What do you think about novels and movies that portray a couple willing to sacrifice anything for each other, even give their own lives if necessary? Insanely romantic or just insane?

Codependency was originally a term used to described a particular relationship dynamic where one partner has a substance abuse problem and the other doesn’t, but the one who doesn’t ends up entangled in a cycle of defending, excusing, tolerating and even enabling the addiction of the other.

Today, codependency can be used to describe any relationship where one partner seems to be endlessly committed to making a bad relationship work and the other endlessly committed to making it worse.

Codependency can become very complicated, especially in long-term couples where there is a history of addiction or any kind of abuse. People who are drawn to the kind of codependent dynamic often find themselves repeating the same patterns with all relationships, patterns that may have developed in early childhood. If the following seem to apply to you and your partner, it may be time to speak to a counselor or therapist about ways to make your relationship healthier and more balanced.

Do you or your partner constantly take on the role of saviour?

In a codependent relationship, one partner believes it’s their duty to save the other, to endure all their bad behaviour and to transform or redeem them somehow. This is the well-known pairing of softhearted fixer-upper and a rebellious “broken” person.

Outsiders may believe that the partner putting up with such behaviour is some kind of saint, and may even give them praise and empathy for being the bigger person. However, that person usually stays in what is clearly a toxic relationship because something in them makes them feel wanted and necessary. A person who has come to believe that the very definition of love is to endure bad treatment from others will seek out partners who confirm this belief.

Do you and your partner play “games” around control and responsibility?

Codependent couples can often get confused about who is to blame and for what. In this dynamic, one partner has very much more control and authority than the other, who is seen as out of control and who both partners agree needs to be controlled.

This is the kind of relationship where the partners define themselves against each other. One gets to be the unruly child or distant and dismissive, the other plays the parent and pursuer, outwardly hating having to take responsibility for their partner all the time, but unconsciously enjoying the power that role gives them.

In codependent relationships, partners will make use of denial, blaming one another for their own faults and encouraging destructive behaviour in one another. Even though both partners seem unhappy, neither one is able to leave.

Is there only one person in your relationship doing all the work?

Unfortunately, our culture promotes the idea that it’s a woman’s job to make relationships work and manage feelings and emotions. This may be why it’s easier for women to fall into a role where they are the only ones doing any emotional “work” in a relationship.

Often, this is confused as simply being very nurturing or having a high “EQ”, but in fact it is only in codependent relationships where one partner alone is committed to the success of the couple. These people would put the existence of the relationship over their own needs, and would sacrifice anything at all for it. Even when there appears to be nothing to be gained from the relationship, a person like this may stay because it plays into some deeply held beliefs they have about themselves. These could be low self-esteem and the idea that love has to be earned, usually through a struggle.

Codependency can be very tricky to manage because typically, both parties will see the other as the cause of the problem, rather than looking to the dynamic they both share. Sometimes, the codependent partner needs to leave the dynamic entirely, but it is possible to seek therapy and find healthier ways to relate to one another.

In some cases, the partner doing all the work can threaten to finally leave (and mean it) and this can be a catalyst for the other partner to change. However, a chat with a qualified professional can help you get to the bottom of this kind of relationship and help you decide if that’s a workable possibility for you and your partner.

Do you feel like you and your partner are starting to become codependent? Or do you know someone in a codependent relationship? Click here to search our directory of counsellors whom you can talk to about your relationship concerns.