Vanessa Hannah Bright, a therapist based in New York City, often sees a troubling pattern play out in her office. A client will come in to discuss what’s going on in their life and unknowingly describe what appears to be a co-dependent friendship.
“A friend (let’s call her Diane) with some unhealthy or self-destructive aspects as part of her personality (often due to childhood trauma) reaches out to another friend (let’s call her Violet) for support. If Violet is someone who gets her self-esteem from being a caretaker, she will likely feel a strong urge or pull to help Diane,” Bright told HuffPost. “Often it starts with a one-time crisis, but over time Diane keeps reaching out to Violet for support, possibly texting or calling daily or sometimes even hourly. Violet might feel a bit strained, but her heart tells her Diane is hurting and needs her. In fact, Violet might even feel a sense of being a good person for helping out someone in need.”
Co-dependency is defined in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling as an “unhealthy devotion to a relationship at the cost of one’s personal and psychological needs.” It’s often used to describe romantic relationships, but it can apply to friendships too.
Below, experts share some of the signs that you may be in a co-dependent relationship with a friend and what you can do to develop a healthy friendship.
1. You’re always putting their needs first at the expense of your own
There’s nothing wrong with helping out a friend. Giving advice or paying for lunch every once in a while is what friends do. But it shouldn’t be one-sided.
Shawn M. Burn, author of Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving, told HuffPost that co-dependent relationships differ from other close relationships due to the imbalance of giving and taking.
“Co-dependent relationships usually revolve around one person being a giver and the other an underfunctioning taker. Commonly there is one partner whose ‘help’ enables the other,” Burn said. “In other words, the giver makes it easy for the taker to be irresponsible, addicted, incompetent or dependent.”
Burn added that you should only give what you can emotionally, physically and financially afford.
2. You have difficulty saying “no” and setting limits
According to Andrea Wachter, a marriage and family therapist based in California, people in co-dependent relationships struggle with saying “no,” or don’t know when to say it to begin with.
“We all have an inner voice that tells us when something is a ‘no’, a ‘yes’ or a ‘maybe,’ but someone who struggles with co-dependency may not be in touch with that knowing, or they may be, but ignore it,” Wachter told HuffPost.
It’s easier said than done, but gaining the confidence to say “no” to a friend who exhibits co-dependent behavior will ultimately help you both start on a path toward a healthier friendship.
3. You find yourself always bailing them out of sticky situations
Unless you’re an actual superhero, being the one to rescue your friend all the time can be draining and sometimes impossible, especially when they’ve gotten themselves into real trouble.
Obviously, we don’t want to see our friends in danger or get hurt, but it’s not fair to be their primary emergency contact when the favor isn’t reciprocated. This problem can become worse if your friend repeatedly gets themselves into a bind without making an effort to change their destructive behavior.
You may need to stop bailing them out of trouble if it’s obvious they aren’t learning from their mistakes, Burn said. She suggested reducing your availability and giving them a chance to help you with your problems.
“Practice allowing others to experience the hardships in life before immediately jumping in to save them,” she said.
4. You are their main source of emotional support
Dr. Lauren Appio, a psychologist based in New York City, told HuffPost that the difference between a healthy friendship and a co-dependent one is that a co-dependent friendship is one-sided in terms of who gives the support.
“We all go through periods in our friendships when we need more support, but if your friendship typically does not feel like a two-way street, that’s a good sign that you and your friend are getting stuck in a co-dependent pattern,” Appio said.
Appio also noted that it’s not only for the “taker” that’s to blame; you, too, are responsible for the co-dependent dynamic.
“Co-dependency is an interaction, so if you feel you have a friend who is co-dependent, it’s worth considering the role you have in the interaction,” she said.
Appio recommended practicing self-soothing strategies, like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, when you feel the inevitable guilt or stress that stems from not stepping into help.
5. You feel like you can never make a mistake in your friendship
No relationship is perfect, including friendships. There will be ups and downs and times when you’re not on the same page. But being able to bounce back from the bad times is what makes the good times so valuable.
Co-dependent friendships are different. Arguments feel like they can make or break the friendship, and that there is no coming back from them.
?If you do [make a mistake], the stakes feel too high: You either risk losing your friendship or worry that something really bad will happen to your friend,” Appio said. “You also might not feel like you can be honest about your feelings or preferences.”
6. You have feelings of resentment toward your friend
“Often, the one signal that a relationship has become co-dependent is a sense of resentment,” Bright said.
You may be familiar with the pang of regret that comes whenever you have to drop something to save your friend from a crisis. Even if you ignore it, that feeling can build over time and ultimately result in you resenting the entire friendship.
“Taking responsibility for others strips them of the opportunity to learn the skills to solve problems and take care of themselves,” Appio said. “It can ultimately create feelings of doubt and resentment in relationships, where the person doing the rescuing and fixing feels their efforts are invisible to the people around them.”