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Friends play an important role in our lives. A friend is a trusted confidant, someone who “gets” you like no one else, and a source of fun and solace. A true friend has your back and supports you through life’s ups and downs.
But friendships, like any other relationship, aren’t always healthy. Not all friendships are mutually supportive and satisfying.
If you’re someone prone to codependent traits (such as gaining self-esteem through excessive caretaking, putting other people’s needs before your own, feeling like you need to fix or save people), your friendships may also lean toward codependency. In fact, it can be hard to distinguish a codependent friendship from a healthy friendship in its early stages because they make you feel needed and connected.
However, it’s harmful in the long run to live your life based on what your friend wants and needs.
When does helping a friend become codependent?
Lucy and Jasmine met at work a year ago and became fast friends. Lucy was going through a difficult divorce at the time and really needed a supportive friend. Jasmine was happy to grab a drink with Lucy after work and listen to her vent about her ex and give her advice about how to navigate the court process. Jasmine could relate to Lucy’s struggles as she’d divorced the year before. She spent hours researching affordable divorce attorneys for Lucy and frequently gave her helpful articles she found online.
Lucy would call at all hours distraught about an argument with her mother, bills she couldn’t pay, or her kids acting out after a visit with their Dad. Jasmine loaned Lucy some money and treated her to manicures, even though it meant not putting money into her own retirement account.
Jasmine felt good being able to help Lucy; they had a good time together and it was a needed distraction from Jasmine’s own problems. But Lucy had a constant string of problems and Jasmine didn’t want to stress her out more, so she didn’t even tell her when her brother was hospitalized. Over time, she spent more and more time with Lucy. She knew Lucy didn’t have many friends and she seemed to get jealous when Jasmine had a Girl’s Night Out with some old friends. Jasmine’s mother confronted her about the one-sided friendship with Lucy, but Jasmine got defensive and thought her mother was overreacting.
Signs of a Codependent Friendship
- You feel guilty if you tell her “no” or do something without her.
- You put your friend’s needs/wants in front of your own. (You’ll cancel your plans when she calls or wait by the phone because she might need you.)
- You give up other friendships, time with family, hobbies or interests to be with your friend.
- You feel responsible for helping her with her problems.
- You feel jealous if your friend spends time with other friends
- You frequently worry about your friend.
- Your friend’s problems seem like they’re your problems.
- You feel anxious or stressed out if you don’t talk for a day or you don’t know what’s going on with your friend.
- Your friendship has an obsessive quality.
- You feel your friend’s pain deeply (and maybe even feel sorry for her).
- Your friend seems to be in crisis and needier than the average person.
- You become your friend’s primary or sole source of emotional support.
- Being her “go to” friend, makes you feel special and needed.
- Others comment about the amount of time you spend together, the influence your friend has on you, or how you’ve changed since becoming friends.
Codependent friendships start out feeling great. There’s a close and deep connection. You feel important and needed, but over time a codependent friendship may also have these signs:
- The friendship feels exhausting.
- Your friend doesn’t seem to be there for you when you’re struggling.
- Your friend has unrealistic expectations of you.
- It’s hard to share your own feelings.
- You don’t want to burden your friend by telling her about your problems.
- You feel resentful.
None of these symptoms in and of themselves mean your friendship is unhealthy. The problems come with the amount and intensity of these symptoms. Codependent friendships can swallow you up – becoming the most important relationship in your life; you might even feel like you can’t live without this friendship.
Healthy friendships meet the needs of both people. It’s normal for there to be some imbalance in the short-term, but things should balance out over time. You shouldn’t constantly feel like you’re giving but not receiving support or respect in return. A friendship should lift you up and encourage you to strive for your dreams.
Trying to help your friends comes from a loving place, of course. Helping means being a good listener, and lending a hand occasionally, it’s not consistently doing things for your friend. It’s impossible to fix your friend’s problems or meet all of her needs.
If you’re in a codependent friendship, here are some tips for creating a healthier relationship.
- Identify what you’re gaining and what you’re giving up in this friendship. There should be a net gain.
- Share your feelings honestly with your friend. A true friend cares about your feelings.
- Spend time with other friends and family members. No one person can meet all of your needs. Most people find they’re happiest when they have friends with varied interests, experiences, and of different ages.
- Identify your boundaries. You should feel free to let your friend know what you can and cannot do. For example, if you go to bed early, your friend will respect your wishes and not call or text after 10 PM.
- Take care of yourself. Do things that make you feel good, that broaden your experiences, and support a healthy lifestyle.
- Be yourself. Stay true to your goals and values and don’t give up what matters most to you to please someone else.
- Offer support, not solutions. As much as you may want to help your friend with her troubles, you can’t solve her problems.
- Ask for what you need. We all have needs and it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for what you need. Actually, it’s important to speak up because friends can’t know what you want or need unless you tell them.
Many codependent friendships can be saved if both people are willing to make changes. However, it’s best to part ways if your friend isn’t able to acknowledge her part in the problems or doesn’t want to change. Friendship should be a give and take. If you find you’re doing all of the giving, take a good hard look at your friendship to be sure you aren’t in a codependent relationship that’s all about meeting your friend’s needs.
©2023 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
This post was previously published on Psych Central.