Codependency is a common but difficult trait to deal with in relationships. This can be true whether there are codependent elements that exist in a romantic relationship, a workplace environment, or even at a platonic level. Perhaps because we assume troubled friendships aren’t as potentially damaging as romantic relationships can be, it may seem tempting to ignore or avoid problems when it comes to a codependent friendship — but doing so can be detrimental to both parties.
A codependent friendship may seem harmless, and these relationships often go unnoticed or acknowledged until there’s simply no denying the harm the toxicity is causing.
Learn more about what having, or being, a codependent friend can mean. It can be taxing emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. Luckily, knowing more about the signs, causes, and how to overcome codependency can help you find peace, stability, and respect in your friendship.
Codependency in friendship is characterized by an overly persistent reliance on one another. There will always be both taker and giver roles in a codependent friendship. The taker may need emotional support from the giver, while the giver might, in turn, get a much-needed self-esteem boost or a feeling of importance from their role in the friendship.
Ultimately, codependent relationships are unhealthy and toxic for both parties involved. Boundaries tend to be blurred in codependent friendships, and it’s common for both people to lose their sense of self as the friendship becomes more intertwined on all levels.
While not all unhealthy relationships are codependent, there are some telltale signs that codependency might be something you’re dealing with.
“Some signs of codependency in friendships include anxiety when the friend is unable to be present, fear that the relationship will end, and isolation from other people and/or experiences in the community.”
It’s common in codependent friendships for the person playing the giver role to always feel a deep sense of responsibility towards the taker.
Givers often want to fix problems, which can come at a price. The cost sometimes can even cause the giver pain as they spend exorbitant amounts of time, energy, and sometimes even money helping the taker.
2. One person needs to be rescued
In any relationship, it’s important to be willing to help someone you care about. It’s equally as important to be able to accept help if it’s coming from a good place. However, in a codependent friendship, there won’t be any reciprocation aspect, so one person is constantly giving to the other, despite knowing that if and when they themselves need help, their partner won’t be capable of returning the favor.
3. One person has anxiety or fears about the relationship
Takers may experience feelings of anxiety when their friend is not around or can’t spend time with them. They may start overthinking and obsessing over a fear that the relationship might end. Because of this, takers may become self-conscious that their friend might not want to spend time with them.
4. One or both people experience a feeling of burnout
Eventually, someone is going to feel the sensation of emotional burnout after being in a codependent relationship. The cyclical, repetitive taking and giving can only last so long.
Particularly for the person in the giver role, the cycle can be exhausting, depleting a little bit more of their energy and happiness every time they engage until they get to the point that they have nothing left to give (to themself or their friend).
5. One or both people heavily rely and depend on the friendship
Being comfortable in a relationship is great, but when one or both of you become so dependent on the other person you can’t function alone any longer, it’s unhealthy. Though the roles are different, codependency can still have a dramatic impact on both the giver’s and the taker’s psyches.
6. Both people tend to be upset at the same time
It might sound a little strange, but it’s very common for people in codependent relationships to experience shared emotions. You may take on feelings of duress, stress, anger, or even happiness based on how your friend is feeling.
Rather than having individual, personal reactions to situations or experiences, people in codependent friendships often find their mood is easily dictated by their friends’ moods.
7. Individual choices aren’t common
Not only do codependent friends tend to take on one another’s emotions, but they also might find it difficult to make their own choices when they’re together. Further, they might stifle their own needs and can even have a sense of guilt if they try to establish independence from their friend.
8. Opinions are streamlined
Just as it can be difficult to make individual decisions and choices in a codependent friendship, expressing opinions can be equally as hard. For people who have a codependent friend, it might feel easier to just go along with what the friend thinks or feels rather than risk any source of tension in the friendship by disagreeing or expressing individual opinions.
9. The relationship is draining on one or both people
A codependent friendship can be exhausting for both people involved. It can suck all the life out of you. These unhealthy relationships often leave little time to focus on anything other than that specific friendship. The relationship can become draining and taxing, both mentally and physically, resulting in a lack of energy and time to put into other aspects of life.
10. One person’s needs come first
This might be one of the most obvious signs of codependency in friendship. If one person is continuously putting the other’s needs before their own, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a codependent friendship.
11. Jealousy is common
Jealousy is a common theme in a lot of codependent friendships. It makes sense that if someone is overly dependent on a friend, it can be difficult for them to accept that person bonding or becoming close with someone else outside the friendship.
12. The relationship has high expectations or obligations
The expectations placed on the giver in a codependent relationship can be daunting. The dysfunction in the friendship may result in one person being expected to sacrifice and give anything and everything to the person who fills the taker role.
13. There’s a high level of emotional need
Codependent friendships often involve incredible levels of emotional dependency between both people. Essentially, though it may not be obvious to those in the relationship, codependency generally involves two people using each other to get what they need emotionally.
14. One person is always giving, while the other is always taking
A hallmark sign of a codependent friendship is they’re strikingly one-sided. As we’ve seen through the roles that are played (we have a giver and a taker), codependency depends on that very thing — one person giving while the other takes. The roles may not ever be reversed, meaning whoever is the giver may rarely, if ever, get their own needs fulfilled in the relationship.
