Unhealthy relationships can come in many shapes and forms. One common term used for some of these types of relationships is codependency.
The concept of codependency has been around for a long time. It was initially used to describe the unhealthy relationship with someone who had an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Individuals can become enablers who lose their sense of self in an effort to save and protect the alcoholic or drug-addicted partner. The definition has been expanded to include other types of dysfunctional relationships.
It may initially difficult to distinguish between a loving and caring relationship and an unhealthy one. Helping someone that you love would ordinarily not seem to be bad. The problem occurs when helping someone causes you to lose yourself in the relationship and the other person to become helpless and dependent.
It has become apparent that there are many other kinds of unhealthy relationships built on the helpless and often self-destructive behavior of one partner and the inability of the other to separate themselves from it.
Classic examples are the dysfunctional relationships based on addiction of one partner to substances or gambling. But people also get into relationships with partners who do not work because they frequently lose or quit their jobs and do not pay their own bills.
Others are emotionally unavailable, chronically angry or depressed; socially withdrawn; or display a myriad of other behaviors that are unhealthy for themselves and certainly for anyone in a relationship with them.
It may be helpful to learn about the common characteristics of people who are the “helpers” in unhealthy relationships. You may be in an unhealthy relationship if you:
• Set few or no boundaries: You allow others to take advantage of you, and you feel guilty if you if you don’t help them. You accept verbal, emotional or physical abuse and mistreatment and may even think that you deserve it.
• Let others define your self-worth: You only see yourself as worthwhile when you are meeting someone else’s needs. You are overly concerned about what others think of you.
• Are always people pleasing: You avoid confrontation at all costs because you fear hurting the feelings of your partner or fear their rejection. You let your partner hurt you in some way and make excuses for his/her behavior.
• Ignore “red flags”: You ignore the “red flags” that signify a problem such as your partner’s patterns of dishonesty, unfaithfulness, possessiveness, irresponsibility, abuse or disrespect.
• Overinvest: You give too much to the relationship to the point of ignoring your own needs. You are angry and defensive when someone points this out to you.
• Frequently feel anxious, depressed or lonely: You consistently feel anxious, depressed or lonely about the relationship. You know that it is unfulfilling, but you see no alternatives. Perhaps you feel trapped or afraid to change or leave.
• Rescue your partner: You are frequently rescuing your partner from his/her own self-destructive behavior and poor judgment by making excuses, paying fines and bills, apologizing, and otherwise taking responsibility for his/her behavior.
Unhealthy relationships can take more than one form. In some cases, you may serve as the caretaker/rescuer/helper, and this may fill your need for self-worth and self-importance by being the competent one in the relationship.
Of course, your dependent partner benefits from the care and attention they get from you for being irresponsible and self-destructive. In this type of relationship, rescuing, enabling and dependency are defined as love and intimacy.
In some relationships, both people may be too dependent on each other and describe themselves as “incomplete” when they are not in a relationship. They may believe they cannot make a decision or cope with life without the significant other. This behavior can become so natural that neither recognize it as dysfunctional.
Healthy relationships are not based on codependence, dependence or independence, but on interdependence. Interdependent relationships are marked by mutual caring, sharing and support. Each partner sets reasonable boundaries and has a sense of who they are. Each has their own unique personality and neither disappears inside the relationship. They work together for the mutual benefit. Communication is direct, clear and open. Each person has friendships and social support outside of the relationship.
If you discover that you are in an unhealthy relationship it can be very difficult to change it. You can first try to change the relationship dynamics. Begin an honest discussion with your partner about what you see and how you feel and listen to their concerns. Make it clear that you expect your partner to invest in the relationship and act responsibly, and that you will no longer assume responsibility for them.
It will also be necessary to change your role in contributing to the problem. Start by reconnecting to the extended support system that you once had. This will allow you to get perspective, define yourself outside of the relationship and gain a separate identity.
Resume some activities that you enjoyed but stopped when you got into the relationship. Set some goals for yourself that are separate from the relationship. Recognize when your care for your partner has turned into treating him/her as a child instead of an equal.
Think about what your interests are, pursue them and talk about them with your partner. Encourage your partner’s interests. Develop a realistic view of relationships. Recognize what needs they can reasonably expected to meet and those that they cannot.
This attempt to change the status quo and create healthy interdependence in your relationship may not always be well received by your partner. Old patterns are hard to break, and your attempts to change may be perceived as abandonment or rejection. You, too, may experience fear at the prospect of change. You will ultimately need to decide what is best for both of you.
Know when you should stay and when it is necessary to move on. If you leave this relationship, avoid making similar mistakes by spending some time learning about yourself, your values and your needs before starting a new one.
David Gannon, Ph.D., Psychological and Family Consultants, Canton, Ohio.