Dependence, Codependence, and Relationships

I love this topic, because it is part of creating healthy and meaningful relationships! Dependence tends to get a bad wrap. Our culture at large promotes individualism over collectivism, and being dependent on something or someone is usually viewed as a negative. Codependence is one of those words that is used and thrown around without an awareness of what it actually means (other examples are OCD and Bipolar. Don’t get me started- that’s a whole other blog post!)

So, let’s dig in a little to what dependency and codependency are, and how they manifest in and impact relationships. Like other traits, dependency and codependency exist on a spectrum and can ebb and flow based on circumstances and relationship. An important question to ask yourself is if something (a trait, behavior, feeling, etc.) is getting in the way of your relationships, work/school, mental health. Just because something can be problematic, does not necessarily mean that it is or has to be.

Dependence

“I need you.” Pretty straightforward. Perhaps people accuse you of being needy, or you find that you have a difficult time making decisions or completing tasks on your own. We may find that a person who struggles with dependence also struggles with self-esteem; reaching out for help or looking to others to make a decision for you stem from a belief that you are not capable of making the right decision, or that others will make a better decision than you.

On the flip side, I want to share how the ability to depend on others can foster supportive and healthy relationships. A perspective that was shared with me during the course of my training in EFT is that healthy dependence fosters independence. When we feel secure in our ability to depend on a person with whom we are in relationship with, we typically feel safer and more capable of growing in areas outside of the relationship; this is because we feel confident that, should we fail, there will be a safe place (person) to come back to.

Oftentimes, we fear that others will view us as weak or incapable if we ask for help or support; we avoid asking for what we need out of fear that others will judge us or be motivated to end a relationship. However, the response I hear most often from the person that is being asked for help and support is that they feel closer to the person who is asking for help; they feel trusted, they feel valued. Conversely, when a person avoids asking for help or support due to the above fears, their partner may feel shut out or distant or not good enough.

As I wrote at the start, these traits exist on a continuum; depending (no pun intended) on you and your relationship, there may be a level of dependence that becomes problematic. There is not a one size fits all answer, but I do not want us to demonize the act of being dependent!

Some questions to ask:

Do I need help?

Do I want help?

What type of help do I want/need?

How might I feel if/when someone accepts my request to help?

What am I afraid may happen if I ask for help?

Codependence

“I need you to need me”. Codependency can have a bit more nuance than dependency, perhaps because the term is misused so often. Individuals who struggle with codependence may describe themselves as people pleasers; they might have their plate full with things they are doing for others; they might be the first to volunteer or jump in to help or “fix” a problem.

When codependency is at play, being able to fulfill others’ needs or help/rescue others becomes an identity and a source of purpose. On the surface, an individual may complain and lament about the amount of things they “have” to do for others; however, this may serve a deeper need to feel valued or secure in a relationship. If others were to stop asking for help, or begin functioning independently, an individual struggling with codependency may feel rejected or threatened. An individual may fear that, if others no longer need or want their help then others will no longer need or want them.

Some good questions to ask:

Am I able to help _____ with _____?

Do I want to help _____ with _____?

What is motivating me to help _____ with _____?

What do I fear may happen if I choose to not help _____ with _____?

To learn more or to book an appointment, contact me via telephone or email.

Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Valencia, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.