15. Outside friends are cut off
Codependent friendships rely on strict roles that are already being filled. The result can be a very closed-off circle of friends. Because the taker relies on sympathy and care they get, and the giver likely thrives on the power they feel as the caretaker, it’s unlikely that anyone else would be welcomed into the cycle.
16. The relationship feels scripted
The roles in a codependent relationship are stringent and unwavering. As a result, the friendship can start to feel like it’s scripted, playing out the same scenario with the same outcome day after day.
17. One person typically feels used
It’s very common for one person in a codependent friendship to feel used. Whether that’s you or the other party, the feeling can become exhausting.
18. One or both people is inauthentic in the relationship
Authenticity is important in any friendship, but in codependent relationships, one person often feels like they’re hiding or stifling their true self. By ignoring their authentic self, it can be easier to fill their role in the relationship without having to express opinions, feelings, or reactions to situations and events.
19. A distorted sense of reality is present
Because codependency perpetuates a cycle of unhealthy patterns, friendships can end up offering a distorted sense of reality. The giver can internalize a sense of self-importance and worth as they rescue the taker over and over. Likewise, the taker can fulfill their need to be wanted and taken care of.
20. One person in the relationship fills the “decision-making” role
Most takers in a codependent friendship rely heavily on the giver to make virtually all major decisions for them. It can be an incredible sense of stress and may weigh heavily on the giver, especially if things don’t pan out and the taker has someone to blame.
So, what causes codependency in friendships? It’s common for someone to develop codependency tendencies based on what they experienced in their childhood years.
“Abandonment early on in life, low feelings of self-worth, difficulties navigating social situations are all causes of codependency in friendships.”
As young children, we need and seek out support, love, and validation from the caretakers in our life. If we don’t get it, we develop coping skills to survive and often become “fixers,” learning to rely on ourselves for the things we need. It’s easy to see where and how the roles of taker and giver may infiltrate relationships later in life.
If you or someone you care about is in a codependent friendship, there’s good news. Regardless of who fills which role, you can learn how to stop being codependent in your friendship.
If your friend is codependent
If you realize that a friend is codependent on you, use the following coping strategies to alter the course of the friendship and develop healthy interactions.
Look back at the history of the friendship
Looking back at your own history can help you determine where in life you developed the need to be a fixer. This knowledge can be a game changer. Studies show that people who end up in adult codependent relationships often come from difficult family life.
It’s not uncommon to have more than one codependent relationship, so taking the time to go through this process is likely to help you in numerous aspects of your life.
Put yourself first
It might feel unnatural initially, but learning to put yourself first is incredibly powerful. Setting healthy friendship boundaries and then reinforcing them means that you’ll begin to feel comfortable expressing your own needs, wants, and opinions.
“You can ask for more space, while acknowledging how long you’ll be away, you can talk openly about how you both should live well-balanced lives, and you can support your friend in finding additional resources to be successful.”
The change can be a positive one in that it steers the unhealthy friendship to a more positive and healthier place. That said, you should also be prepared for your friend to not be able or willing to participate in the newly defined friendship. They may not want to be in a close friendship once you’re no longer willing to give them anything and everything they want, whenever they need or expect it.
If you’re reading this and suddenly realizing that you are in a codependent relationship, rest assured you can learn new, healthy behavior that lets you participate equally in the friendship.
Acknowledge there is an issue
The first step in becoming less codependent on someone is acknowledging that your codependent behavior contributes to the unhealthy aspects of the friendship. It’s important to note that you might not be able to change your friend’s behavior, but being willing to address and change your part can go a long way.
“Meeting with a therapist can help people understand the connection between abandonment and the need to be attached to other people. Creating space for a diversified approach to attachment and also inserting coping strategies to relieve anxiety along the way.”
Self-care is always important, but it becomes essential if you’ve begun relying on someone else for your basic needs. Focus on being able to fulfill your own needs in life so that you can unlearn the behavior of expecting someone else to take care of you.
Journaling for mental health, working out, keeping a healthy sleep habit, eating well, and nurturing a healthy support system in your life are all ways you can begin to build your own strength, so you rely less on others.
Change your role
Make a conscious effort to start giving in the interpersonal relationship. Simple steps can go a long way — try asking about your friend’s day, offering to make or pick up food, or sending them a card with a simple expression of gratitude for their friendship.
Change is hard. Codependency is often deep-rooted in your past. Seeing a therapist can help you overcome and change codependent tendencies and offer a successful way to build healthy friendships.
Talkspace is an online therapy platform that offers convenient, affordable, and easily accessible therapy all from the convenience of your own home or anywhere you’re comfortable and ready to get help for your mental health. You can learn the roots of what led to your codependent friendship and find ways to overcome it.
Get started today by reaching out to Talkspace so you can let go of your codependent friendships and instead build healthy, rewarding connections with the people in your life.
1. Cullen J. Codependency: An Empirical Study from a Systemic Perspective. Contemp Fam Ther. 1999;21:505-526. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2000-13139-005. Accessed September 20, 2022.