Is Your Relationship Codependent? And What Exactly Does That Mean?

Like “self love” or “inner child,” the term “codependent” smacks of pop psychology psychobabble. To make matters worse, it’s become shorthand for a whole host of unhealthy behaviors. But what does it really mean? And does it describe your relationship? This week, by listener request, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals what “codependent” really means and what you can do to set things right.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #131

Tip #1: Give yourself permission to help 50%, 75%, or 90%, rather than 110%. Of course you can be helpful, but allow yourself not to be the only one to come to the rescue all the time, at any time.

For some perspective, take a look at the less intense relationships in your life, or even your job or volunteer positions. Remind yourself that you can be useful and appreciated without an expectation of chronic fire fighting or total dependency. In short, search your life for relationships that nurture and engage you without draining you and use them as a model—that’s the balance you’re going for.

Tip #2: Draw a line between offering reasonable help and unreasonable help. Did you hear about the codependent who flunked geography? He couldn't distinguish any boundaries.

Indeed, a hallmark of codependency is that the help keeps the recipient from growing developmentally appropriate skills to take care of themselves. So draw some lines between giving them a hand and doing it for them.

This is better known as setting boundaries. Perhaps you’re willing to let them sleep on your couch, but you’d like them to start paying for groceries. Perhaps you’re happy to drive them to work since it’s on your way, but you’re no longer willing to wake them up or wait around for them until you’re late. Likewise, you might set a limit on the number of times you’ll bail them out of a sticky situation, or raise the threshold of what “emergencies” you’re willing to drop everything for.

Of course, you don’t have to be cruel—don’t set them up for failure by taking away all the support you’ve been providing all at once, but roll it back so you’re no longer their human shield from their own bad choices.

Critically, once the boundaries are set, you have to follow through. This will feel wrong at first—it’s really hard to interrupt the pattern of coming to the rescue. Sometimes it helps to enlist a third party to remind you of the long-term benefits while you’re weathering the short-term pushback.

A final thought: if you set boundaries and they punish you by humiliating you or hurting you, you’ve moved past codependency and into abuse.

Tip #3: Take care of yourself, but with a twist. No matter what side of the codependent aisle you’re on—helper or helped—take care of yourself. That may sound familiar, but what’s different is the function of that advice—this is a change from the usual “if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else” cliche. Indeed, we’re trying to get away from overhelping in this case.

Instead, take care of yourself because by showing through your own behavior that you are valued and worth taking care of, you might start to believe it yourself. Likewise, daring to take care of yourself bleeds over into how you allow others to treat you as well.

To wrap it all up, codependency is very real and hard stuff. But with some perspective and guts, you can make sure you don’t end up as just another punchline.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.