Emotional co-dependency: Why do we get stuck in dysfunctional relationships

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What makes people stay in a dysfunctional relationship where they don’t feel appreciated and cared for? Why continue in a relationship where there is no joy, laughter, fun, trust and real intimacy – a relationship that has run its course and cannot be revived?

Sometimes people say that they are staying together because of the children. Yet there are also couples who do not have children and even they are not able to bring an end to their unhappy relationship and go separate ways. Children’s wellbeing is of course a very important factor, but usually it is not the only reason. And neither is the financial factor.

There is special glue that keeps people stuck together. And this glue is emotional co-dependency.

The underlying reason for emotional co-dependency

A degree of co-dependency is present, of course, in all relationships and in life, in general, as there are very few people who would live completely autonomously, in solitude. We depend on bakers to eat bread and on teachers to have our kids educated. So also within a couple one comes to rely on the other for certain skills and knowledge, as well as for support and encouragement in a moment of difficulty.

What I am speaking about is a particular type of co-dependency that springs out of deep insecurity. It springs from self-doubt that we have about being worthy, lovable and deserving attention. We also doubt our right to express our individual needs. It springs from the fear of being alone, of not being able to cope on our own. Usually this insecurity is the inheritance from our childhood that may have been further ingrained by later events in our life.

When we are emotionally insecure we may hang on to a relationship that is not working because we believe (often unconsciously) that we don’t deserve anything better or because we fear that nobody else would want to be with us. Thus we compromise and settle for less, accepting that the crumbs of affection and the illusion of a partnership is better than nothing.

Below I outline a few common patterns of co-dependency and discuss briefly how we get trapped in the loop.

Co-dependency in abusive relationships

One of the particularly destructive types of co-dependent relationship is abusive relationship. It may or may not involve physical violence, but always involves emotional violence. If your partner regularly puts you down, tells you that you are good for nothing, that you can’t get anything right, that you are messed up, that nobody else will love you – these are the signs of emotional abuse. They are also the signs of emotional manipulation because they press your buttons, such as insecurity and fear, to make you do what your partner wants you to do.

It may seem that the abusive partner is in a stronger position, that he or she can do without us and we are at their mercy. This is an illusion as abusive behavior also arises from the same set of deep seated insecurities and is often a result of the earlier experienced abuse.

The frequent pattern within the cycle of abusive relationships is when you confront your partner and say you have had enough and you are leaving, they would turn around, be very apologetic and promise that this will never happen again. Yet their efforts do not endure for long because the inner foundation is lacking, and so they relapse and the cycle begins anew.

Pursuing unattainable love

This is a very common and very painful pattern of co-dependent relationships that may get one hooked for years. Usually it starts from somebody paying us attention in a way that elicits a hope of love and emotional intimacy. Then, when we begin to respond, that person withdraws, but comes back again just when we are ready to give it up. Our hopes get revived only to be disappointed again. It is tantalizing and confusing. It is there and not there, and we don’t know whether we can trust that person and whether we can trust our own senses. Yet the flickering promise of affection is too tempting to resist.

Anybody can fall into such a trap, yet for some people it takes significantly longer to break out of it. Usually these are people (and I too share the experience) for whom in their childhood the hope of emotional intimacy with their parents has been frustrated as their parents, for one reason or another, were emotionally unavailable for them. So as adults we continue to yearn for the consummation of this hope. If only we could attain what used to be unattainable – then we will finally find peace! Then our value and desirability will be confirmed. So we are replaying the same scenario over and over again, hoping that this time the ending will be different. Only it rarely happens so…


Co-dependency can also manifest itself through over-giving. This trend is not always easy to discern because it tends to camouflage itself as generosity, love or altruism. But let me ask you this question: do you lavish on your partner the super-abundance of caring and attention, while forgetting your own needs? Do you sometimes feel the stirring of suppressed resentment and the wish you had received more in return?

If you answer yes to these questions, the chances are that you are not getting the balance right. And this is not just out of love or because it is your nature to give. If we over-give at the expense of our own needs and well-being it is a sure sign that our insecurity plays a role here. Subconsciously we ‘think’ that if we give more we will be liked more and won’t be abandoned.

There is a subtle flavour of manipulation in it, even though we may not at all be conscious of it. Through extra giving and caring we attempt to habituate another person to depending on us thereby securing his or her attachment. I have been and still am, to some extent, liable to this form of co-dependency and am aware that it requires a considerable mental effort to recognize and counteract the inclination within oneself.

The way forward

Codependency may lead to very painful and harmful entangling. Fueled by fear and sealed by habit it can keep us trapped within an unhappy relationship for an indefinite time, undermining our self-esteem and our sense of power.

To break away from the tenets of co-dependency and build up a partnership based on mutual respect and appreciation we need first of all to become aware of what is going on. We need to face up to our insecurities and recognize how they play out in our relationships. It does take a lot of courage and we need to seek help through relationship counselling, if necessary, to deal with our past wounds.

And – however we pursue our way to freedom – we need to learn to BE KIND to ourselves and to give ourselves the understanding, appreciation and support that we require and deserve.




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5 thoughts on “Emotional co-dependency: Why do we get stuck in dysfunctional relationships”

  1. Renee

    My first long relationship was the first pattern (abusive), the second was the second – pursue, the third and last was the third – over-giving. The result is – I choose my own loneliness and do not want any more relationship. Fear of them. And turns out I have neither expereince nor knowledge in what the healthy relationship is. Well written and easily recognizable.
    I would extend the part of “the way forward”.
    I would add the “victim-saviour (hero)” pattern.
    And the pattern when we are loved, we’re given, and we (though not feeling the same in return) still depend on this love and go on…

    1. Ludmila Post Author

      Yes, the ‘victim-savior’ pattern, the ‘princess in the tower’ and the ‘knight of a white horse’ and other patterns and archetypes imbedded in our psyche play a huge role.

      Going through a period of being alone and admitting that ‘I don’t know how to create healthy relationships’ can be very freeing and fortifying. It gives us space to connect with our resources deep inside, to reappraise our values, to build up our confidence and independence and thus to become more prepared for the relationship to come. And it will be quite different, even if some degree of dependency remains.

      1. Renee

        Yes, hopefully… But in this period you’re going through the rough and tough identity crisis when all your previous life seems to be one great failure and you still do not have enough self-acceptance, self-love to build something or to rely on… I wonder how long it takes to achieve this goal. Maybe all the rest of my life. I think I shall better adopt the dog when I come to retirement age.

  2. Aska Kolton

    Thank you for this article Mila! I love the topic. Personally for me more love towards myself helped me felt more worthy and break the pattern of co-dependent relationships, over giving and looking for the crumbs of approval/attention. The more self-worth and self-love you have for yourself the healthier and better relationships you will attract. Out of respect to yourself you will reject abusive partners, unhappy relationships and unhealthy emotional co-dependency (once you have become aware enough to recognise them of course). The healing needs to happen within and I believe the remedy is self-love. Paradoxically though I did most of my healing after the end of my toxic relationships! No relationship is a waste – no matter how painful. They all show us what we need to work on. I am always grateful to all my exes for the work they made me do on myself as thanks to them I have found my strength, got my clarity, done my homework and now I am in a happy and healthy relationship. It’s a beautiful journey within:).

    1. Renee

      You’re so right to thank the exes because they teach you and lead you to the point you’re now. I would adopt this point of view to look at my past this way. You’ve done a great job. For me inside it feels like a total crash at the moment and I was glad to read about your experience.

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