Codependency vs. Interdependency: The Difference Can Make Or Break Your Relationship

mbg Contributor By Julie Nguyen
mbg Contributor
Julie Nguyen is a relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University.
Codependent vs. Interdependent Relationships: How To Spot The Difference

When we are in an interdependent relationship, there's a mutual give-and-take of emotional support, intimacy, and trust. We want to know we can rely on our partner. But if the expectations evolve into codependency, the romantic bond can turn into unhealthy enmeshment

The difference between codependency and interdependency.

The clinical definition for codependency can vary, but it's generally seen as an excessive emotional or psychological reliance on someone else. Researchers have pinpointed four elements that primarily earmark codependency: 

  • External focusing: when the person draws opinions, expectations, attitudes, and behaviors from situations outside self
  • Self-sacrifice: when people overlook personal and intrinsic needs in order to focus externally on the needs of others 
  • Emotional suppression: referred to as an avoidance of feelings and living in a state of constraint with limited self-awareness of one's own emotional needs 
  • Interpersonal conflict and control: when people engage in relationships that foster self-sacrificial behaviors and lack of emotional expressivity

Codependent couples seek to validate their sense of self-worth and value through each other, using their partner as a crutch for any of their own undeveloped parts. This is problematic because devotion to a relationship shouldn't outweigh someone's individual and psychological needs. If this dynamic is continued and perpetuated, these interlinking factors paint a picture of a toxic coupling marked with patterns like people-pleasing, projection, self-criticism, low self-esteem, controlling behaviors, dysfunctional communication, anxiety, and high reactivity.

On the other hand, interdependency is characterized by two autonomous individuals who can care and nurture the relationship without sacrificing or compromising their own sense of self. There isn't a huge emphasis on what the other person can do or complete for their partner, because they are already working on it themselves.

Since interdependent couples are in charge of their lives and fulfilling their own significance, they come from an empowered place of wanting their partner, not needing them, which allows them to bring their highest selves to the table. As a result, the partnership feels stabilizing and secure. 

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How can you move from codependency to interdependency?

If you're in a situation where you're seeing some codependent characteristics in your relationship, don't fret. This is a sign that you need to recalibrate and find balance. You can shift the relationship dynamic to a healthy attachment, but it'll take awareness, reflection, and collaboration. Here are a few ways to start: 

1. Take time for yourself.

Set aside time to work on the most important relationship of all: the one with yourself. It's likely you have abandoned your feelings in the pursuit of putting the relationship above all else. You may not know what you think, feel, or need at any given time because it's been subsumed by your partner in some capacity.

Build up your confidence by returning attention to your individual well-being, passions, dreams, and hobbies without factoring in what your partner likes. By using this time for yourself, it'll help separate you from the relationship and give it room to breathe. 

Over time, these actions will expand your sense of self. As people come and go, you won't sway easily because you'll feel internally rooted by your values. By centering and cultivating acceptance toward yourself, it will serve as a buffer against over-reliance on your partner since there'll be other resources to lean on. 

2. Create and enforce strong boundaries.

Having a poor sense of boundaries (and feeling uncomfortable saying no) is the ideal breeding ground for codependency to thrive. Codependents do not know where one person ends and the other person begins because it's so interwoven. Establishing various types of boundaries—physical, mental, material, emotional, sexual—breaks that up by defining what you're responsible for and what you're not responsible for and will help you find containment and safety within.

If you don't know what your limits are, pay attention to your body. What feels bad? What feels good? What aligns with your values? What doesn't? What do you feel uncomfortable or comfortable doing?

Only say yes to the things that are truly okay for you. Say no to everything else.

It'll feel extremely uncomfortable at first, especially if you're accustomed to neglecting your needs to make your partner feel comfortable, but this consensual practice is essential to creating the foundation for an interdependent relationship. 

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3. Fall in love with your community.

One person cannot love us in all of the ways we need to be loved. For interdependency to take place, you need to dedicate time and energy to all of the different versions of love that exist in your life: community, familial, platonic, artistic, etc. As you're untangling yourself from codependency, a support network is essential to help express the fullest expression of who you are, loudly and unwaveringly without having to hide or minimize anything about yourself.

By showing up authentically and meeting other relationship’s needs appropriately, it becomes a safe space to be vulnerable and find meaning outside of your partner. 

4. Work on healthy, open communication, and see a therapist if necessary. 

Interdependency can't exist if your partner is still clinging to any codependent tendencies. It takes two people to break out of the cycle and co-create something new. It may feel scary to acknowledge your role in perpetuating codependency, but the conversation will move you toward growth. Otherwise, things won't change.

Set relationship check-ins where you can be vulnerable and discuss where your codependent behaviors may come from and where it's showing up in the relationship. Talk about where you may be under-functioning in your life and over-functioning in theirs and how that's affected each of you. Be specific about behaviors in the relationship that need to change. If you need help setting boundaries, let them know. Be frank, open-minded, and honest so the relationship can change form. 

If this is a persisting pattern that has manifested in other places in your life, it may be worthwhile to go to therapy—individually or as a couple. A therapist can help you figure out the origin behind your codependent habits and help you install and maintain long-term habits that support your journey toward secure attachment. 

When we can appreciate our partner for who they are instead of what they can give us, we can reimagine and occupy attuned relationships in an integrated way.

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