A couple hugs in the kitchen representing codependency versus interdependence.

Having a deep emotional connection with your partner is a wonderful thing. But there is such a thing as being a little bit too connected, and we see this problem in couples counseling all the time. Learning the difference between codependency versus interdependence can help you strike a healthy balance with your partner that keeps your relationship strong and sustainable — not to mention satisfying. 

As a longtime marriage counselor, I know many couples struggle to strike that balance, and it can cause some nasty relationship problems. Most codependent couples spend a lot of time fighting. One partner may feel like the entire weight of the relationship rests on their shoulders; the other may feel stifled and infantilized. Both partners will be pretty much certain that the problems in the relationship would improve 1000% if the other one would just change. 

When you’re swimming in the soup of a codependent relationship, it’s hard to see how you’re contributing to the dynamic. It feels like everything is just happening to you thanks to your weirdo partner, but you actually have a lot of options, no matter which side of a codependent relationship dynamic you’re on. I hope this article helps you recognize sneaky codependent ways of thinking so you can start creating a relationship that’s characterized by healthy interdependence.

What Is Interdependence?

Interdependence means being able to rely on your partner but also maintaining some healthy separation. Interdependent couples share a strong attachment and emotional bond, while also having separate thoughts, feelings, and identities, and feeling comfortable with that. 

In interdependent relationships, both partners continue developing their self-identity as individuals. They have independent friendships, hobbies that they don’t share with their partner, and goals that are just their’s.

Interdependent couples also have boundaries with each other, but those boundaries don’t keep them from sharing a high level of emotional intimacy. In fact, interdependent couples can enjoy more authentic closeness, because they’re able to love and accept each other the way they really are: as whole, separate individuals. 

Codependency vs. Healthy Relationships

In contrast, people in codependent relationships don’t have a good sense of where one partner ends and the other begins. Thanks to something called “emotional enmeshment,” it can seem like their feelings are instantly contagious, with one partner reacting to the other like a match to gasoline. 

One codependent partner often derives their feelings of self-esteem or sense of safety in relationships from their ability to help or “take care of” others, and they may place their partner’s needs ahead of their own. They often unconsciously choose partners who need them in some way — or encourage perfectly independent partners to rely on them to an unhealthy degree. 

Codependent partners worry about displeasing each other. They may struggle to make independent decisions when they’re not in total agreement. If they’re feeling unhappy, they often blame each other, because they believe on a deep level that their partner is responsible for how they feel.

Interdependence versus Codependency

Here’s an example of healthy interdependence in action:

Sarah hates her job and often complains about it to her partner, Mark. He listens and validates her feelings, but he doesn’t try to fix the problem. When she asks for his advice, Mark tells Sarah that he thinks she should start looking for something else, but he doesn’t get upset when she continues trying to make it work for a few more months. Eventually, Sarah decides that she’s done and she starts her job search. When she gets an offer, Mark is happy for her. 

And here’s what that same situation might look like if it happened between Jeff and Bridget, a couple with a codependent relationship dynamic:  

When Bridget complains about her job, Jeff tells her that she should quit. When she doesn’t immediately take his advice, he starts feeling anxious. What if Bridget becomes depressed? That would make Jeff feel bad about himself. The truth is, Jeff knows he needs to make a career change himself, but helping Bridget feels more urgent.

Jeff begins sending Bridget job postings and pestering her to apply. She rolls her eyes every time a new one arrives — they’re all totally wrong for her. “He’s the one who keeps nagging me to change jobs,” she thinks. “So how does he expect me to do that if he won’t help me find something that fits my qualifications?” After a bad day at work, Bridget feels resentful, and stomps around the apartment giving Jeff the silent treatment. “Great, it’s happening,” Jeff thinks. “She’s becoming bitter because she’s still at that stupid job.” He asks her why she hasn’t taken his advice and quit yet if she’s so unhappy. The conversation devolves into a nasty fight

Over-functioners and Under-functioners

Why did these scenarios play out so differently? Because when relationships become codependent, the people involved lose sight of who is responsible for what. One partner starts to believe on a subconscious level that they have to function for both people in the relationship, or everything will fall apart. They take it upon themselves to try to control their partner or to solve their partner’s problems, rather than trusting them to find their own way, make their own decisions, and experience the natural consequences they need to experience in order to grow.

