Can Codependent Relationships Work?

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Can Codependent Relationships Work?

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD


Do you see your relationship as codependent? What does that mean to you? In conducting therapy, I’ve learned that these are extremely important questions because different people have different ideas of what codependency means. And so, their ideas of about whether they can nurture a healthy relationship also differ. When this issue arises in therapy, I encourage patients to clarify their definition of codependency and to then consider the ramifications in their relationship.

That said, there is a general consensus in the mental health field about this topic. A basic definition of a codependent relationship is a relationship in which one partner has a significant mental health issue, such as alcoholism, and the other partner forgoes their own needs as they respond in a way that does not challenge (and ultimately supports) that condition. For instance, if an alcoholic is regularly drunkenly angry and disruptive at home, the codependent partner might respond by encouraging their children to stay away and then trying to calm the situation by being overly solicitous. This dynamic supports the continued pathology of the one partner and keeps the other partner in an unhealthy, and even destructive, relationship.

Such a relationship can have periods of calm, and can even include happy times. However, they are ultimately emotionally destructive to both people involved. But life being the complicated adventure that it is, that does not mean such relationships are without hope. This is particularly true when one or both partners are consciously aware of the problem and motivated to change it. Maybe a chronically angry or depressed partner is truly pained by the effect they are having on their partner. Maybe the codependent partner wants to remain in the marriage, but is determined to do all they can to support change in their partner. Whatever the situation, the motivation for a better life for themselves or each other can help improve their relationship.

A motivated partner can begin by looking for how to change rather than simply continue repeating the same old destructive patterns. This might mean engaging their partner in a serious and heart-felt conversation about their dynamic; and about looking together for a way to change. Or, it may mean taking those first steps on their own. Either partner might find help by turning to a mental health professional, or a self-help program. The one with a mental health or drug abuse problem can begin the process of fully acknowledging and coping with their problem. The codependent partner can begin identifying the relationship dynamics, acknowledging their own wants and needs, and empowering themselves to take steps toward greater self-care while possibly also encouraging their spouse to do the same.

For the relationship to become healthier, both partners need to commit themselves to their own growth, as well as to a healthier marriage. Couples who are loving and caring toward each other despite their troubles can sometimes be a wonderful resource for each other. They can support one another in the necessary changes – though they will likely need outside support, too.  So long as they remain committed to their own growth, their mutual support can be powerfully healing for them as individuals and as a couple.


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