A person who is codependent defines himself in terms of the service or help that he provides for others. Codependency originated as a term to describe the spouse of an alcoholic -- someone who enables an addict by covering up for her at work or with family after a drunken episode, says Avrum Geurin Weiss, Ph.D., director the Pine River Psychotherapy Training Institute in Atlanta, in the "Redbook" article "Signs of a Codependent Relationship." The concept of codependency has since changed to encompass unhealthy emotional dependencies, whether the partner is an alcoholic or not. When dating someone who is codependent, there is a need for awareness, honest communication and the maintenance of separate lives outside of the relationship.
The first step to successfully navigating a relationship with someone who has this problem is to understand the symptoms of codependency. A person who is codependent generally suffers with low self-esteem, works hard at pleasing others and has poor boundaries, says marriage and family therapist Darlene Lancer, in the “Psychology Today” article “Symptoms of Codependency.” A lack of boundaries can mean that these individuals take everything too personally — feeling responsible for the moods of others and absorbing what everyone else says as true. For example, your codependent partner may feel he is worthless if his mother speaks badly of him. People who are codependent also have trouble communicating honestly because they are afraid to upset the other person. They also may stay in unhappy relationships out of fear of being rejected or abandoned.
A person who is codependent may be afraid to express his own thoughts, feelings and needs out of fear of rejection, says Lancer. Encourage honesty in the relationship by offering positive support to your partner when he does have the courage to be truthful about his thoughts and feelings. In the same manner, if you sense he is not being forthright about his needs, provide an opportunity to discuss them. For example, if he lets you make most of the plans for your dates and goes along with your choices of restaurants and movies — start asking for his opinions about where he would like to eat and what he would like to see. Be open to his feelings, thoughts and choices and be clear that you want to be partners in making decisions in the relationship, rather than having him bend to your needs.
Spend Time Apart
The person who is codependent may seek to control you — out of a need to always have you close. He may monitor the time you spend with friends, keep in close touch with you by telephone or try to be with you most of the time, says Michael McKee, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, in the “Redbook” article “Signs of a Codependent Relationship.” That need to control can also leave you dependent on your partner, says Shawn Meghan Burn, professor of psychology at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, in the “Psychology Today” article “Are You In a Codependent Relationship?” If your partner has controlled different aspects of your life, you may be left with poor life skills or a lack of confidence. Clinical psychologist Seth Meyers suggests that spending time alone and apart from your partner is key to maintaining boundaries in a codependent situation. Encourage the man you are dating to spend time on his own doing productive things, and do the same yourself. Doing so will help build confidence and life skills as well as the ability to function separately.
In a situation in which codependency is affecting the functioning of an individual, counseling or a 12-step program such as codependents anonymous may be a good option, says Lancer. Codependent individuals need to learn how to become more assertive and build self-esteem — both of which may require professional help beyond what you can offer as a dating partner. Codependent individuals are also usually drawn to others with their own personal issues such as addictions. If you suffer with a mental health concern yourself, and feel that you are being enabled in your addiction or other behavior by a codependent dating partner, seeking treatment for your addiction or other problem will be beneficial for the relationship as a whole.
Arlin Cuncic has been writing about mental health since 2007, specializing in social anxiety disorder and depression topics. She served as the managing editor of the "Journal of Attention Disorders" and has worked in a variety of research settings. Cuncic holds an M.A. in clinical psychology.