Are you the one who takes it upon yourself to rescue your life partner and your relationship? Do you see your spouse as someone who needs fixing and yourself as the fixer? Being consumed by the needs of a partner and feeling obligated to cater to them are among the tell-tale indicators of a codependent marriage.
Curiously enough, a lot of people who are trapped in such a relationship don’t see the toxic red flags of codependency until it’s too late. “I’m too independent to be a codependent partner.” “How can I be codependent when I’m the one my partner leans on for support and help when situations turn messy?” Such refrains are commonly used to overlook the signs of codependency in a marriage.
This can be either because the person is in denial about the state of their marriage or doesn’t understand how codependency works. Sacrificing yourself at the altar of your marriage is the most toxic manifestation of an unhealthy relationship. That’s why it is imperative to understand the anatomy of a codependent relationship to free yourself from this unhealthy pattern. We’re here to help you do just that by elaborating on the signs of codependency in marriage as well as ways to fix this toxic pattern, in consultation with psychotherapist Gopa Khan (Masters in Counseling Psychology, M.Ed), who specializes in marriage & family counseling
What Is A Codependent Marriage?
To understand what a codependent marriage is, we first have to decipher what does codependency look like. Codependency can be described as a psychological state where a person becomes so busy taking care of a loved one that their sense of self is completely obliterated in the process. Over time, the unhealthy relationship can take a toll on the person, pushing them into an overwhelming identity crisis.
In the context of marriage or romantic partnerships, the term “codependent” was first used to describe the relationship patterns of people in love or sharing a life with addicts. While that paradigm still stands, psychologists now agree that codependency is at the core of several other dysfunctional relationships.
A codependent marriage can be described as one with extreme preoccupation and dependence – social, emotional as well as physical – on one’s spouse. Yes, it is natural for partners in a marriage to lean on one another for support and help all the time. As long as this support system is a two-way street, it can be described as a healthy interdependent relationship.
However, when the emotional and physical needs of one partner start to dominate the relationship dynamics to the extent that the other is ready to do anything to accommodate, it’s a sign of trouble and the hallmark of marriage codependency. In a codependent marriage, one partner is so attached to the idea of making their relationship work that they’re willing to go to any lengths to get attention and love from the other.
This often means that one partner continues to offend the other, and the codependent partner takes it all in their stride. They may even internalize these problematic behaviors to an extent that they begin to feel guilty for their partner’s actions. So, there you have it, an insight into the inner workings of marriage codependency. You don’t have to be a mental health expert to gauge how unhealthy toxic codependent marriage can be for both partners.
Related Reading: How Do You Set Emotional Boundaries in Relationships?
What does a codependent marriage look like?
The question of what does a codependent marriage look like can confuse many. Gopa says, “It can be especially difficult to identify codependency in societies where wives and mothers are supposed to ‘take care’ of their families and submerge their personalities for the ‘good’ of the family. Thus, the abused wife may feel she needs to stay in the marriage as that is synonymous with her identity.”
She shares the example of Shabnam (name changed), from India, who chose to get married to a married man. He insisted they were compatible and that he would treat her and his first wife equally. Shabnam came from a simple family and the fact that she was 30 years old and unmarried was cause for concern in her family. So she chose to get married and opted to be the 2nd wife. Unfortunately for her, the marriage turned out to be verbally and physically abusive.
“Though Shabnam recognized the fact, she was unable to accept it and remained in denial. Shabnam felt she had no identity outside her marriage. The husband and first wife would go away, leaving her with house responsibilities and berating her if she did not complete them as per their expectations.
She failed to realize that her boundaries were being invaded and she was being unnecessarily blamed. Shabnam accepted all blame and fault and felt that she alone was responsible for her situation. After all, she had decided to be the second wife so she must ‘accept’ the situation and deal with it instead of ‘being alone’ for the rest of her life. This is a classic example of a codependent unhappy marriage, where the person feels they cannot have an alternative existence than the one they are living in,” Gopa explains.
What Causes Codependency?
As mentioned before, not so long ago, codependency was seen purely in the context of relationships where one partner struggles with substance abuse or addiction. The other becomes their enabler. However, experts today agree that the root cause of codependency can be traced back to one’s childhood experiences.
If a child grows up with overprotective parents, they are mollycoddled to an extent that they never cultivate the confidence to go out in the world and build a life for themselves. Such parents can also make their children feel guilty for wanting to lead an independent life. It’s not unusual for such children to grow up to be adults who end up with a codependent husband or wife.
