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Codependency vs Love: How To Tell The Difference

Relationships are about sacrifice, right? We “live” for our partner. It’s intense, passionate, drama – all the things we read in stories. 

Maybe you have a relationship like that now. 

You do everything together, can’t imagine your life without them, and always consider their feelings before your own. 

Sound familiar? For many, this sounds like an ideal kind of relationship – but reality often paints a different picture. 

For those who wrestle with codependency, these are actually red flags.

Codependency and love share many behaviors. But they’re not the same. While love allows two people to exist as individuals with both having their needs met, codependency allows only one person to benefit while the other makes all the sacrifices to keep them happy. Love is uplifting and codependency is unhealthy.

Where does one draw the line when the difference between love and codependency is so blurry? What even is the difference between loving someone intensely and being codependent? 

What Is Codependency?

Codependency is when one person in a relationship puts in all the effort and time to meet the other person’s needs while putting their needs on hold. 

These relationships are typically characterized by an imbalance in power, with one person doing all the ‘giving’ and the other benefitting from all the ‘taking.’ 

People in codependent relationships become dependent on the other party for their sense of worth, just like the name implies. 

This is particularly problematic because it evolves into a situation where one can’t survive without the other, life has no meaning without the other person, and one person carries the responsibility for the happiness and well-being of the other.

two hands interlocked on top of a bed
Is it codependency or love?

At the beginning of the relationship, it may feel terrific that someone is taking care of you all the time (if you’re the taker) – and it may even be fulfilling for the giver to put in the time and effort to nurture you. 

This is commonly how people feel in new relationships when going out of their way to woo and impress their love interest.

But the relationship becomes unhealthy when it becomes the norm that only one party’s needs are being met. What started well can now seem restrictive and imbalanced, leading to a lot of anxiety and doubt. 

Here’s the tricky part of it. 

It can be tough to identify when the behavior is codependent, especially for people who don’t have much experience with relationships. Even more so for people who haven’t experienced healthy love and care. Taking ‘what they can get’ and calling it love is a reality for many.

It’s certainly how I lived my life for many years. 

What Is Love? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)

This is an age-old question that poets, artists, philosophers, and even theologians have toiled over. 

There isn’t truly a ‘correct’ answer for what love is, and since the concept itself is extremely broad, we’ll do our best to identify a few elements across literature that may resonate with most of us:

  • Love is accepting a person as they are and wanting them to be the best version of themselves 
  • Love is wanting a person to be happy, healthy, and successful
  • Love is caring for someone and helping them in times of need
  • Love is being emotionally supportive and engaging in emotional intimacy and vulnerability
  • Love is treating someone with kindness, compassion, and honesty
  • Love is maximizing good memories while dealing with bad times in unity

Again, this is super board (and maybe a little woo-woo), but it’s a safe place to start. 

You’ll notice it excludes references to physical intimacy, and that’s not accidental. 

Love applies to more than just the romantic relationships in life, and physical intimacy should never be seen as an indicator of love but rather a celebration of it.

Because love is also very subjective, and we all feel it, experience it, and recognize it differently, it can make it hard to tell when it’s genuinely love or whether it’s leaning towards obsession, infatuation, or codependency. 

It’s like trying to tell the difference when someone engages in love-bombing early in a relationship. A lot of us are susceptible to chasing after that “new relationship energy.”

In the early stages of a new relationship, our feelings tend to be amplified, inevitably taking up all of our rational thoughts. They wrote Crazy in Love for a reason.

But there is some truth to it – being overwhelmed by the sweet, intoxicating feeling of attraction means we often don’t see red flags when they are apparent. In fact, some people, like narcissists, bank on it.

And looking at this list, we can see a lot of overlap between codependency and love. 

Two shadows of a couple against a brick wall
How to know if it’s codependency or love

Codependency vs Love: What Is The Difference?

While codependency and love share some foundational traits – and most significantly, they share that feeling of warmth and fuzziness – there are some differences. 

Looking at each in a real-life context may help us to tell them apart, especially when we correlate how it looks versus how it feels.

