• When we get stuck in patterns of unhealthy relationships, it may relate to our relationship with ourselves

  • Co-dependency can arise when we enter relationships with low confidence or low self-esteem

  • If you want healthier relationships, find a therapist here 

Having one unhealthy relationship in your lifetime might be considered unfortunate. A chance to learn and grow; part of growing up perhaps, so long as you leave it, move on and don’t repeat it again. But what if you have a pattern of unhealthy relationships with love or sexual partners, friends, family, work colleagues? What if you are in an unhealthy relationship and feel unable to leave it? What if your relationship with yourself is so poor, you think that’s the way life is for you?  

What is co-dependence?

Co-dependence as a term can split opinion amongst professionals, is not a clinical condition or medical diagnosis, nor does it have to become your identity label unless you choose it to be. But if you are living with the consequences of repeated negative and destructive patterns in relationship with yourself and others, learning about codependent traits for the first time can bring a sense of relief. There are books about it. There are support groups and there are caring and supportive professionals who understand the turmoil within you and often surrounding you. And there is help.

I am often asked, “what is co-dependence?”, “am I co-dependent?” or “what ‘makes’ a person co-dependent?”. Whilst the last question is beyond this article, my hope here is to raise awareness of co-dependence as a term, offering a name to what can otherwise be a confusing dichotomy of traits, repeated ways of behaving and patterns of thinking about ourselves, about others and about our relationships.

When I say relationship here I mean all types; work, romantic, sexual, family, friendships and most importantly, with yourself. Specifically, how a poor relationship with yourself then plays out in the poor quality and negative types of relationships you seek (often unknowingly), form and maintain; the treatment you tolerate from others and how these repeat, regardless of your efforts to change yourself, others or your circumstance.   

And just as you can receive and feel it, so you can dish it out! Indeed, it can be like dancing a passionate, painful and ultimately destructive tango, playing the parts of victim, rescuer and aggressor.

That is, until you make the choice to stop dancing for a while, change the music and learn to dance a different dance! Because it doesn’t matter what ‘they’ did or didn’t do, or when ‘they’ did or didn’t do it, the buck now stops with you to change this for yourself. Only you can change the pattern.

Reading the list below, you might say these are human traits, everyone feels a bit of this. And I would agree with that, totally. So for you to identify yourself as codependent or as having codependent traits, you will be undoubtedly repeating negative patterns of unhealthy relating in a variety of scenarios and circumstances.

The list I offer below isn’t necessarily definitive and not all need apply, but you’ll know deep down how close this is to your reality:

  • You have low self-confidence, have difficulty making decisions, judge almost everything you do, say and are as not good enough and may consider yourself unlovable or unworthy.
  • You have difficulty asking others to meet your needs, compromise your own values, feel you don’t deserve any better and rate the approval of others over self-approval.
  • You have problems implementing and maintaining healthy boundaries for yourself and with others.
  • You are very sensitive to the feelings of others and often assume the same feelings as them, feel confused by the feelings of others or act in ways so as to comply and people-please so to avoid rejection.  
  • You accept sex when you really want love and may use sex to gain approval or acceptance.
  • You stay in unhealthy relationships, ignoring, dismissing or excusing signs/evidence of bad behaviour (emotional, sexual, verbal, mental or physical) until you literally can’t take anymore.  But attempts to leave or end the relationship result in being coerced or persuaded back, repeatedly.
  • You feel trapped in a current relationship or friendship and feel you can’t leave it because being on your own is too scary and ultimately you fear being rejected in this other relationships.
  • Your partner, friends or circumstances might change, but the end results are no different: another unhealthy relationship. Wherever you go or try to do differently, it still ends up the same.
  • You have difficulty expressing your own feelings appropriately, feel you can’t change things for yourself and need someone else to rescue you or make it better for you.
  • And/or, you seek to rescue, guide, control or fix others to feel better about yourself or more secure.
  • You don’t believe you deserve anything better, have difficulty identifying your feelings or minimise/deny how you really feel.   
  • You give ‘your power away’ to other people so that they have the power to make you feel good or bad about yourself.
  • Despite your efforts to control and manipulate others, be a perfectionist or create a screen of perfection around yourself, the patterns repeat.
  • You feel that if you could make those around you happy, you would have a purpose, be loved, stop feeling ‘less than’ and avoid being rejected.
  • You need people to admire/need you so that you feel good about yourself.
  • You are the common denominator in all of your patterns and the scenarios you find yourself in, but instead of admitting that, you point the finger, you blame, you explain, you justify, you avoid or you deny. 
  • You may be medicating with alcohol, drugs or other unhelpful or habitual behaviours such as gambling, shopping, over/under eating or inappropriate sexual behaviour in an attempt to cope or pretend there is nothing wrong.
  • You likely feel a mixture of emotions and feelings, including confusion, vulnerability, shame, guilt, hurt, used, controlled or controlling, victimised, depressed, anxious, nervous, jealous. 

What can you do about it?

So now you’ve read the list, you will if the chord strikes and how deeply within you, if so. You may identify yourself as codependent or you may not and ultimately it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that if you recognise these patterns and traits as dominating and negatively impacting your life, so you can start to change. And if you want support to do so, it is available.   

The fact is that the cycle is likely to persist until you make positive and fundamental changes. Ignoring the problem, hoping it will go away or change with your next relationship, friendship or home move will not make things better. In fact, it’s likely to get worse as patterns repeat over time.

The good news is that it is possible to stop the patterns and change for good. We do this by changing your relationship with yourself, by changing how you relate to others and how you allow others to relate with you.

It takes a little time to understand how and why you interact the way you do. It takes time to build a positive relationship with yourself and learn how to interact healthily with others. But it absolutely possible and the right support is available to you now.   

Further reading

How your attachment style affects your relationships

Humanistic therapy helped me break harmful relationship patterns

Why do I repeat the same relationship mistakes?

How therapy helped me find the right relationships