Codependency gets thrown around a lot when it comes to relationships, often to the dismay of clinical psychologists and relationship therapists. Because while the majority of us view codependency as a negative term that suggests a person is overbearing and needy, some experts believe the term is overused and really isn’t all that bad.
“It perpetuates an idea of independence in a way that is problematic,” relationship therapist Bukky Kolawole told INSIDER. “As humans we are designed to be interdependent. We need other people, especially in times of distress.”
Still, codependency is a real thing that can occur in a relationship, and often happens when one partner requires more — more attention, more validation, more support — than the other partner, according to Kolawole. “That can be a lot or too much for one partner, but for another partner, that could be fine,” she explained.
Here’s how to tell if you’re codependent and how it could positively or negatively affect your relationship.
Typically, when a person is codependent, it stems from a place of anxiety, Kolawole said. “The [codependent person] wants reassurance. It’s really about a sense of fear inside and they don’t want to take any risks, so they need to check with a significant person in their life to feel safe,” she told INSIDER. Usually, that significant person is a romantic partner.
For example, if a codependent person’s partner is going away on a trip, the codependent person may be worried their partner will drift away or forget about them during the time apart. According to Kolawole, expressing this concern may come off as codependent or needy, since it suggests the person wants reassurance that their relationship will stay strong despite the distance. Doing so may be perceived as overbearing, but it can also be a good conversation to have, Kolawole explained.
That’s because in reality, most people don’t share their relationship-related anxieties out of a fear of being an overbearing partner. Kolawole wishes people would though, to better see the value of interdependence as “something that makes us normal and real.”
In fact, Kolawole says vulnerability is good for a relationship and hiding your vulnerable or codependent side could cause problems.
Matt Lundquist, the director of Tribeca Therapy, told INSIDER that most people mistake a deep connection and understanding for codependency. “Giving voice to needs is normal and wonderful and a lot of people I work with need to become needier, actually,” he told INSIDER.
In fact, some of the most successful marriages have one thing in common: good communication. If couples don’t have conversations about their feelings, “over time their relationship will deteriorate. They’ll be living in an ice palace,” psychologist John Gottman previously told Business Insider.
Codependency can bring couples closer, but if one person needs too much, it could pose a problem, Lundquist explained. “With codependency, it’s rarely that we mean each person is dependent equally on the other,” Lundquist said. “If one is more dependent than the other, it is inequitable because there is an enabler and an enabled.”
In a one-sided relationship like what Lundquist described, one partner plays the role of taker and the other, the codependent person, plays giver with the roles rarely, if ever, reversing, according to Mental Health America. When this happens, a codependent person may sacrifice their own needs to cater to their partner, Lundquist said, placing the couple in a cycle of unequal giving and taking. If your romantic relationship resembles that of a parent and young child, you could be stuck in this negative codependent cycle, Lundquist said.
Another negative effect of codependence could be suffocating the other partner, Kolawole said. “When a partner can’t get work done because you’re constantly asking them questions and needing approval, it’s impairing their ability to navigate their own life,” she told INSIDER. If this happens, your partner may confront you and say they need space.
In that case, Kolawole said listening to your partner’s concerns, rather than blaming them for not being there for you, is the best course of action. Instead of continuing down a detrimental path of codependency, “be attentive to your own emotional experience and tune into that,” Kolawole suggested.
When you catch yourself seeking your partner’s approval, for example, consider why that is. Usually, it has something to do with your own personal hang ups rather than your relationship. Then, ask yourself if you want to be that person, the one who needs approval, in that particular situation.
“If you need more [approval] than you think is normal, rather than judging yourself, try to understand why,” Kolawole said. “That’s where therapy can be useful, to help you make sense of your needs.”
Originally published on Business Insider.
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