On the other hand, an under-protective parenting style can also give way to codependency due to a lack of adequate support for the child. When the child feels like he or she lacks a security net, they can feel extremely exposed, unsafe and vulnerable. This instills in them a fear of being alone, because of which, as adults, they grapple with an overwhelming fear of rejection. An insecure attachment style could, thus, prove to be a driving force behind codependency in marriage or even a long-term relationship.
Besides, growing up around parents who share a codependent relationship can also cause a child to internalize the enabling behavior. These childhood experiences influence adult personalities. People with innate codependent tendencies are the ones who find themselves falling in the trap of dysfunctional relationships and putting up with them. Rather than, dysfunctional relationships leading to a person becoming codependent.
While the latter cannot be completely ruled out, the likelihood of the former is a lot higher.
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11 Warning Signs Of A Codependent Marriage
Learning to stop being codependent can be a long-drawn-out process that requires consistent effort and the right guidance. The first step in the direction is to identify and accept the fact that you’re in a codependent marriage. Which brings us to a very important question: what does codependency look like?
Before you think of codependency recovery stages to weed out dysfunctionality from your relationship dynamics, pay attention to these 11 warning signs of a codependent marriage:
1. The ‘we’ trumps the ‘I’
One of the first signs of a codependent marriage is that both spouses begin to view each other as a single entity. They have a compelling need to do everything together because of an overwhelming feeling that they can’t live without one another.
When was the last time you hung out with your friends alone? Or spent a weekend at your parents’ by yourself? If you can’t remember because you and your spouse do everything together, consider it a red flag. A sense of personal space and boundaries is the first thing to fall prey to codependency in a relationship.
If you’re both losing your individuality, it may be time to put your relationship dynamics under the lens. The process of saving a codependent marriage begins with learning to undo enmeshed sense of identities and reclaiming your individuality. Boundary setting, rebuilding self-esteem, breaking unhealthy attachment patterns are all crucial to the process of fixing a toxic codependent marriage.
Gopa says, “To ensure one retains self-identity throughout one’s relationship, one must prioritize focusing on individual friends, hobbies, career, interests. These pursuits without the involvement of the spouse help in maintaining some personal ‘me’ time. This will ensure the codependent person learns to have independent interests and at the same time avoid being a ‘clingy’ partner.”
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2. The burden of responsibilities
Whether you look at female or male codependent characteristics, one thing stands out as a universal factor – a lopsided burden of responsibilities. Sure, married partners should turn to each other for help, support and advice when life deals you a bad hand. However, in a codependent marriage, this burden falls squarely on one partner.
If you’re that partner, you will find yourself solving all the problems in your relationship as well as your partner’s life. The onus of making difficult decisions and acting as the responsible one is on you. You may tell yourself that you’re doing it out of love. In the moment, it may make both of you feel good but the bottom line is that you’re enabling your spouse’s unhealthy behavior.
“Acknowledge that you cannot be responsible for your partner’s pitfalls. To avoid being an ‘enabler’, it’s crucial to shake off the tendency to hide or cover up the situation from other family members. Allow your partner to take responsibility instead of feeling that you need to solve the problem,” says Gopa.
3. Their fault, your guilt
One of the telling codependent husband or wife signs is that spouse who has taken on the “giver” or “fixer” role finds themselves at the receiving end of incessant guilt-tripping in the relationship. Let’s say your partner gets a DUI and you feel guilty for not picking them up from that party or bar or wherever it is that they were. Or they forget to pick up the children from school. Instead of holding them responsible, you beat yourself up for not reminding them.
It’s a classic sign of a codependent marriage. The nagging feeling that you could have done more to prevent a certain unpleasant situation. The truth is that no one can be or should be held accountable for another person’s actions. Even if that person is your life partner. According to Gopa, it is normal to feel guilty and embarrassed if your spouse is drinking or cheating on you.
But it is important to understand who needs to be responsible for their behavior and actions. Till you pick up the tab, the person responsible will continue to choose not to pay the ‘bill’ and assume responsibility for their actions. Your partner is an adult who should know that their actions and decisions have consequences. If you want to stop being codependent, you have to learn to let them clean up their own messes.
4. Doing things you don’t want to
What does codependency look like? Analyze the anatomy of a codependent relationship and you will find one thing conspicuously missing – the word no. Partners in a codependent relationship continue to do things they neither should nor want to do. For instance, if one spouse misbehaves after getting drunk at a party, the other makes excuses to cover up the unacceptable behavior.
