Why is codependency in marriage an unhealthy approach?

Updated: Jun 17

Whenever we hear the news of a broken marriage, one common public reaction is, "Ajj Kal ke bachon ko rishte nibhaane hi nhi aate” (kids of today's age do not know how to sustain a relationship). In desi marriage culture, which is plagued by various unhealthy patterns and prejudices, it's difficult to filter out the actual cause behind a broken marriage. Ironically, this irrational marital approach binds people to portray only the happy and successful side of marriage. While there could be thousand other reasons why a relationship ended, the blame game from society only focuses on the individuals involved, particularly women.

Marriage unfolds some of the most beautiful relational dynamics that help mold two people into blissful growing humans. But when those dynamics go beyond a certain level; it becomes a toxic trait, and one such pattern is codependency.

Let's imagine a typical desi marriage scenario, a husband solely managing all the finances and external issues, while the wife engages herself only in household matters. This traditional approach looks like a norm, and with both partners consenting to a situation there is nothing wrong with it. But is it a mandatory rule for every successful marriage? Who decided to set these roles for the partners? And, who decided that the partners are satisfied sticking to these roles?

What happens, unfortunately, is that we see husbands becoming money-making machines and wives as the sole homemakers. The divine harmony of love, care, and togetherness required between them is lost somewhere, only if it is allowed to develop in the first place. This unsettled equilibrium and harmony between the partners force them to be in that relationship only because they are codependent on each other. Codependency in marriage is about being addicted to your spouse to an unhealthy level where your own self starts deteriorating. Marriage is a social and legal contract between two individuals to share their lives. However, when the partners neglect their own identity, needs, and well-being in a bid to uphold the needs and preferences of their ‘better-halves’, this is where the nasty variable of codependency comes into the marriage equation.

Here, the term “better half” is relevant to the concept of codependency wherein one person sacrifices all for and is defined by the relationship. It is a general notion that two people complete each other in marriage or are each other’s better halves. The very idea of a better half is slightly problematic in my opinion. It suggests that one's potential to live life to the fullest depends on or is the responsibility of the other.

Unfortunately, people in a codependent marriage fail to recognize it because they have been conditioned into believing this to be normal. In reality, a codependent relationship is a kind of one-sided relationship where only one person provides emotional support to the other, leaving themselves devoid of any. We believe being in marriage means two people are dependent on each other, which to some extent is not wrong. But, it is important to draw a line between being rightfully dependent on or awfully addicted to your partner. We can take an example of our marriage system where people force themselves to continue living in an abusive relationship because society makes them think that they have no other choice. They give up on their own opinion and growth to let the other one rule over them. This behavior may appear to be a love-filled gesture or the epitome of selflessness, but, in the long run, it leaves the sacrificing partner in perpetual distress and disdain.

Codependency makes a couple internalize the idea that it is necessary to ask for their partner's approval over prioritizing their own happiness. Codependency prevails because of the false idea of love or the fear of being abandoned by their partner; people try hiding their emotions to sustain their relationship. Imagine a couple going to a party, and the wife asks for her husband's approval to decide which dress she should wear. Now, it's completely okay and romantic in a way to get yourself dressed up according to your partner's taste. However, denying or criticizing your own choice of clothes because your partner said so is an unhealthy sign. It sounds pretty romantic to do things that please your partner but not at the cost of destroying your mental and inner peace?

People, in a codependent relationship, find it hard to have an open conversation with their partners. Instead, they gulp down their overwhelming emotions to keep the other one happy and satisfied. It is more likely for a codependent person to have low self-esteem because they are constantly feeding up others' needs and neglecting their own. They define their worth and esteem by how much their partners need them. They think very low or unworthy of themselves when they do not feel needed anymore. Spouses with low self-esteem do not find themselves worthy enough for appreciation without fulfilling their partner's needs. It is important to note that whenever there is inequality of respect and appreciation between the two individuals bound in a relationship, one will suffer from low self-esteem because of the dominant behavior of the other.

