How Can I Help a Friend in a Codependent Relationship?

Codependency in relationships can be harmful, restrictive and isolating. If you know someone who is in a codependent relationship or has a tendency to fall into them, here’s what you can do to help.

What is codependency?

A codependent relationship occurs when two individuals are over-reliant on each other to function. The behaviors of codependence can be emotional, physical, financial, psychological or spiritual.

Codependency is not a mental health disorder and it’s also distinct from dependent personality disorder (DPD). DPD is characterized by anxious behavior, submissiveness and an inability to take care of oneself. While these traits can be found in codependent relationships, codependency requires two people where the pattern of reliance and care is cyclical, reinforcing the closeness in the relationship.

Codependent relationships can happen between partners, parents and children, siblings, coworkers and more. While some codependent relationships are more severe than others, they tend to follow a pattern in which one individual takes on a caretaker role and the other is dependent on the caretaker.

Codependency often occurs in relationships when substance use or mental illness are involved. For example, the submissive partner may feel compelled to stay with someone because she provides the necessary funds to continue a drug addiction.

What are signs of a codependent relationship?

While you may notice something is off about a friend’s relationship, it can be hard to put your finger on what exactly is the root of the problem. Here are some telltale signs of a codependent relationship.

  • The caretaker feels like he or she needs to “save” the other
  • The relationship appears one-sided, with one person putting in all the work
  • The caretaker exhausts him or herself supporting the dependent
  • The caretaker feels an obligation or sense of duty to care for the other
  • The dependent becomes anxious or jumpy when left without the caretaker
  • The dependent does not have his or her own source of income
  • The dependent struggles to manage a schedule or routine without the caretaker
  • One person feels on-edge, avoiding conflict
  • One person is quick to anger
  • One person blames the other for his or her own behaviors
  • The caretaker feels forced to change their beliefs or personality to accommodate the dependent

The most notable sign of a codependent relationship is when there is a significant power imbalance between partners. The caretaker tends to be domineering, controlling and stubborn.

How can I help someone in a codependent relationship?

If you have a friend in a codependent relationship, it can be hard to sit by and watch. While you may feel helpless knowing your friend has to choose to leave the relationship on his or her own accord, there are some steps you can take to support your friend without endorsing the harmful relationship.

Build up your friend’s self-worth

Codependent relationships are often founded on an individual’s low self-esteem. The dependent figure will often seek constant affirmation and feel unable to function without that reassurance. The caretaker figure may fluctuate between lavishing affirmations on the dependent and neglecting to provide it. This may cause the dependent to crave positive attention and try to obtain it through favorable behavior.

By building up your friend’s self-worth, they will gain validation from sources other than the toxic relationship. Developing a positive self-image might help them create healthier boundaries and express their own desires.

Create a safe place for conversation

Your loved one may feel overwhelmed, stressed and isolated by the codependent relationship. Aside from the controlling or dependent partner, they may not be close enough to confide in anyone else. Reassuring your friend that they can confide in you can help them feel connected and understood.

Opening the door to vulnerable conversations can also give your friend a new perspective, so they understand that relationships shouldn’t be manipulative. Your compassion may give your friend strength and hope to move on.

Don’t judge

You’re likely wondering why people stay in toxic and codependent relationships. While your concern is valid, judging someone for staying in a codependent relationship isn’t helpful or supportive.

Your help will be more effective if you can coax conversation out of your friend than if you lecture, scold or judge, which may backfire and only serve to cut off trust. For example, try asking your loved one what they hope for long-term from life, and what obstacles are in the way of their long-term goals. Help your friend to realize the problem on their own.

It’s important to tread carefully, but you could point out changes you’ve noticed that could be signs of a dependent relationship without assuming you know the full story. When your friend is ready for help or advice, you’ll be ready to intervene constructively.

Get help for yourself

Supporting a friend who is in a codependent relationship can take its toll on you, too. 

That’s why it’s important to make sure your own mental health is stable and therapy can be the safe haven you need to unload without compromising your loved one’s privacy. Getting help for yourself is one of the best ways to help someone in a codependent relationship.

Mazzitti & Sullivan Counseling can provide the support you’re looking for with the flexibility you want. Reach out now to learn more.