Or if a spouse loses a large chunk of money in gambling, the other digs into their savings to bail their partner out. Often, the enabling behavior pushes the codependent partner into the gray area of doing immoral or even illegal things in the name of love.
They may not want to do it but the fear of upsetting or losing the partner is such that they cannot bring themselves to say no. “A key codependent marriage fix is to learn to be ‘assertive’ and to set healthy boundaries. Till the time, the codependent person has blurred boundaries, they will continue to feel helpless and out of control in their relationships,” Gopa advises.
5. No holds barred forgiveness
Forgiveness in relationships and the ability to leave past issues behind is the hallmark of a healthy relationship. However, in a codependent marriage or relationship, forgiveness becomes the sole prerogative of one partner while the other uses it as a permanent get-out-of-jail-free pass.
Your partner may say hurtful things, shirk responsibility or even display abusive tendencies but you continue to forgive them and give them more chances. The hope is that they will see the error of their ways and correct course. But unless they’re being held accountable for their actions, why will they?
In such connections, a complete lack of accountability and responsibility emerges as one of the most trademark female or male codependent characteristics. Since every wrongdoing, every mistake, every miss is rewarded with forgiveness, the erring partner sees no reason to mend their ways. As a result, both spouses trapped in a codependent marriage continue to suffer in their own ways.
Gopa says, “Such codependent marriage problems go hand-in-hand with fear of abandonment and being alone. However, it must be understood that if a person is abusive, using substances, or cheating in relationships, they alone are responsible for their behavior and you cannot “drive them into doing such behavior”.”
6. Losing touch with yourself
Have you ever felt at a loss for words when responding to questions like “how are you feeling?” or “what do you think about this?”. That’s because catering to your spouse’s needs, desires and wants has become such a single-minded focus for you that you’ve lost touch with yourself.
Your entire life is driven by the need to please them, keep them happy, clean their messes, all in the hope that they will stick around and ‘love you’. In this process, your thoughts, feelings and your identity get buried so deep that you can’t reach them even if you want to. Marriage codependency, slowly but surely, chips away at the person you once were.
While it’s true that we all change and evolve with time and no one can claim to be the same person they were 5, 10 or 20 years ago, when you’re in a toxic codependent marriage, this change isn’t for the better. Gopa recommends that the secret to the healing codependent marriage in such circumstances is to learn to be your own best friend and kind to yourself. It helps to surround yourself with supportive friends and family.
7. The perennial caretaker
When viewed from afar couples in codependent relationships can seem like they’re madly in love with each other. Look closer, and you find that one partner is doing most of the loving. The other enjoys the perks of this adulation and affection. You may yearn for the same kind of love and affection from your partner. And want them to put you first like you always do. But that never happens.
So, instead, you learn to derive joy from selflessly loving and caring for them. It may seem selfless, unconditional love to you. Unless it flows both ways and equally, it cannot be healthy. Codependency in marriage leads to skewed power dynamics in between the partner where one becomes subservient to the other.
“This pattern can get established right from childhood but using those very same skills to take care of yourself will go a long way in reducing your stressors. At the same time, the key to healing a codependent unhappy marriage is ensuring you avoid making your spouse or other family members dependent on you to a point they are unable to take care of themselves,” says Gopa.
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8. The fear of being alone
One of the underlying reasons why couples in a codependent marriage pick up so much slack and put up with unacceptable behavior is their fear of being left alone or rejected by their spouse. Your life has become so intertwined with that of your partner’s that you just don’t know how to exist and operate as an individual anymore.
When you say, “I’d die without you”, there is a good chance that you mean it literally. The fear of being alone can be debilitating. So, you settle for an unhealthy, toxic relationship and give your all to make it work. All your energies are dedicated toward saving a codependent marriage, except such a relationship cannot be saved without fixing what is inherently flawed.
To be able to do that, you need to be mindful of the fact that ending a codependent marriage doesn’t mean ending the marriage but shunning codependent patterns. For doing so, Gopa advises learning to accept yourself and cherish solitude. Build up a support system so that you do not feel emotionally dependent on the dysfunctional spouse.
9. Anxiety is rampant in a codependent marriage
You have seen so many ups and downs and upheavals in your relationship that anxiety has become second nature. When things are going well between you and your partner, you fear that it’s too good to be true. You can never truly revel in a happy moment. At the back of your mind, you’re bracing for a storm to sweep through your life and wreck your happiness in its spate.
