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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Expat couples - co-dependency or dependency?

Co-dependency in an expat relationship is not necessarily the same as an unhealthy co-dependent relationship. And perhaps it shouldn't even be called co-dependency, but just dependency. Either way, expat (co-)dependency is often transitional and situational in the sense that it helps tie the dependent part over in the phase of expat life where they haven't succeeded in setting up their own life yet. At other times, co-dependency is more permanent and about the characteristics of the two spouses. Sometimes, they overlap.

What is a co-dependent relationship seen from a psychological perspective?

Co-dependency in relationships is worth looking out for as it can be psychologically damaging often leaving both parties feeling lonely and unsatisfied in the relationship as well as constantly fearing being abandoned.

It's also worth being mindful of the difference between being dependent and co-dependent:

Dependency, with two people both finding value in the relationship and making it a priority to rely on each other for love and support, can be beneficial for both parties. In such relationships, both spouses are able to express their emotions and needs freely and are free to pursue interests like friendships and hobbies outside of the relationship.

On the other hand, co-dependency for the co-dependent spouse is often rooted in a childhood where the child's emotions and needs have been neglected or even punished. With such experiences, an adult can find it difficult to trust that it's okay to have needs fulfilled in adult relationships. Low self-esteem and shame are often stable companions of such adult, and can be the cause of the co-dependent spouse only feeling of value if they are needed by their spouse. They often make huge sacrifices for their partner and have little if any self-identity, agenda in life (other than that of pleasing their partner) as well as interests outside of the relationship. The enabler, on the other hand is just as dysfunctional in often being manipulative and controlling, sometimes even with narcissistic tendencies. This too can have roots in childhood.

Some signs of a co-dependent relationship

  • Lack of boundaries

Both parties tend to have problems recognising, respecting and reinforcing boundaries. With healthy boundaries, you are able to allow your partner to have their own feelings and autonomy; and you are mindful that you aren't responsible for each other's happiness. In a co-dependent relationship, the enabler is often manipulative and controlling and as such doesn't recognise boundaries; the dependent spouse is unable to insist on boundaries as well as their own right and often acts compliant. Healthy boundaries are key to a successful relationship.

  • Lack of healthy self-esteem

Typically, both parties lack self-esteem, fear abandonment and seek validation from the other in one of two ways: The co-dependent seeks validation from being needed by fulfilling the enabler's needs and as such feel a sense of purpose. The enabler enjoys the attention from the co-dependent and is often controlling as a result of being afraid the other person might leave them.

  • An excessive need to take care of others

If you have an excessive need to take care of others, feel responsible for their feelings, put your own feelings and needs on the back burner, sometimes forget that most people are fully capable of self-caring and are afraid that something will go wrong if you don't put your partner before yourself, you may suffer from a tendency to be co-dependent. You may also have a difficult time accepting criticism, you become defensive when the slightest thing go wrong and you have very little focus on yourself other than attempting to be the best partner possible to fulfill your partner's wishes.

  • Lack of good communication

As the co-dependent spouse often doesn't know their feelings and needs, and the enabler's main priority often is to maintain control, communication often suffers for co-dependent couples. You often avoid conflicts and when they arise, they are often more dysfunctional than beneficial, to both parties.

  • Excuses

Despite often feeling disrespected and devalued, the co-dependent spouse often finds themselves making excuses for their partner's behaviour and has a difficult time judging what behaviour is acceptable and what isn't.

As you can imagine, such a relationship is often stressful and anxiety inducing for both spouses. Suffering from fears of being alone and as such needing the other part to "play" their role in the co-dependent relationship, the relationship becomes a constant dance of keeping status quo, but without any real relationship satisfaction.

If you experience any of these signs in your relationship and are both willing to better your relationship, couples' therapy can help you to move forward in a healthier way. If you find yourself being co-dependent, but your partner doesn't recognise the problem and/or is unwilling to go into therapy with you, individual therapy can help you gain a sense of yourself and build a better self-worth. Check here for more on counselling and therapy.

Holding hands in the snow



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