Jealous boyfriends are the bane of many online relationship forums, where girlfriends complain about them snooping through their phones and being unreasonably suspicious of their male colleagues. These guys are often described as aggressive, controlling and possessive — all marks of codependency, a behavior we often mistake for jealousy, and that we stereotypically attribute to more women than men.
Originally, “codependency” was used in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous to describe partners of individuals who abused substances and were caught up in their dysfunctional lifestyles. “In the 1970s, codependency was referred to as ‘coalcoholism’ because psychiatrists believed that wives of men with alcoholism displayed behavior that was described as irrational,” says Boris Mackey, editor-in-chief and community outreach manager of Rehab 4 Addiction. While this is still one example of codependency, today, the term covers a much broader spectrum of relationship dynamics.
“We know that codependent behavior has roots in childhood and in disorganized families where parents weren’t able to meet their child’s needs,” says psychotherapist Valentina Dragomir. “For example, if the child had to become the caregiver of the parent, this could lead to developing codependent relationships later in life.”
“People who exhibit codependent behaviors typically have a difficult time feeling good about themselves and engage in caretaking and controlling behaviors to create stability and security,” Dragomir continues.
These behaviors can take many forms, such as the aforementioned jealousy. “Codependency manifests in a variety of ways, including low self-esteem, rewarding abusive behavior, approval-seeking and the thought that no one can fix your partner but you,” says Mackey. “Jealousy is a major aspect of codependency, as sufferers find it hard to watch their partner make other friends and show attention to new people. This is because their self-esteem is built solely from their partner’s approval. If someone else is receiving approval, it can make an individual feel extremely jealous and low.”
Codependency can also mean that you and your partner rely on each other for money, friends and support in excessive, harmful ways that obscure your personal agency. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with relying on one another — in fact, it’s only natural for your lives to intertwine if you’re in a relationship for long enough, and this can be healthy. However, it can also spiral into codependency if your dependence on each other begins to have a negative impact on the relationship by, say, prompting feelings of jealousy or ownership when one partner takes more than they give. (Keep in mind that codependency isn’t an official diagnosis, so for now, it’s more like an umbrella term for unhealthy behaviors that get in the way of a person’s ability to engage in a healthy, mutually-satisfying relationship.)
If you spend too much time on relationship forums like r/Relationships, these are the kinds of characteristics you’ll read about, and you’ll probably walk away thinking that all codependent individuals are controlling narcissists who solely aim to manipulate their partners like puppets. But, on the flip side, codependency can also result in someone giving too much of themselves and being an excessively generous partner. As Dragomir explains, a codependent person may feel inclined to ignore their own needs so they can better attend to the needs of their partner.
This is why codependent relationships are often described in “giver” and “taker” terms: The codependent (“giver”) partner feels worthless unless they’re needed by the enabling (“taker”) partner. The codependent person acts as the “guardian” of their partner.
None of this means you’re definitely codependent if you get jealous every now and then. “Codependency can manifest as jealousy, although feeling jealous doesn’t always mean that the relationship is codependent,” says Derwin K.K. Nunes III, lead counselor at the Ohana Addiction Treatment Center. “It’s completely normal to feel jealous at times in a relationship. However, when jealousy becomes excessive, it could indicate codependency.”
Again, thanks to “crazy, emotional girlfriend” stereotypes, we tend to assign codependency to women more often than men. But as Nunes says, “The research suggests that codependency affects both men and women at about the same rates. If anything, some studies suggest that codependency may actually be higher in men.”
Despite these statistics, the belief that women are more codependent has a negative impact on codependent men. “The pattern of codependency is less likely to be recognized in males,” says psychologist Marina Harris, in-house relationship expert for iris, a dating app that uses A.I. to match people. “For example, in a 1997 research study, male codependents were rated as ‘more healthy’ [in their ability to navigate relationships] than female codependents. This means that male codependency can often go unnoticed, and males may not receive the support they need in changing these patterns.”
In other words, codependent men fall into many of the same traps that men in general do — that is, when they’re dealing with a mental health problem, they’re more likely to avoid treatment than women are. Furthermore, in order to properly deal with codependent men, it’s important that we don’t simply pigeonhole them as aggressive and controlling, because these traits come from a deeper place. “Those with this diagnosis often struggle with other areas of their mental health such as anxiety and depression,” Mackey says. “Codependency often forms after childhood trauma.”
Of course, the best way to cope with codependency is talking with a mental health professional. But it’s also worth being mindful of your behaviors so you can take steps on your own as well.
“The first step is to label what you’re experiencing as codependency and understand why it developed for you — maybe you had a chaotic home environment, didn’t have a stable relationship with caregivers or have an intense fear of abandonment,” Harris says. “Next, note all the behaviors that stem from your codependency — maybe you cater to your partner’s every need to avoid being abandoned by them or feel very jealous and ask them over and over again to reassure you that certain relationships are platonic. It might even be helpful for you to share this list of behaviors with your partner. That way, you and your partner can watch out for behaviors that are harmful to your relationship and work together to change them.”
Just make sure you’re not being too codependent about it.