You know that if your partner is being nice, responsible or overly affectionate, it’s a sign of some trouble brewing in the offing. Marriage codependency takes away from you the ability to just be in the moment and savor it. You are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop because that’s the pattern you’ve become accustomed to.
Gopa says, “To overcome codependent marriage problems, you need to develop various coping strategies, get into therapy, be open to new experiences, and take one day at a time. It’s best to find a support group. Al-Anon support group for family members can be especially helpful in coping with the guilt and stress, and learning how to stop being an enabler.”
10. The trap of guilt
If you’re in a codependent marriage, you know that something is amiss in your relationship. The anxiety, the constant worrying, the shame for your partner’s actions are all too pervasive to be ignored. Even so, you cannot bring yourself to leave and make a fresh start.
The mere thought of it fills you up with guilt and shame. That’s because you’ve convinced yourself that your partner cannot survive without you. So, the thought of reclaiming your life becomes synonymous with ruining theirs. Codependency in marriage drills into your head the idea that your partner’s well-being is your responsibility. As patterns of codependency get fortified in the relationship, this idea becomes so deeply entrenched into your psyche that breaking away from it on your own is near impossible.
“This is the toughest aspect of codependent behavior in marriage, as it is true the person really may not be able to cope without the spouse taking care of them but it can also actually help the dysfunctional person to hit ‘rock bottom’ to seek out the help required to get well. Ultimately, you must remain mindful of the fact that you need to take care of yourself, as codependency in marriage or relationships can take a huge toll on your mental health as well as that of your loved ones,” says Gopa.
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11. You’re lost without the rescuer identity
Let’s say your partner makes amends to stop being codependent. If you’re in love with an alcoholic or your partner is an addict, they get into rehab and get clean. They’re working toward becoming a responsible partner who can share your burdens and offer you support. Instead of feeling hopeful and relieved by this turn of events, you feel lost and deprived.
Taking care of this person becomes a central focus of your life. You don’t know what you’re without it. As a result, you may lash out, create chaos in your life so that you can don the rescuer hat again. Or may even slip into a depressive state. It’s not unusual for an enabler to move on from a codependent marriage after the other partner starts making efforts to become better. There is a good chance that you may even find someone who is more broken, and hence, needs to be saved.
Gopa says, “The process of healing codependent marriage can begin only when you start rediscovering yourself and start focusing on yourself and your needs. Initially, it can be difficult to successfully break old patterns. That’s where seeking therapy can help you stay on track, ensure that you do not lapse and are mindful of the pitfalls ahead during the healing process.”
How to fix codependent behavior marriage?
If you identify with most of these signs, you must focus on going through codependency recovery stages to break free from these toxic patterns. Often, overcoming codependency in relationships is not an easy transition.
Gopa says, “Focusing on developing one’s own identity, self-esteem, self-worth and the concept of self are important to break off from being codependent in relationships and put an end to codependent marriage problems. Even in normal marriages, codependency can be an issue. A normal marriage looks like a normal “Venn diagram” in geometry… two perfect circles entwined with a small overlapping gray area .
“In such marriages, both individuals in marriage have a sense of self-worth, identity and healthy partnership. However, when the Venn diagrams greatly overlap one another and the circles look ‘merged’ together that becomes an example of an unequal and codependent relationship, where one feels like they cannot live or survive without the other partner.
“The instances of young people attempting suicide when a relationship breaks up is also an indication of a codependent relationship where the person feels he or she cannot move ahead in life without the relationship. In such situations, seeking counseling becomes crucial to recognize patterns of healthy and unhealthy relationships.”
Codependency in marriage can result in lasting damage to both spouses and the road to recovery isn’t linear, swift or easy. However, thousands of couples around the world have been successful in saving a codependent marriage and healing as individuals with the help of theraps, and you too can. If you’re looking for help to deal with marriage codependency, skilled and experienced counselors on Bonbology’s panel are here for you.
A codependent marriage can be described as one with extreme preoccupation and dependence – social, emotional as well as physical – on one’s spouse
While codependency was first identified in the context of addiction, it is rampant in all dysfunctional relationships.
Childhood experiences are considered to be the root cause of codependent tendencies.
No, they’re the opposite of one another. Interdependent relationships are marked by healthy emotional dependence and mutual support whereas codependent relationships are lop-sided.
Yes, with the right guidance and consistent effort you can break free from codependent patterns.
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