Codependency looks and feels like…

Here are some key indicators and examples that should be warning signs that you’re experiencing codependency:

  • Codependency looks like you’re putting their feelings and needs before yours. Initially, it may feel like you’re taking care of them, but your needs are being neglected, and you’re spending all your time and energy just ensuring their needs are met. It feels like you’re unsatisfied, but you feel guilty about that.
  • It may look like always solving problems, dealing with crises, and rescuing the other person. It can also look like one person can’t do anything alone, relying on the other to do it with them or for them. This feels like you’re constantly on edge, waiting for the next big drama, and the heavy weight of responsibility rests solely on you.
  • Being codependent can look like you’re constantly apologizing and forgiving them, even if they’ve overtly hurt you, while you rarely get any apologies back. It can feel very unfair and may lead to resentment. It can feel very frustrating. 
  • It also looks like the needs and feelings of the other person dictate what you do, where you go, and who you spend time with. It feels very lonely and like you don’t have an identity anymore. You may not have any hobbies or free time, and your own friends don’t feature.
  • Being in a codependent relationship can look like you’re inseparable and doting on each other, but it can feel like you’re smothered and restricted from spending time with anyone but that person.
  • Lastly, codependency can look like one partner always walking on eggshells, feeling anxious, and putting in loads of effort to prevent a meltdown. This can feel emotionally taxing, leaving you drained. 

Love looks and feels like…

How do we know if love is love and not just a mushy mask for a codependent relationship? 

  • Love looks like both of your feelings matter, and when there is incongruence in your feelings, it can be addressed maturely where the solution benefits both parties. You feel heard when you bring up your experience and emotions. This means it also looks like both parties can grow emotionally.
  • It looks like you can team up to solve a problem as it arises, but as a rule of thumb, you are both capable of dealing with challenges in your lives without requiring the other person to drop what they’re doing all the time. It feels like you can function independently but with the support and guidance of a partner.
  • A healthy, loving relationship looks like conflict is manageable, with both parties ready and willing to acknowledge mistakes, take responsibility for them, and improve. This feels like you are both responsible for the health of your relationship, and you feel secure knowing they can forgive or ask for forgiveness as needed.
  • A mutually-beneficial relationship looks like both parties have their interests and hobbies that the other person supports but doesn’t have to be involved in. Neither is required to relinquish their passions in favor of only ‘joint’ interests. This feels like a rich, multi-faceted life that allows you to be an individual with a complementary partner rather than being incomplete without the other person.
  • A healthy relationship looks like a balance of time spent on your own and time spent together, and there is an understanding from each partner that both are important. This feels like mutual respect and an appreciation for who each person is as an individual.
  • While you love spending time together, healthy relationships look like two individuals that add value to each other’s lives instead of defining it – and it feels like you are encouraged to be yourself and trusted to value the relationship when you’re on your own.
  • Finally, a healthy relationship looks like good communication, loads of open conversations, and an active striving for what would make the relationship better for both of you. This will mean you don’t feel anxious; you feel secure knowing that a conversation will likely improve the relationship and not make it worse.
a knot tied in a shape of a heart

Why It’s So Hard To Tell The Difference

It’s easy to see how telling the difference between love and codependency can be challenging – a lot of behaviors can look very similar. In fact, until you scratch the surface and investigate the feelings that accompany it, it’s understandably confusing.

It’s also important to know that when you don’t have much relationship experience, it’s difficult to measure whether something is ‘normal’ or ‘good.’ And this is even more true if you’ve had limited experience with healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, codependency is often rooted in dysfunctional family relationships, neglectful parenting, or abusive interactions. This means that having a model for what a healthy relationship should be is rare for some of us. 

It stands to reason that when we are shown behaviors like being doted on, being waited on hand and foot, getting a bunch of texts or calls, and spending every waking moment with someone, we’d assume it’s love. 

And, to make matters even more complicated, we can often try to convince ourselves that something is love, even if we feel slightly ambiguous about it.

You’re not alone if you’re struggling to discern whether it’s love or codependency.

For more on this topic, I highly recommend watching this video from Matthew Hussey:

Can You Be Codependent And In Love With Someone?

