Co-dependence is defined as compulsive self-sacrifice for another person. So why would that be something you’d want to avoid? On the surface, it sounds relatively harmless, maybe even something out of an epic romance. Loving someone so much that your entire life hinges in the balance has its dramatic appeal. But when someone craves the approval of a loved one so much that it becomes their sole source of self-fulfillment, the relationship isn’t about love anymore. And it’s rarely headed for a happy ending.

That’s not to say that making sacrifices for your partner dooms your relationship to failure. People who are in love go out of their way for each other. They get hurt, and they do things they don’t want to do. But in a healthy relationship, there’s always give and take. Co-dependence is what happens when one person does all the giving, usually because their behavior sets them up for a one-sided relationship.

The symptoms
So how do you know if you’re exhibiting co-dependent behavior? Some emotional dependency on your partner can be expected when you’re in love, and most of us occasionally make sacrifices that leave us feeling over-extended. Co-dependent persons take pleasing their partner to the extreme, and are unable or unwilling to accept reciprocation. A co-dependent person exhibits some or all of the following:

1) Achieves self-esteem from the approval of others, rather than from accomplishment or self-fulfillment.

2) Has difficulty accepting gifts, gestures or compliments from others.

3) Judges his or herself more harshly than others.

4) Is prone to addictive behavior.

5) Does not feel entitled to be angry. Often channels anger passive aggressively or directs it at his or herself.

6) Often was raised by an emotionally dependent parent (alcoholic, drug addict or disabled) or in a demanding and unemotional environment.

7) Is drawn to unfulfilling relationships and emotionally unavailable partners. Tolerates abusive behavior.

If any of these sound familiar, you may be looking at a behavior pattern that will consistently set you up for disappointment. Even if you’re not a full-blown co-dependent, exhibiting any of the previous behaviors is potentially self-destructive.

Two co’s make a right?
It has often been argued that a relationship with two co-dependent partners can function healthily. The idea is that as long as both parties are constantly giving of themselves, there can be no victim. If you truly believe you’re in a mutually co-dependent relationship, though, be cautious. Putting your sense of self worth solely in the hands of another person is always dangerous — no matter what you’re getting in return — and should you suddenly find yourself alone in your dedication (or simply alone), the emotional fallout is likely to be considerable.

The solution
Now for the big question: if I recognize the symptoms of co-dependence, what’s next? Acknowledging that living off the satisfaction of another person is not loving and is not acceptable is a huge first step. Once you’re aware, you can put a stop to co-dependent habits as you see them.

Next, it’s time to build new, healthier habits to replace the old. Find sources of satisfaction that come from outside your relationship. Pour energy into your work, your hobbies and yourself.

If you have a partner, allow yourself to find satisfaction in what your partner gives to you. Compliments and sacrifices shouldn’t make you feel guilty; they should make you feel loved. You’ll want to communicate with your loved one about what you’re going through so your behavior isn’t misinterpreted. And should you find your partner who isn’t willing to meet you halfway, re-examine your relationship. Co-dependent behavior attracts users and abusive behavior. It may be time to trade up.

It’s also important to acknowledge your worth and your rights. Not only do you have a right to feel loved, you have a right to be angry and to anger others. When people expect too much from you, let them be disappointed. Let them be angry. You’re not responsible for other people’s feelings. You’re responsible for loving them without compromising yourself.

Remember, co-dependence isn’t just about significant others. We can be co-dependent with a parent, an employer, even a grown son or daughter. Healthy relationships are always about giving and taking. And should you have trouble coping by yourself, don’t be afraid to look to a friend or a professional for help. Co-dependent behavior isn’t healthy, but it is common, and luckily, it’s not a life sentence.

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