Over-functioning people enable others to under-function, because everyone in the relationship system begins colluding around the notion that the over-functioner is responsible for everything. This tell-tale sign of codependence often happens between couples, but it can also happen in a workplace, a family, or among friends. 

Codependence is bad news for relationships. A parent-child dynamic can begin to take root, which is deeply unsexy and can really kill the spark in a relationship. Both partners will begin to resent each other, and both will believe that the problem is the other. “He just needs to get his sh*t together” or “She just needs to get off my back,” they’ll think. What neither one can see is that they’re dancing this dance together, and they both have opportunities to do something different that would change the entire dynamic. 

Creating Interdependence in Relationships

If this is sounding familiar, don’t panic. There are a few things you can do to stop being codependent and start steering your relationship back towards healthy interdependence. 

  1. Get Into Couples Counseling

Codependence is one of those tricky relationship problems that can be hard to solve on your own. These tendencies run deep, and even once you understand codependence versus interdependence (which is a journey in itself), it’s very easy to slide back into codependence without the guidance and accountability that an outside expert can offer. If you think you and your partner might be in a codependent relationship, the first thing you should do is make an appointment with a good marriage and family therapist — not an individually trained mental health counselor (or god forbid an unlicensed life coach!). 

If you are in the market for a couples counselor, I’ve put together an article for you all about how to find a good marriage counselor to help you avoid some common pitfalls. 

2. Set Healthy Boundaries

Healthy boundaries are the bedrock that interdependent relationships are built upon. Boundaries allow you to empathize with your partner’s feelings and perspective, without taking them on as your own. They help you to be present with your partner’s problems, without trying to solve them yourself (and depriving your partner of the opportunity to grow in the process). They put a bright line between the things that you are responsible for and the things that you are not responsible for, which makes everything simpler, and paradoxically makes you and your partner more genuinely connected. 

Robert Frost said that “good fences make good neighbors.” Setting boundaries might sound like the opposite of closeness, but it’s what makes true closeness possible. 

3. Develop Your Identity and Sense of Self

People who have a tendency towards codependence often lose themselves in relationships. They may stop spending time with friends, lose interest in hobbies, and stop setting independent goals outside of the goals they share with their partner. In extreme cases they may even lose touch with who they are, what they like and don’t like, and where they’re headed in life. Intentionally focusing on your own identity can help you gain some healthy emotional and psychological separation from your partner. 

If you struggle with low self-esteem, repairing it can also be an important part of fixing a codependent relationship. When you feel more secure in yourself, you won’t need to derive your sense of self from serving or controlling others.  

4. Take Responsibility

People in codependent relationships often believe that their partner is making them do things. They may feel like they can’t do what they want because their partner would be upset. Or they believe they have to take care of their partner because their partner can’t do it for themselves. Or, they think they have to do what their partner says because their partner is a bossy control freak.

You can take your power back and move towards interdependence by taking responsibility for your side of the relational fence — including the things that you want, how you feel, what you think, and what you choose to do about it. At the same time, stop taking responsibility for your partner’s side of the fence, which will only feed the codependent dynamic and deprive your partner of opportunities to grow. 

Couples Counseling for Codependent Relationships

If you and your partner are a little bit codependent, getting support from a good couples counselor can be a game changer. Working with someone who understands relationship systems and how to shift them can help you bring your relationship back in balance and achieve healthy interdependence. 

And if you would like support in this journey from a couples counselor on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby 

P.S. — To learn more about what a healthy relationship looks like, and how to overcome toxic patterns, check out my “Healthy Relationships” collection of articles and podcasts. 

Marriage Counseling Questions | Couples Therapy Questions

If you’re considering getting involved in marriage counseling, couples therapy, or relationship coaching you probably have questions! Get your marriage counseling questions answered, right here.

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