This brings us to the next question that people often ask about being in love and being in a codependent relationship: can both things be true simultaneously?

Much like trying to find one definition of love, answering this question can either be convoluted or come down to semantics. 

Logically, of course we can feel all the emotions we associate with ‘being in love’ while in a codependent relationship. It’s often those feelings that overwhelm our rational thoughts or the concern we should feel. (But are willfully blind to.)

Whatever we are feeling doesn’t always translate to facts, however. 

For example, feeling loved because someone buys you expensive gifts within a few days of meeting doesn’t mean they love you correctly. We can also feel intense emotions for people who aren’t good for us. 

It’s also interesting to consider whether the other person genuinely loves us when we’re in a codependent relationship. 

If we look at the items we ticked off on the ‘Love looks and feels like’ checklist above, it’s hard to reconcile the idea of being truly, genuinely loved for who we are while in a codependent relationship. 

But regardless of whether it is possible to love someone you’re in a codependent relationship with, perhaps the better question to ask is whether that version of “love” is the best for you.

Can A Codependent Relationship Ever Become Loving?

As we’ve established, feelings of love are common in even codependent relationships, especially in the beginning. But the answer is less straightforward if we’re trying to establish whether a codependent relationship can ever evolve into a healthy one. 

With the right intervention, there is always hope that a relationship can transform. 

If both parties involved in a codependent relationship work on their emotional issues through a combination of therapy and intense personal work, it’s possible! 

This can be challenging, though. It will take time and more than likely deal with deep-seated issues and even trauma – and for many, there are other mental health concerns to address, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance abuse

It’s not an easy road, but relationships will undoubtedly improve for those who are committed to self-improvement.

What To Do If You Think You Might Be In A Codependent Relationship

If you’ve recognized some of the warning signs and can relate to what codependency may look like, you might feel a little apprehensive about the way forward. What can you do if you’re in a codependent relationship?  

And depending on the type of relationship you feel is codependent, you may choose to end the relationship outright. If you want to make it work, your best chance is through professional help. While you are in the process, though, here are some valuable tips to help you break codependent habits:

  1. Start being honest in your self-reflection and assessment. Recognize the relationship for what it is and what role you have played in it. Try to establish where you learned these behaviors.
  2. Take time out. It may seem like the scariest thing in the world, but you need to be able to be alone, focus on yourself, and find your own identity outside of that relationship. Journaling and speaking with those around you will be vital during this time.
  3. Get a bigger circle. Find a support group and try to spend time with other friends and family. Not only is this a balanced practice, but it also stops you from being in an echo chamber and existing only in the vacuum of one other person.
  4. Learn new skills, particularly communication, doing things yourself, and setting boundaries. These things will help you be more independent and feel more positive about yourself. 
  5. Learn to identify codependent habits and behaviors in other areas of your life. Say no when you need to or ask for what your need from the people around you. 

FAQs

Are codependents love addicts?

The term ‘love addict’ refers to someone who fixates on a love interest and engages in behavior patterns that sees them give up control and their interests for another. It sounds very similar to codependency, but whereas codependency can exist without love addiction, an addiction to perceived ‘love’ interests can result from it. 

Is codependency always romantic?

Codependent relationships are not always romantic – it can be a work relationship, a friend, or a family member with whom you are locked into this unhealthy relationship. It is often more intense in romantic relationships because of the perceived feelings of “being in love,” but codependent relationships with platonic figures can be just as draining and unhealthy regardless of the romance aspect. 

What is the opposite of codependency?

The correct term for the opposite of codependency is counterdependency, which can be summed up as those who dread needing anyone else, can’t trust others, and don’t want to become attached to anyone. Of course, in terms of relationships, the ‘ideal opposite’ of codependency is a healthy, loving, balanced relationship, and each party trusts and engages appropriately.

What kind of people become codependent?

Research shows that those with other mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder (BPD), are much more likely to be codependent. But we also know from research that people who grew up in dysfunctional households without healthy relationships to model themselves after will likely be more easily trapped in a codependent relationship. 

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