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Crossing the Line from Caring to Codependent

When you have a partner with a mental illness, it’s natural to want to do anything you can to ease the stress in your relationship.

The problems start to creep in when your helping is actually hurting, and it’s because you’ve crossed the line from “caring” to “codependent.” In an earlier post, I talked about the “F-word in mental illness,” which is fear. Codependent relationships are built upon fear, and are not healthy for anyone involved.

Does this scenario (or some version of it) sound familiar?

A female partner may spend most of her attention and time assisting her partner in recovering from drug addiction. She feels a sense of purpose and may appear to be wonderfully self-sacrificing. However, she may also be avoiding her own unhappiness and personal issues — like her fear of abandonment.

Her partner may believe that he can’t deal with his addiction without her. He vacillates between feeling grateful for her help and resentful for what he feels is her nagging and smothering behavior. Many co-dependent partners report feeling “let down,” “taken advantage of,” or “trapped” by their needy partner when they are really “trapped” by their own overwhelming neediness. The addicted partner is also using his complaints about the relationship to avoid dealing with his own neediness and addiction. (Source: Codependent Relationships)

Codependency is most often associated with having an alcoholic partner, but it can show up anytime that someone is in a relationship where the ill partner’s needs always come first and the healthy partner sacrifices everything in order to meet the other partner’s needs.

Some signs of codependency include:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship and to avoid the feeling of abandonment.
  • An extreme need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • Lack of trust in self and/or others
  • Fear of being abandoned or alone
  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries
  • Chronic anger

Advantages to codependency?

On the surface, it may look like there are some advantages to being in a codependent relationship, but they are mirages: the codependent partner may feel in control, may have a sense of being “the strong one” in the partnership, or may think, “Well, at least I’m in a relationship–if this one ends, no one else will want me.”

The truth is, the codependent partner is not taking care of their own needs in favor of catering to the other person, and is ultimately sacrificing their own mental health.

How do you know if you are codependent?

WebMD suggests three questions you can ask yourself to assess whether you are in a codependent relationship:

  1. Is this relationship more important to me than I am [to myself]?
  2. What price am I paying for being with this person?
  3. Am I the only one putting energy into this relationship?

For the first question, of course there are sacrifices that go along with being in a relationship. The line is crossed when everything in the relationship is about your partner’s needs (especially their needs around their illness), and you give up everything that’s important to you in the process of “caring” for them.

The second question asks you to consider what exactly you have given up in favor of caring for your partner: friendships? free time? a job promotion? money? your self-esteem?

The third question wants you to reflect on the give-and-take of the relationship. Does your partner reciprocate? If you answer that question with, “Well, they can’t reciprocate…they are sick!”, my next questions are, “If they were not sick, would things be equal?” or “Even though they are sick, do they express gratitude for your efforts and the wish that they could be more helpful?”

Help for codependents

As always, I recommend that you seek the advice of a licensed mental health professional. Counseling can teach you skills in listening, assertiveness, communication, and independence. If you have other mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, you may also be prescribed medication, but this is not a given.

Co-Dependents Anonymous has more information, including information about Twelve-Step meetings designed for recovery from codependency.

This list of books on can provide insight into the situation and information for recovery. Codependent No More, by Melodie Beattie, is particularly popular.

Crossing the Line from Caring to Codependent

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.

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APA Reference
Thieda, K. (2019). Crossing the Line from Caring to Codependent. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Mar 2019
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