On the other hand, it can also be the case sometimes that spouses who depend on their partners often try to manipulate them unintentionally to control them. Their insecurities force them to take hold of how their partners should react in a way, making them feel safe. This might be because their happiness outgrows when the other one surrenders their own, and it is a major sign of an unhealthy marital life. The divine nature has made every human being perfect and complete on their own. People in marriage do not complete but share their being on mutual grounds of love, respect, and care. In a healthy relationship, partners work on and help each other to achieve their life goals, while a codependent marriage has an unbalanced share of giving and taking. Whether your needs are dependent on your partner or you are the one fulfilling their needs, codependency occurs anyways.

Moreover, codependent partners can also struggle to deal with their wrongdoings or shortcomings as they want to be just perfect for their partners. Due to past memories of rejection, hopelessness, and failure, they overburden to portray themselves as perfect.

It's tough to name one specific reason people get codependent within a relationship. In most cases, codependent behavior arises due to abnormal childhood experiences. The dilemma of patriarchal society and dysfunctional family environments makes one believe that they are not worthy of love and being taken care of. That's why people who grow in an abusive, judgmental, unsupportive, or unstable family setting tend to struggle in maintaining a positive dependency in relationships. Such individuals make themselves people pleasers to avoid conflicts they suffered while growing up. They seek praise for themselves by pouring out their love and attention to people who often harm them. Fear, broken trust, abandonment; all increase their vulnerability to being reliant on others.

We all grew up listening to fictional stories where the happy end of life only comes with a happy marriage? Remember how we seem to idealize the prince who becomes the ultimate savior of the princess to bring her into his fantasy world to live happily ever after. Our emphasis on building up a happy marriage and its link with a successful life has somehow added more fuel to this dilemma of codependency. This narrative sugarcoats the harsh realities of codependency under the romantic portrayal of a happy marriage.

Codependency is quite a deep-rooted phenomenon that can easily make its way to your marital life, if not addressed at the right moment. It's necessary to free ourselves from those unseen chains of codependency by seeking ways to heal.

Marriage often entangles two people so much they become one soul, but a boundary still needs to be drawn. Setting boundaries is not about being unreachable for your partner but developing a mutual understanding of what responsibilities are yours and how far you will go to cater to them.

First and foremost, you need to stop hiding your emotions from your partner. Miscommunication is one thing but avoiding communication is deadly for a healthy relationship. There's a saying by Christina Strigas about miscommunication: “the longer the silence remains untouched, the longer the miscommunication creates its own stories.” Your unspoken words will remain unheard by your partner without having the bridge of communication between you two. No matter how desperately they love you, they might not be able to pay attention to the subjects bothering you unless you speak up. People are afraid to open up because of the fear of being judged, ashamed, and criticized, but the only way forward to overcome this cycle of negative thinking is to speak up. You must disassociate yourself from the idea that you can control or change your partner's personality by this codependency. You need to understand that despite being your partner, they are a human being first and have their own set of personality traits, and no, you cannot and are not supposed to fix it. It is not your responsibility to take the burden of or to remove your spouse's misconduct.

Marriage should be the place where both individuals grow mutually and individually to explore new dynamics of life. A healthy marriage should come with the ideology of interdependence where not one but both help achieve each other's goals without making it their own. Codependency and interdependence sound like the same term, yet they are very different. Interdependent relationships demand a balance from both sides, while codependent relationships lack that balance to favor one's dominance.

Any loving relationship should not reach a point where one feels worthless without their partner. There is nothing wrong with feeling that a part of you is incomplete without your partner, but becoming a completely dysfunctional person is an unhealthy sign.

Let your marriage be an institution where you both connect by love, affection, and trust without shaming each other of their weaknesses and flaws. To have a beautiful relationship, one should not be defined but revealed, accepted, nourished, and of course, loved by their partner. It's important to understand what it takes to love someone while honoring your own self and your boundaries. There is no such formula of how marital relationships work. Irrespective of how far our ancestors adjusted themselves, prioritizing others' happiness over theirs to save a relationship, you decide your own way to make your relationship work. No one should feel ashamed; whether they make compromises in marriage or call it off because it didn't work for them. Your marriage life has nothing to do with how others make or survive their relationships but how you shape it for your own growth. Let you and your partner decide how to make up your relationship, and do not believe otherwise.

"A great marriage is not when the 'perfect couple' comes together. It is when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences."

– Dave Meurer


Aatqa Ali is an in-house writer at Perspective.

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