Love or Codependency: How to Tell the Difference?
All around you, you hear the words “true love” and “soul mate” thrown around. There’s a common belief that you can only be truly happy if you find the right person to complete you, that love is a powerful drug you can’t escape. But is an intense, all-consuming relationship truly love or is it something else? You may have heard the word codependency but don’t know what it means. How can you tell if your relationship is healthy or you’ve got what is sometimes called love addiction?
What is Codependency?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is an authoritative guide that healthcare professionals use to diagnose mental illness. But the DSM does not recognize codependency as a distinct personality disorder. The term codependency originated from drug and alcohol addiction, and it has various, sometimes vague definitions.
The simplest explanation is that codependency is seeking love based on feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. A codependent person looks to their partner to repair their self-esteem, alleviate their pain, and complete their inner emptiness. What ends up happening is that the partner cannot be the person they are. Instead, they are forced to fulfill a role the codependent person has chosen for them, i.e., to provide unconditional love and security. Yet, there is never enough love. The codependent person keeps working to try and please their partner to ensure they get the love they crave. It becomes a self-perpetuating habit with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. That’s why codependency is also sometimes called relationship addiction or love addiction.
Stages of Love Addiction
The early stage of love addiction is very similar to any romantic relationship, but there is an unusual amount of attention on the partner and a burning desire to please him or her. This gradually progresses into an obsession where the codependent person begins to rationalize problematic behavior in their partner. Healthy boundaries begin to get blurred. The codependent person may withdraw from friends and give up previously enjoyed activities to focus on their partner.
The middle stage of codependency is characterized by increasing efforts to overlook problematic aspects of the relationship. There are growing feelings of anxiety, self-blame, and guilt in the codependent person. Self-esteem starts to plummet and the person begins making compromises to maintain the relationship. All this while, resentment, anger, and disappointment grow as the love addicted person tries to (unsuccessfully) change their partner with manipulation, nagging, and blaming. During this stage, a codependent person may use addictive substances or behaviors to cope.
In the late stage of codependency, the emotions begin to take a toll on physical health. Codependent people can suffer from a variety of stress-related disorders, such as headaches, sleep problems, digestive issues, eating disorders, sciatica, allergies, and TMJ. Addictions and obsessive-compulsive behaviors take a stronger hold. Feelings of anger, despair, and hopelessness grow.
Key Differences Between Love and Codependency
How can you tell the difference between healthy love and codependency? Most people experience a surge of emotions when they first fall in love with someone. However, in healthy relationships, this initial euphoria settles down into more of calm content.
With love addiction, the relationship is rooted in feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. The result is that a codependent person loses a sense of themselves and focuses completely on the needs of their partner.
Love Addiction Can Be Destructive
You might argue that a certain amount of codependency is healthy. After all, isn’t being in love all about putting your partner first? And isn’t the whole point of being in a relationship knowing you have someone by your side? So what if you’re not completely independent anymore?
The destructiveness of love addiction begins when there are elements of lack of self-esteem and fear of rejection. In a healthy relationship, there is self-assurance and trust. You revel in your partner’s love but there is not a need to feel accepted or loved all the time.
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It’s important to note that relationships are not black and white. People in codependent relationships do experience some benefits, but these benefits are usually short-lived and overtaken by feelings of insecurity.
Strategies to Overcome Codependency
If you suspect you are in a codependent relationship, there are steps you can take to break the unhealthy cycle.
Don’t be a people pleaser. Understand that you cannot please everyone all the time. It’s okay for your partner to be disappointed or upset with you occasionally. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t always be there for your loved one. Put yourself first sometimes.
Own your happiness. Your happiness shouldn’t depend on whether your partner is happy or not. Arguments are healthy in a relationship. When you disagree, walk away first. Let the dust settle and then discuss the problem rationally.
Love yourself first. The biggest issue with codependency is focusing too much on your partner. Yet, you cannot be a good partner to your loved one if you don’t love yourself first. Spend time with family and friends, adopt a hobby, embrace yourself. Don’t make your partner the center of your universe.
Beware of abusive behavior. People with love addiction often put up with all kinds of unhealthy behaviors, such as cheating or physical or verbal abuse by their partner. Codependent individuals convince themselves they can change their partner. It’s important to know you can walk away or get support if you are in an abusive relationship.
Get professional help. A therapist can help you understand your relationship and navigate your way out of codependency. There is no shame in seeking help. Don’t let a real or perceived stigma against therapy destroy your relationship.
Codependency is not true love. It is a love addiction that can destroy your relationship and destroy you as a person. By becoming aware of the pitfalls of codependency, you’ve already taken the first step towards a healthy relationship with your partner. Now all you have to do is get the help you need if you recognize love addiction in your relationship.