Codependency vs romance: Where do we draw the line?

Holly Thompson explores the difficulties that arise in relationships when codependency takes over

Romance, lust, desire: feelings which we connote with romantic relationships. However, for the co-dependent individual, these sentiments become muddled with obsession, addiction, and dependency. Where do we draw the line between codependency and genuine romance? How do we identify if our partners or if we ourselves are co-dependent?

Romance is linked to feelings of excitement, mystery, and seduction. Co-dependency within a romantic context is defined as an emotional and behavioural condition that arguably affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship. Co-dependent people often engage in relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive, and possibly abusive. In other words, codependency, a person’s sense of self and their own wellbeing all depend entirely on the feelings and actions of their partner. Genuine romantic relationships, on the other hand, differ entirely from codependency, usually consisting of emotionally independent individuals…

“The co-dependent individual has the potential of becoming passive-aggressive when their needs aren’t met, despite the fact they rarely openly express their wants and needs.”

So, how do we recognise codependency in ourselves and others? The first sign of codependency is poor boundaries, which are often accompanied by people-pleasing tendencies. This can manifest as a repression of true feelings, leading to emotional outbursts or a need for external validation. You may find that you or your partner have a habit of oversharing, or identify with feelings of low-self-esteem. It’s common that those who are co-dependent idealise their partner and maybe even possess a sense of responsibility for their actions, in turn abandoning all responsibility for their own. The co-dependent individual has the potential of becoming passive-aggressive when their needs aren’t met, despite the fact they rarely openly express their wants and needs. Through these traits there is a loss of identity; the co-dependent becomes absorbed in the dramas, problems, and desires of their partner and usually is too giving in a material, financial or physical sense.

You may find your heart racing as you identify with some of the above traits, but what do these traits look like in a relationship? Do you try to control your partner’s emotions, or allow them to directly impact yours to a degree where you cannot regulate yourself? Maybe you emphasise the importance of your partner’s needs to a degree where you neglect your own. How about compromising personal boundaries to accommodate your partner? This compromise would present itself as allowing them to read your messages, spending all free time only with them, and engaging in sexual activities out of fear or disappointing your partner. Do you neglect aspects of your personal life which don’t directly involve your partner, such as hanging out with separate friends, engaging in personal hobbies, spending time alone, or fulfilling work and family commitments in their absence? Are you living your life for you or for your partner? 

While your lover should have many lines in the play of your life, they shouldn’t appear in every scene. If you do not maintain a personal life, you may find yourself conforming to who you think your partner wants you to be. This could  manifest into not having your own opinions, attempting to adhere to unrealistic expectations, and even dressing or behaving authentically.

“There is a stark difference between empathising and absorbing.”

The volatility of a codependent relationship for both parties is undeniable, so it is important to ask what a healthy relationship may look like? Is it possible to share a life with someone while remaining an individual with independent emotions, needs and beliefs? In short, yes. Instead of trying to fix your partner’s issues, simply listen and be that shoulder to cry on. Through this you can express support while allowing your partner to solve their own issues. Believe it or not, this approach is far more efficient than taking responsibility for their problems. You must allow your partner to regulate emotionally. There is a stark difference between empathising and absorbing. You can feel pity for your partner who is maybe experiencing grief, regret, or disappointment without personifying a therapist. The more stable or positive your emotional state, the better support you will be capable of providing. Alternatively, if you are the one who is down but your partner is thriving, don’t try and upkeep a façade that you are coping and happy. Verbally sharing how we feel is vital in a healthy relationship, but emotional transmission can be disastrous. Observe without being controlled; at the end of the day your role is their partner, not their saviour. The beginning of the relationship is the prime time to set unnegotiable boundaries and learn those of your partner, helping you both to arrive at mutual agreements on the terms of your relationship in order to prevent future issues. Set the expectations at the beginning so they can be met throughout the course of the relationship. 

That being said, it is never too late to introduce boundaries into any relationships in your life, be it familial, romantic, platonic or even professional. For this to become a reality you have to be verbal and express your emotions and needs to your partner. If you want the relationship to work, become acquainted with yourself, learn to enjoy alone time and never neglect your personal life; not all of your free time needs to or should be spent with your partner. It is so important to maintain your personal life interests and identity for your well-being, but also to ensure that if the relationship ends you won’t feel that life has no meaning or you don’t know who you are without that person. Naturally, we adopt the interests and beliefs of our partner; however, stay true to yourself and don’t conform to an idealised version of you. If your partner makes you feel that your authentic self is not sufficient – or alternatively is “too much” – then they most likely are not the right person for you.

“Recognise your partner as an individual responsible for their own choices, behaviours, and emotions.”

Breaking co-dependent behaviours is far from easy, but it is possible. A good starting point is acknowledging the reality of your relationship without idealising the partnership or your partner themselves. Take responsibility for who you are, for your feelings, and for your actions. Recognise your partner as an individual responsible for their own choices, behaviours, and emotions. It’s vital to set clear boundaries ASAP and constantly uphold them. Relationships are overwhelming; you can take a break, as despite what society insinuates there is no rush – no metaphorical clock is ticking. Learn to be by yourself and enjoy your own company. Learn more about who you are as a person, what your wants and needs are,and ask yourself if you are genuinely ready to be in a relationship. Stability in our sense of self is the foundation for any stable and healthy relationship. Your partner shouldn’t be your other half – they should be your other whole.

As tempting as the infatuation and romantic intensity of co-dependent relationships are, they cause irreversible damage in the long run emotionally and psychologically. After the honeymoon phase a healthy relationship still offers many benefits, and the same cannot be said for relationships of a co-dependent nature, which can sometimes go so far as to sabotage the potential for future romance.