journal about them.

Step 4 - Be Compassionate with Yourself

When you are ready to heal from a codependent relationship, one of the biggest things that you can do is offer yourself self-compassion. Self-compassion is more than just being kind to yourself, it is also acknowledging your challenging emotions and letting yourself know that it is okay to feel this way. When you fight against your difficult emotions, it tends to make them more difficult and hard to recover from them. Instead of fighting against your emotions, it can be much more helpful to acknowledge when you are experiencing them and letting yourself know that this is a difficult time that you are going through. By acknowledging the hurt that you are experiencing, you will become more aware of your emotions around the experience you have had. 

Step 5 - Lean on your real Human Social Network (not Virtual)

Reaching out to social support is a very important part of recovering from a codependent relationship. Within a codependent relationship, you may feel that you do not have any social support or a network to support you. This is because the person who you were in a relationship with is no longer there to support you. It can be scary to reach out to previous forms of social support if you fell out of touch with them when you were in a codependent relationship. You may have worries about if they will answer you or if they will be there to support you since you have not been in as close of contact with them. Even though it is scary, the first step is to reach out to some of the people who used to be a type of social support for you. This can be very helpful as a way to re-establish contact with them. Starting off with a text message or a call can be very simple and an easy way to reestablish contact. Additionally, after you have reestablished contact this way, you may wish to ask them to hang out in person again. After some time, you will be able to rebuild these relationships in a way where you feel you have more forms of support than just the person you had a codependent relationship with.

Step 6 - Build Your Self-Esteem

Building up your self-esteem is another important way that you can recover from a codependent relationship. People do various things to feel better about themselves and be compassionate towards themselves. One thing that can be helpful to do is to use positive affirmations about yourself in a way that encourages you to remain positive. Affirmations are important just as acknowledging the challenges that you are experiencing. Some positive affirmations you may use include, “I know this is hard, and I’m doing my best to get through it” or “Even though today is a difficult day, I’m going to make the best of it.” These affirmations can help you to remain positive and increase your self-esteem when you are going through a difficult moment.

Step 7 - Focus on Fun & Healthy Activities

Focus on activities that make you feel good and that can also build your self-esteem. Activities that you used to engage in such as hobbies, sports, and exercise can be helpful to reengage in after leaving a codependent relationship. They can help you build your self-esteem because they give you a sense of mastery over an activity. Additionally, they help you rebuild parts of your identity that are important to you and that are not attached to someone else. These can also be a great way to meet other people who have similar interests as you and to build up a social support network. You can find ways to reengage in these activities by joining a gym or exercise studio or even trying other ways of meeting people such as local meetup groups or clubs.

Step 8 - Find a Coach, Therapist, or Counselor to Help

Another important step in healing from a codependent relationship may be participating in therapy. Anyone can benefit from therapy, particularly after being in a codependent relationship; however, therapy may be particularly important if you find that you are experiencing increase levels of stress, anxiety, or depression that are impacting your day to day life. If you notice that you are no longer able to keep up with your work, social life, or have just been feeling greater functional impairments in general, it may be time to start therapy. Finding a therapist near you can help you work through the challenging emotions you are experiencing, and also help you identify new coping skills to address those challenges.

Luckily, there are now many more options for therapy than there were in the past. With advances in technology, it is much easier to see a therapist online or to find a therapist near you in your city or state. In order to find a therapist, we have written a guide for how to find a good therapist near you. 

One of the first steps is deciding if you would prefer to see a therapist online or in-person, as this will change the approach to how you find a therapist. Seeing a therapist online has many advantages including that you often have a wider variety of therapists to choose from as you can see any therapist within your state. Additionally, you can also see a therapist from the comfort of your own home and with a more flexible schedule without worrying as much about how long it will take you to travel to see your therapist. At the same time, many people prefer in-person therapy as it can be very nice to interact with someone in person. Some people prefer often the in-person interactions because they feel it is better and easier to build a relationship with someone this way.

When you have decided what type of therapist you would like to see, you can start off by searching for a therapist in your area. If you are choosing to use your health insurance, you will often have to check with their online portal or directory of therapists who are paneled with your insurance. Although you can use your insurance to see a therapist, you can also choose a therapist that is private pay where you do not have to use your insurance. 

