Are You in a Codependent Marriage? Symptoms, Challenges and Strategies

codependent marriage

A codependent marriage is sometimes difficult to identify – especially within the relationship itself. In fact, you may be wondering if you’re in a codependent marriage yourself. Since codependent marriages are generally emotionally unbalanced, at least one partner is often not feeling fulfilled within the relationship. In studying relationship dynamics for years, I decided to delve into this area of emotional imbalance to learn more.

So, what is a codependent marriage? Codependent marriages reflect at least one partner’s inability to set boundaries in a healthy way to foster a mutually fulfilling and balanced marriage. One person represents too much of a selfless “giver,” while the other exhibits more selfish “taker” tendencies – leading to an emotional imbalance within the relationship.

This dynamic is also referred to as “relationship addiction,” because people with codependency habits tend to engage in destructive, imbalanced, or abusive relationships. The good news is that, according to marriage and relationship experts, there are ways to shift the balance for a healthier and mutually satisfying outcome.

What Is a Codependent Marriage?

Simply stated, one partner in a codependent marriage isn’t exhibiting healthy boundaries and is too selfless, while the other partner is on the selfish side of the spectrum. This imbalance creates an emotional distortion, where the “giver” suppresses his or her emotions and needs in order to keep the peace within the relationship.

The “taker” or selfish partner feels justified in his or her behavior, and the selfless partner is on the losing end of the equation.

The “giver” may have tried to stand his or her ground and failed, or may feel that if they do stand their ground, they would be abandoned.

Part of this dynamic is that the “giver” lacks a healthy amount of self-respect and self-esteem and often would not walk away from an imbalanced marriage. The reason is because they feel they couldn’t find another partner who would want to be with them.

The selfless partner may feel and voice resentment, but wouldn’t necessarily take the necessary steps to shift the balance at the risk of upsetting their partner.

So how do you know if you’re in a codependent marriage?

Codependent Marriage Signs

Identifying whether or not you’re in a codependent relationship can be tricky. In a marriage, we are so closely intertwined with our emotions, habits, and behaviors that we don’t always see things with clarity as someone outside the relationship would.

If you suspect you may be in a codependent marriage, this list of common signs of codependency can help.

Keep in mind that these would either relate to you or your partner, depending on which of you is the “giver” or exceedingly selfless partner in the relationship…

  • Your identity is wrapped up in taking care of others’ needs before your own
  • You get satisfaction out of helping your partner more so than finding other areas of your life to be equally satisfying
  • You’re afraid that if you set healthy boundaries, you may hurt your partner’s feeling or upset them
  • You feel resentment for being so selfless, and yet you don’t feel you can say no
  • You give support to your partner at the cost of your own health (emotionally, mentally, physically, or any combination of these)
  • You feel uncomfortable allowing your partner to feel and work through pain, so you step in early and take the pain on yourself
  • You feel a need for control in your marriage, and taking on the role of “caretaker” is an outlet for exhibiting control

According to a WebMD article about codependent marriages, one psychologist suggests another way you can tell. If you have friends or family members (or others outside of the marriage) who give you feedback that you are too dependent on your partner (or if you suspect your partner is the codependent one, they would have given feedback to suggest he or she is too dependent on you) – that’s worth paying attention to.

Alternatively, they might offer feedback about noticing when one of you wants some independence but remain too conflicted to actually separate in any way. In these cases, where you’re hearing feedback along these lines, you can add that to the list of ways you can tell if your marriage is one with a codependent dynamic.

Codependent Behavior in Marriage

A codependent individual is typically the “giver” in the relationship. His or her behaviors revolve around being selfless to an extreme degree, and is largely based on low self-esteem and seeking outside sources to feel better about themselves.

Here’s a list of traits commonly seen in codependent individuals, which affects their behavior and carries over into the marriage dynamics:

  • Feeling guilty standing up for themselves
  • Fears about being alone or abandoned
  • A habit of doing more than is typically expected when helping someone else
  • Taking on the responsibility of “saving” someone else in need
  • A higher-than-average need for approval
  • Overly sensitive when others don’t recognize their efforts
  • Tending to “love” people they feel sorry for and who are in need
  • Needing to control others (without recognizing the controlling behavior for what it is)
  • Fearful of trusting both themselves and others

Exhibiting one or two of these traits doesn’t necessarily mean you are codependent. But if you exhibit more than half of these, chances are that your relationship leans toward being a codependent one. In that case, awareness, learning more about codependency, and taking action to improve behaviors are all key in shifting the balance toward more healthy interactions.

