Codependent Vs. Interdependent Relationship: What's The Difference?

If you've ever fallen into a social media rabbit hole of relationship therapy accounts or read a self-help book about love, you've probably heard the term "codependency" thrown around. While there isn't one single definition, the easiest way to think of codependent relationships, according to Medical News Today, is to imagine them as a cycle of unhealthy dependence. In the cycle, one person needs the other, and the other partner needs to be needed.

Codependent couples often put the relationship first before other priorities and personal values. Over time, they might only seek fulfillment from the relationship, despite feeling anxious and uneasy within it. And unfortunately, once these relationships form, it can be difficult (though not impossible) to find a way out.

The antidote to codependency isn't anti-dependence or even independence — it's interdependence. In an article for Psychology Today, certified clinical trauma and relationship specialist Dr. Annie Tanasugarn explains that, despite sounding similar, codependency and interdependence exist on opposite ends of the dependence spectrum. One forms the basis of healthy relationships, while the other sets couples up for toxic trouble ahead. Learning the difference can help you create a thriving relationship with your significant other without veering into enmeshed territory.

Do you want each other or need each other?

Sentimental ballads and rom-com confessionals might make needing a lover sound romantic, but feeling lost without a partner can actually lay the groundwork for codependency. "All relationships are based on a philosophy that if it works for you, it works for me," Dr. Coda Derrig, a clinical psychologist, shared with Cleveland Clinic. "But taken to an extreme, it can be that without the relationship, people can't function very well, so the relationship becomes unhealthy." In codependent relationships, one or both partners may expect to get all their needs met within the relationship (per Medical News Today). As a result, they'll do almost anything to preserve it.

While it might sound like codependent people are only looking out for themselves, that's not always the case. "Codependency is focused on the other person — I need to help you to feel good," Dr. Judith Zackson, licensed clinical psychologist and founder and clinical director of Zackson Psychology Group, revealed to Men's Health. "Whereas the dependent person needs a person to take care of them."

Compare this dynamic to interdependent couples, who want to be together but don't rely on each other for survival. As PsychCentral explains, these pairs are committed to their relationship, but they also find fulfillment outside their love lives. They stay together because they want to be together, not because they believe they need each other to function.

Boundaries keep dependence in check

Codependent couples often lack healthy relationship boundaries. It's unclear where one person ends, and the other begins. Plus, individual interests and opinions often get neglected. "I define codependency in relationships as being overly preoccupied with your partner to the point of losing your own sense of who you are and what you need," couples therapist, Amy Bishop, shared via Bustle. In turn, the couple might spend all their time together and struggle to do things on their own or with other people.

This differs from interdependent relationships, where healthy boundaries keep partners from becoming enmeshed. "They live by mutually agreed-upon rules that ultimately are good for each individual too," Bishop added. Each person has their own thoughts, needs, and values, and they don't sacrifice their individuality to please their significant other. They also don't base their identity or self-worth on the relationship, something that codependent types might find themselves doing, according to PsychCentral.

Even though boundaries are one of the most effective ways to curb codependency, creating them in an already-codependent relationship can be a challenge. "Setting the boundaries is likely to be painful for both people," Dr. Coda Derrig shared with Cleveland Clinic. "Sometimes, a person will escalate the issue in an effort to pull you back in."

Codependency relies on weaknesses, while interdependence plays to partners' strengths

Codependency was first discovered in people who were in relationships with alcoholics and drug users, according to Mental Health America. Often, these individuals would strive to protect their loved ones battling addiction, even if it meant sacrificing their own well-being.

Today, codependency is identified even in relationships where drug and alcohol abuse aren't present, but the pattern is the same: One person takes on the role of the "weak" partner or the "victim," while the other assumes the position of the "rescuer" or "enabler." And often, both sides suffer. "There's an excessive sense of responsibility for the other person's behavior and emotions," Dr. Coda Derrig explained to Cleveland Clinic. "The partner may even play into that, suggesting, for example, that it's your fault they drank last night, or it's your fault they got in trouble because you didn't come [to] pick them up from the bar."

Interdependence offers an alternative, according to Dr. Annie Tanasugarn. In her article for Psychology Today, Dr. Tanasugarn points out that while codependency is based on shared trauma and pain, interdependence forms when there's a mutual interest in growth. In other words, codependent couples often bond over their weaknesses, while interdependent pairs play to their strengths and help each other soar to new personal heights.

Unhealthy dependence can become one-sided

When couples are entangled in a codependent relationship, both people get stuck in the dysfunctional roles they've adopted, and, generally, neither one comes out ahead. With that said, these relationships can become one-sided, where one person (typically the "weaker" partner) takes far more than they offer in return. "Codependents are giving a whole lot more than they're getting back from their partner," psychologist Dr. Leon Seltzer revealed to HuffPost. "Although they may do so to help 'secure' the attachment ― and so, reduce their anxiety about being rejected ― they're also neglecting their own quite legitimate relational wants and needs."

Interdependent relationships are different, where each person contributes to the relationship, though not to the point of abandoning themselves. This doesn't mean that interdependent couples keep score — rather, they mutually work to build a reciprocal relationship that benefits both partners.

For recovering codependents, one-sided relationships might feel familiar, but they don't have to be the norm. Relinquishing some responsibilities in the relationship and communicating the areas where you need more help is one way to rebalance a one-sided partnership. If the other person is slow to change, however, additional support from a therapist or couples counselor may be in order.