Codependent relationships can look very different, which likely part of the reason many of us use the term so loosely. It can be used to describe the couple in the on-again off-again relationship who can’t call it quits despite being awful for each other just as well as it can point to the couple with a penchant for matching outfits and use of the word “we” when RSVPing to any plans. Codependency implies being attached to the hip—there’s no doubt about that. But, I’ve always wondered whether there’s some dividing line between codependent relationships and genuinely wanting to spend every free and available waking moment with your partner because you love them so much and so earnestly. Like, can you simply just really enjoy matching outfits?
Before diving right in, it’s helpful to have a strong grasp of what being codependent typically looks like: “Someone who’s codependent and has codependency issues usually enables someone else in an unhealthy way,” says psychotherapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. “There is a need and dependence that overweighs the feelings of support. If you fear you are codependent, you usually find that it’s hard to communicate your feelings, it’s challenging to stand up for yourself, and you may have poor self-esteem.”
A preference to spend time with a partner isn’t a surefire symptom of codependence. The distinction is whether there’s a need to be with each other at all times.
“Need” and “dependence” are really big keywords here. Thompson assures that a mere preference to spend time with a partner isn’t a surefire symptom of codependence. The key distinction, she says, is whether there’s a need to be with each other at all times. As a gut-check, consider whether both parties have individual lives that you merge together cohesively. “Do you still spend time doing other things away from your partner? Do you still maintain your own life and friendships?” Thompson asks. “Do you stand up for yourself in your relationship and identify and communicate how you feel?” If so, she says, it’s likely your relationship is healthy and committed, not borderline codependent.
By contrast, says sex and relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, full-blown codependent relationships are more evocative of feeling boxed in. To picture this, imagine a healthy relationship within the setting of a gigantic box. When both parties have a strong sense of self, they live in the box cooperatively, do their own thing, and get along with plenty of breathing room to spare. Being in a codependent relationship, however, can mean being boxed in in a much smaller, suffocating space.
“There is not enough room in the codependent box for each of you to be separate people,” Dr. Nelson says. “You are merged, and overlapping, and constantly fighting for separateness—but you don’t know how to let each other be whole people without feeling threatened and alone. The box feels way too small, but you can’t risk letting go because then you’ll feel empty. You’ll either blame your partner or eventually quit and look for a different box.”
So to determine how big your box is, consider how you and your partner influence and interact with each other. A healthy commitment isn’t about the time spent, after all—it’s about how you choose to spend your time with one another.
“Someone who is lovingly committed helps someone else in a positive way uplifting way. They bring out a good side of the other person,” says Thompson. “You inspire each other to be better. You find that you are yourself and say what you need and want to say without much second-guessing.”
If your relationship feels this way, breathe a sigh of relief, about being committed to your S.O. and enjoying an entire weekend watching a million episodes of anything with them. Just take note of whether those dates are consistently peaceful and pleasant…or whether nights in more so leave you feeling suffocated.