Codependent Marriage Problems

Most problems in a codependent marriage are really more closely related to problems that doesn’t stem from the marriage itself at all, but rather “bleed” into the marriage.

Codependency isn’t truly a relationship problem between two people. It’s a relationship problem one has with his or herself that affects his or her partner, becoming a challenge within the relationship as imbalance occurs and worsens over time.

In an article on PsychCentral, one relationship expert explains that codependents do not have healthy relationships with themselves.  Rather, they put a higher level of importance on someone or something else. Their thoughts, actions and feelings revolve almost entirely around their partner (or other things they’ve identified as more important than themselves).  Essentially, they lose touch with the relationship to “self.”

One marriage problem that stems from this dynamic is that the “taker” becomes increasingly dependent on the “giver,” to the extent that the “giver” eventually develops a sense of satisfaction and being rewarded from being needed.

MentalHealthAmerica writers explain that care taking becomes more compulsive throughout the course of the marriage.  When that happens, the “giver” typically feels like they have no choice, and yet are still not able to stop the behavior and habits that causes the feeling of helplessness. Codependent people (“givers”) actually take on a victim mentality and choose relationships where others relate to them on that level.

So in this way, over time, the balance continually deteriorates and behaviors become increasingly more compulsive.

Systemic marriage problems related to codependency occur because codependent people have challenges regarding trust and intimacy. So a true healthy loving connection is impossible for as long as the imbalance is in place.

Communication challenges is one example of a systemic problem that stems from codependent tendencies. Because codependent people are generally not in tune with their own feelings, or they feel they don’t deserve a high level of respect, they don’t tend to voice their needs and desires in an open and honest manner. Or, when they do voice their concerns, they feel shut down or “unheard” by their partner.

This can either be the case or not; their partner may have become more demanding regarding his or her needs and is indeed “shutting down” the codependent when needs are voiced, or alternatively, the codependent person may be overly sensitive, which is a common trait linked to those who are excessive “givers.”

Whichever is the case, communication becomes less honest, and the codependent often represses his or her feelings related to needs and desires in order to keep the peace.

Can a Codependent Marriage Be Saved?

Since codependency is a learned behavior, it can be treated, and thus a codependent marriage can be savedThe key here is that both individuals need to be aware of the codependent imbalance in the marriage and willing to work together toward a healthier balance.

Honest communication between both partners is imperative. Both need to work at being more individualized without taking on the responsibility and feelings of the other. Both need to voice their needs and establish joint boundaries. The selfish, non-codependent person needs to be more empathetic and understanding of the codependent person’s feelings. And the codependent person must learn to voice their needs in an authentic way without fear.

Most codependent adults learned this behavior in childhood by having codependent relationship models (usually the parents or caretaker). So finding some healthier role models related to marriage is a helpful idea, whether that’s making new friends who are in a happy healthy marriage, reading books, documentaries, or any other way you can find.

By identifying a healthy marriage to model, you can learn key traits and behaviors that foster healthy relationships.

Healing a Codependent Marriage

Healing can be self-managed in some cases, with counseling as a better option for those who are unable to make progress on their own.

In fact, the benefits of identifying and working to improve the unhealthy codependent behavior can be hugely rewarding, including: higher level of self-esteem; capable of engaging in the marriage in a more deeply connected way; authenticity; building trust; and more.

Main Steps to Recovery

Marriage counselor Darlene Lancer suggests these four main steps to recovery: Abstinence; Awareness; Acceptance; and Action – as explained below.  These steps relate to the codependent person in the marriage.

1. Abstinence

Abstinence or sobriety are necessary for treatment of codependency. The idea is to bring the focus back to you internally, rather than seeking an external focus. So your behavior becomes motivated by your needs, values, feelings and perspectives rather than someone else’s.

2. Awareness

Denial goes hand in hand with addiction, regardless of the type of addiction (including codependency behaviors). So awareness is a key step in recovery. Addicts tend to deny not only their addiction, but their feelings and needs, especially related to trust and intimacy.