Either way, it is important that you find a therapist that specializes in working with people who have left codependent relationships. To find a therapist that specializes in codependent relationships is difficult, and you may want to start your search by looking for couples therapists or therapists that specialize in relationships. Typically, you can get a sense of how experienced a therapist is with codependent relationships based upon their website and the types of information they have about their training and the types of clients they see.

When you have made the decision to start therapy and are fully invested in it, it will be important to be open and honest in order to get the most benefit out of therapy. Having appropriate expectations for therapy is also very important when it comes to the experience you will have in therapy. In order for therapy to be effective, you have to be willing to put in work outside of therapy sessions to see changes. While it can be helpful to attend weekly therapy sessions, it is not the only thing that will make a difference. Most of your time and the work that you do will be spent outside during your therapy sessions and it will be necessary to implement the advice from your therapist to truly see changes in your life. Finally, therapy and the changes you see from it can take some time and are not typically linear. What you expect is that there will be some ups and downs in the therapy process. Although it may take some time until you see changes, it will be worth it in the end.

Changing Dynamics of a Relationship

Maybe you don’t want to leave your relationship but would still like to change the dynamics that you have within your codependent relationship because now you feel like they are harmful to you or your mental health.

Step 9 - Be Honest with the Other Person 

If you would like to change the dynamics within your relationship, the first thing you should do is have an honest conversation with your partner about how your current dynamic is. When doing so, it’s important that you do so in a way that is not accusatory but one that comes from a place of love and support. You want to share with your partner that you have been considering how both of you may benefit from spending more time developing your independent activities. It’s important to stress that this does not mean that you feel any differently about them or change your relationship in any way. 

Step 10 - Wash, Rinse, Repeat the Previous Steps

After having this conversation with you partner, you should follow the steps above under creating a healthy relationship to find ways to regain control within the relationship in a way that is very healthy. One of the best places to start with is to get involved in different activities in which your partner is not involved so that you can maintain a level of independence. It’s important to maintain healthy communication with your partner throughout this so that they understand and know how you are feeling and whether these changes are working.

Step 11 - Build other Friendships

Engage in relationships with other people outside of those with your partner. Doing so will help you so that you can rely on other people than just your partner for emotional support. To do this, you will want to start spending more time with other people and disclosing with them some level of vulnerability so that it can help you feel more comfortable with them. This will ultimately lead to a healthier and stronger relationship with your partner because you are not placing so much stress on your partner.

Step 12 - Consider Ending the Relationship if All Else Fails

If you and your partner have tried all of these steps above and still are not happy with how things are, it may be time to discuss whether or not breaking up would be beneficial. Although nobody wants to breakup or for a relationship to end, ultimately, it can be the best case scenario for a lot of people. When this happens, the best way to end the relationship would be on amicable terms. This can be much easier said than done. It should be a decision that you have thought of and have come to the conclusion that in the end, this is the best choice possible. To have the conversation with your partner about if you are ready to break up, you will want to do so in a calm way during which both of you can clearly think if this is the best possible solution.

Next Steps After Healing

The healing process from a codependent relationship is not a linear one. There will be times where you find yourself back to where you started feeling down and like you may have made the wrong choice. This is very normal to have happen as leaving a codependent relationship is an incredibly difficult decision. Just because it is a difficult decision does not mean that you made the wrong choice. Whether or not you choose to change the dynamics within your relationship or instead choose to leave the relationship, there is no wrong choice that can be made. In the end, the choice that you make will always be the right choice and no choice will be easy. Even if it is not an easy choice, know that the healing process will help you get through it. If you follow the steps in this article, you are on your way to building a healthier relationship and healing from codependency.

About Dr. Carrie Jackson

Dr. Carrie Jackson is a contributor of JournalOwl. Her primary interests are to increase access to evidence-based mental health treatments for children and adolescents, providing specific information to parents and individuals with ADHD.

Carrie is a graduate of West Virginia University with a doctoral degree in Psychology, and a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology. Carrie has worked as a therapist and evaluator at several children’s hospitals, providing care and treatment to clients with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and anxiety. She has also worked with children with chronic medical conditions, providing supportive mental health care to children with cancer and burn survivors. 

Although originally from South Carolina, Carrie has lived in two countries and four states. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and trying new recipes.

Health Disclaimer

JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.

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