About seven months before the pandemic (aka the “Before Times”), I moved across the country with my partner. As we settled into a new state, I would have described our relationship as the furthest thing from codependent. We were fully healthy, independent, and supportive as a partnership.
Enter COVID-19. Without normal socialization or the ability to do things together (such as trying new restaurants and traveling), being trapped in a small space together took its toll—especially in the face of added stress and anxiety. We began feeding off each other’s emotions more often, relying too much on each other for care and every emotional need. This was only vaguely scratching at the edge of codependency, but it was enough for me to realize we needed to adjust.
It’s probably fair to say that almost every relationship felt some strain during 2020—and perhaps even into this year. For relationships that were already taxed by ongoing codependency cycles of addiction, trauma responses, or mental illness, a pandemic would have been the furthest thing from a boost in the right direction. But even for partnerships in a healthy place before 2020, plenty could change under such duress and unique circumstances.
For instance, couples who cohabitate experienced the challenges of spending 24/7 with their partner with few external outlets or normal pastimes to enjoy. Even those who don’t live together may have felt relationship strain as a result of not being able to spend enough time together or even physical boundaries and quarantines creating newly long-distance relationships.
If this resonates, find out how to emerge from pandemic-induced codependency and start to reclaim your space.
So What Does Codependency Look Like?
In all honesty, it doesn’t have to be as ominous or all-consuming as you may have been led to believe. Yes, codependency can be the “dire-sounding” concept based on addiction or trauma, notes Dr. Sarah Rattray, couples psychologist and founder of Couples Communication Institute. But in reality, codependency can happen simply “because of loyalty or losing a sense of yourself and losing your boundaries.”
Rattray stresses that codependency falls “on a continuum and on a spectrum,” but it’s when things go from a slight imbalance to one partner taking on far too much of the work or energy for the other person that things slide into codependent territory.
Mental Health National outlines that many co-dependents struggle with self-esteem and being themselves. Some may “try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine—and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like workaholism, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity.”
On a less extreme end of the spectrum, Rattray says codependent behaviors can also be as simple as “taking care of somebody else’s business, picking up someone else’s mess or doing somebody else’s laundry, waking them up when they sleep through their alarm, getting supplies for them,” and lots of other “little things” that can stack up. This is the version of codependency more couples are probably experiencing right now.
If a partner constantly relies on you to be their wake-up call for work, handle their finances, or clean their messes, there is likely a power imbalance in the relationship. Another common pattern is “someone playing the victim and guilting the other person,” Rattray adds. If someone says things like “I couldn’t make it without you” or “I can’t go on without you,” this is manipulation, and it’s very easy to get sucked in when those cards are being played—especially for those who don’t have strong boundaries in place.
“Kind and loyal people tend to make excuses for the other person, saying, ‘Because it was COVID or because of this or that, they can’t take care of it, so I’ll step in.’” This is an easy trap to fall into, especially for those who are natural caretakers.
If you never saw these patterns in your relationship prior to the pandemic, but feel alarmed to see yourself slipping into them now, there could be a correlation. According to Rattray, “if someone is depending on others, the bigger their social network is, the more people they can turn to for support.” However, if that network becomes extremely limited to just the one person they live with—as happened to many people during the most restricted period of the pandemic—the instinct will be to repeatedly turn to that one person for support, whether emotional or physical, over and over again.
As couples start to slip into these codependent relationship traps, the problems become easier to ignore, and the habits become more ingrained.
How to Detangle Codependent Behaviors for Healthy Space
Once you’re aware that these tendencies have become a part of your relationship, moving away from them is a challenging but necessary step for the relationship to be healthy and equitable.
“The first step is to have an awareness inside yourself of what truly feels okay to you, what feels comfortable, and what feels uncomfortable,” says Rattray.
Using that awareness as a starting point, Rattray recommends asking yourself these questions to check in and understand your feelings:
Are there times when this feels right and good to me and times when this feels wrong and uncomfortable?
How do I feel when my partner asks me to do something or step in?
When do I start to feel uncomfortable?
The answers can help you create healthy boundaries, which is the next step in overcoming codependency. Be willing to say directly to your partner:
I don’t want to do that; that doesn’t feel comfortable for me.
You might say you need me to do something for you, but it doesn’t mean I want to do it.
I don’t want to have this responsibility in my life.
You don’t have to be willing to take on the burden of being their alarm clock and take the fall if they don’t wake up. You don’t have to be responsible for every chore and errand or for covering all of the finances. These types of things put too much strain on one partner, and ultimately on the relationship.
When something makes you worried, anxious, or uncomfortable, practice setting a boundary and saying directly: “That is not something I’m comfortable doing.” A partner you can grow a healthy relationship with is someone who will respect that answer.
Setting boundaries can be notoriously tough, so Rattray recommends a few things to make it as smooth as possible. First, keep communication clear. This is not the time to beat around the bush, but to be direct. It may also prove beneficial to set up a time to talk to your partner about the things you’re feeling, so you can enter the dialogue and know they’re open to listening. Tell your partner things you appreciate about them, or how you feel when they do things for themselves (“I appreciate when you take care of this task because it takes the burden off of me.”) Then make your request or share your feelings clearly.
From there, if things still feel sticky and entangled, Rattray says it’s likely you could benefit from therapy. If couples therapy doesn’t feel like a good fit, individual therapy can also be an excellent outlet and resource for handling relationship struggles and finding the means to set boundaries.
At the end of the day, Rattray says that “feeling loyal to another person, or connected, doesn’t mean we have to take care of them.” Setting boundaries and caring for yourself takes nothing away from your love for your partner; it just gives you a healthier perspective from which to give that love.