3. Acceptance

Self-acceptance is what we’re referring to here, and most counseling would focus on learning to accept yourself. So many adults came into adulthood with feelings of inadequacy stemming from childhood, where they didn’t feel nurtured enough, or loved enough, or accepted enough. Learning to self-soothe as an adult takes time, but it’s a necessary step toward finding a healthier balance in marriage.

4. Action

Understanding the reasoning doesn’t help if it’s not backed up with a change in habits and behaviors. As your insights grow, so should your behaviors improve to reflect your awareness and understanding.

Additional Steps toward Healing – for the Codependent Person:

  • Be honest with yourself and your partner about your needs and desires.
  • Avoid negative thinking – when you notice your thoughts moving in a direction of feeling unworthy of love and affection, replace those thoughts with positive ones.  Remind yourself to have higher expectations and self-respect.
  • Notice when you are being overly sensitive and learn not to take things so personally.
  • Find other activities that are independent of your marriage so that you’re not joined at the hip 24/7 – taking short breaks for some “me time” is helpful.
  • Peer support can also be helpful.  Co-Dependents Anonymous is a program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous and is available as a support group for those seeking to move away from codependent habits and behaviors.

Additional Steps toward Healing – for both Partners in the Marriage

Setting some ground rules or “rules of engagement” offers a framework for moving forward in a healthy manner. You may both have the best of intentions. Yet, once you get back into a daily routine, long-time habits begin to rear their ugly heads once again – sending you back to square one.

Here are examples of some “rules” you may want to implement to remind each other along the journey in healing your marriage:

  • We will always communicate respectfully with each other (no name calling, eye rolling, heavy sighs when someone is talking, crossed arms or closed body language, etc.)
  • We will pay attention in order to learn to recognize each other’s triggers when things are spiraling downward. For example, if you can recognize that when your partner has experienced an especially stressful day at work, he or she tends to be needier during those times. You can learn to compensate and be extra empathetic as appropriate.

Another example may be if one of you has an addiction to drugs, drinking, gambling, etc. and you notice that when they indulge in those behaviors, they become needier or angrier or less caring.

In these cases, you may need to make a habit of withdrawing and taking some space during those times. And then, find a later time to discuss the pattern of that particular trigger to address the underlying causes or root of why they are indulging in the behavior. Or suggest that he or she seek treatment for that addiction simultaneously while you’re working to heal your imbalanced codependent behaviors.

  • We will listen to each other without interrupting or changing the focus of the conversation so that each person feels heard and valued. Learning the skill of “deep listening” can help even the best marriages.

It takes practice, but try listening and staying quiet for longer than feels natural and truly giving the other person time not only to talk, but to think and process their thoughts in order to express them.

When you can learn to “deeply listen,” you are offering an amazingly high level of respect.  And also a gift – the gift of being “heard” and valued. That one practice will take you both a long way toward establishing open and honest communications.

  • We will honor each other’s need for space. Whether it’s taking some “me” time each day or each week, or simply stepping away when things feel overwhelming, both partners should honor the need for time alone or with friends or family outside of time spent with your partner.
  • Our behavior toward each other will show empathy, care, love and understanding. It will not show criticism, unloving or uncaring, selfishness, or dishonesty.

Related Questions

What causes co-dependency?

Codependency is most often rooted in childhood when one or both parents did not sufficiently fulfill their role as a parent. This could be due to various addictions of the parent (drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) which prevented them from fulfilling their responsibilities, wherein the child may have felt the necessity to step into a caregiver role which may have exceeded his or her developmental abilities.

What is the difference between love and codependency? 

Love is different in that it is accepting and yet not enabling your partner in an unhealthy way. With love, you’ll share a mutual trust and respect, along with honest communication. Love is more balanced – one person does not feel responsible for the other, but rather responsibilities are shared.

What is the difference between enabling and codependency?

Enabling another person is not unhealthy in itself – it can be that you are helping someone else and empowering them so that they can take care of their own needs (such as with a parent enabling a child and helping them along until they become more independent). On the other hand, codependent behavior is taking responsibility for another’s needs and not empowering them to learn to take care of their own needs at all.

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