It is often difficult to distinguish: Is it love or emotional dependency? Many people think that when it comes to love, it is perfectly normal to put your partner's needs and desires above your own. But if this goes too far, it can quickly become unhealthy.
Am I emotionally dependent/codependent? Signs of an unhealthy relationship
Emotional dependency, also known as codependency, is a characteristic of an unhealthy relationship and can take on different facets. A lack of boundaries, always putting the needs of your partner before your own and making strong sacrifices for the relationship are all examples. Being significantly dependent on the other person to feel self-worth, over-investing in the relationship, and ignoring warning signs in the other person's behaviour can also be signs.
More often than not, emotionally dependent individuals are caring and very good at empathising with their partner’s problems and emotions. But without a stable foundation from a healthy relationship with themselves, they tend to give too much and quickly self-sacrifice. Suddenly the whole world revolves around their partner - what they do, how to solve their problems or help them. Their own life becomes completely aligned with the sensitivities of the other person in order to please and avoid possible conflicts.
In the process, their own interests and needs fade into the background. This can be harmful for the relationship, since it can lead to communication problems, loss of trust, or even the breakdown of the relationship. This then leads to high emotional and mental suffering - especially for someone who is emotionally dependent.
Where does codependency come from and why is it dangerous?
So why do some people end up being codependent, while others find it much easier to maintain their independence? There are different reasons for this. One deep-seated cause is a poorly developed sense of self-esteem. What happens when someone can’t see themselves as valuable? They rely on the esteem of others and seek their validation. When a person’s self-appreciation or love is lacking, they must rely on outside love and acceptance. A dangerous situation of wanting to please can arise. Ultimately, this makes one more likely to accept or even defend a partner’s inappropriate behaviour.
As a result, those who are emotionally dependent often have a very hard time being alone. They tend to remain in relationships that are not good for them out of fear of loneliness and of the idea that they will never be loved by anyone again. Rejection, criticism, or even humiliation and manipulation in the relationship ends up lowering their self-esteem even further.
This creates a dangerous vicious circle: it seems impossible to give oneself the necessary respect and appreciation and to break away from codependency. This is the particularly great risk in these toxic relationships, as emotional or physical violence can result.
What are reasons for emotional dependency?
In addition to low self-esteem, there may be other contributing factors. One of the emotions that weighs heavily on those who are codependent is shame. They feel ashamed of their own perceived weakness and their inability to extricate themselves from the complicated situation. But this shame is unfounded. After all, emotional dependency is a learned behaviour whose roots in some cases go back to childhood.
As a young person, we absorb impressions like a sponge - including the behaviour of our own parents. If the mother or father already had problems with healthy boundary setting, did not stand up for their own needs or showed an unhealthy way of communicating, it can happen that their children also show similar behaviours later on. Emotionally inaccessible parents can also leave deep marks on the way their child later manages relationships. Those who longed in vain for love and approval as children often enter into similar relationships in adulthood.
But we don’t only find triggers for codependency in childhood. Other traumatic experiences can also lead to such problems. These include, for example, difficult loss experiences, falling victim to various forms of violence or abuse, which in the long term lower and damage a person’s self-esteem.
Trapped: why is it so hard to get out of toxic relationships?
Once you are first trapped in an emotionally dependent relationship, it is exceedingly difficult to break free. There are many reasons for this. For example, those in this situation are often not aware of it. Especially as early infatuation makes it difficult to clearly recognise the signs. Especially if toxic relationships with, for example, a lack of boundary setting or emotional abuse were the only role model at a young age, such dysfunction is very hard to detect in a new romantic relationship.
The same applies if the partner also has a tendency towards emotional dependency. Here, too, this dynamic is initially perceived as normal. After all, the other person also has a hard time drawing boundaries, is occasionally jealous or suspicious - so how bad can it be?
Moreover, social standards also play a large part in this view: women in particular are encouraged, if not expected, by social consensus to be self-sacrificing, caring, and to put their own needs second. This also makes it extremely difficult to maintain one's independence in a romantic relationship.
One of the most important factors is the shame already mentioned. People who are trapped in emotional dependency are often deeply ashamed. They have the impression that something is wrong with them and how they are behaving and that they are responsible for the difficulties in the relationship. The particular problem with this shame is that it drives people further into isolation and makes it increasingly difficult for them to break these familiar behavioural patterns.
Unlearning behaviour patterns - here's how to break free from codependency
Fortunately, these learned behaviours can also be "unlearned". Of course, this is not an easy task - but there are ways to become more self-determined. The most important thing here is to focus on yourself and your own healing. It must be learned and practiced to respect and appreciate yourself, to perceive your own feelings and thoughts as well as to be able to fulfill your needs, wishes and goals independently. It should therefore be a matter of seeing yourself as a valuable person on your own and thus no longer being dependent on the affection of others.
The first step towards this is usually to acknowledge the basic problem and the self-harming behaviour patterns as such. This can be especially difficult if they go back a long time. However, once this recognition is there, it is easier to take further steps and counteract our recurring impulses.
In order to overcome emotional dependency, building self-worth is indispensable. Of course, this is a big challenge that takes a lot of time and energy. But with patience and, if necessary, professional help, anyone can do it.
After all, anyone who has difficulties overcoming internalised patterns of thought and behaviour should by no means feel guilty or bad. Many people struggle with similar problems. For example, it can help to exchange ideas with like-minded people in a group session led by a psychologist. This eases the burden of perceived stigma and one can learn from the different experiences of other group members.
Emotional dependency can be an isolating experience, causing a strong sense of loneliness and mental turmoil. However, with the right resources, new behaviours can be learned and happy relationships can become a reality.