What Is Toxic Dependency in a Relationship and Why Is It Bad?

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Maintaining healthy relationships is about communication and balance. You have to communicate your feelings and boundaries to your loved ones. Additionally, you need to listen to them when they communicate their feelings and boundaries to you. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between support and toxic dependency.

Pathways Recovery Center encourages you to analyze your current and past relationships during your recovery journey. In doing so, you might notice that some of your relationships have a toxic dependency. This unhealthy dependency could be coming from you or the other person. Either way, it's worth addressing.

How to Identify Toxic Dependency

Toxic dependency or codependency is when a platonic or romantic relationship does not have equal give and take on both sides. Often, one person is taking care of the other at the expense of their own needs.

In toxic dependency, one person feels solely reliant on the other person. They may feel they are unable to function or take care of themselves on their own. In some instances, codependency can become so toxic that the person who is relied on begins to distance themself from the needier loved one.

It is unhealthy to sustain relationships that require you to set aside your own emotional and physical needs. Conversely, it's unfair to maintain relationships that require the other person to consistently put aside their own needs to help you with yours. Sometimes people need to be left to their own devices to learn how to navigate through life on their own.

How to Identify Healthy Dependency

Confusingly, not all types of dependency are toxic. It is okay to ask for help sometimes. Your support network is there for you to turn to in times of crisis. The difference between toxic and healthy dependency is that toxic dependency involves chronic, one-sided support. In healthy dependency, there is balance.

Everybody is dependent on other people sometimes. It's okay to rely on others occasionally. However, you won't always be able to rely on others. You have to learn how to self-manage some of life's discomforts.

Throughout your recovery journey, you will build your set of life skills. You will practice tools to manage uncomfortable emotions and mitigate symptoms of substance use disorder (SUD) and co-occurring conditions. This will help you to act more independently and give your loved ones emotional space when they need it.

Conversely, you should not always be doing the emotional heavy lifting for your loved ones. If you find your time being constantly consumed by managing someone else's distress, you may be in a codependent relationship. This isn't healthy for you or your loved one. If you are always there to pick up the pieces for a loved one when they're in distress, they'll never learn how to manage distressing emotions on their own.

Mitigating Toxic Dependency

The best way to mitigate toxic dependency is by setting boundaries and confronting people when those boundaries aren't respected. For instance, you might clarify with someone that you aren't available to console them every day. You may tell them that you are uncomfortable discussing a particular subject. If a person is consistently ignoring your boundaries, you might have to reconsider how this person fits into your life.

At the same time, you must also respect other people's boundaries. While it may difficult to find alternative ways to handle discomfort, you can brainstorm with your therapist for better ways for you to deal with your emotions on your own. Depending on the circumstances, you also be able to lean on someone else who you know has the time and emotional energy to help you.

Dependency Personality Disorder

One of the most common personality disorders is dependency personality disorder (DPD). People with DPD rely too much on others to meet their emotional and physical needs.

If you have DPD, you probably have difficulties making decisions on your own. You likely feel that you can't trust your decision-making skills. Other DPD symptoms include the following:

  • Avoiding being alone
  • Being easily hurt by criticism or disapproval
  • Avoiding personal responsibility
  • Being overly focused on fears of abandonment
  • Passively participating in relationships
  • Feeling upset or helpless when relationships end
  • Having difficulty making decisions without support from others
  • Experiencing difficulties with confrontations or expressing disagreements with others

DPD tends to be most highly correlated with depression and SUD. When presented with a dual diagnosis of DPD and SUD, both disorders must be treated simultaneously. Otherwise, the disorders will exasperate one another.

Treatment Options for DPD

DPD is usually treated with talk therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectal behavior therapy (DBT). Both types of therapy are commonly offered by recovery facilities such as Pathways Recovery Center. The goal of treatment for DPD is to get people to be comfortable with making their own life choices.

You will work closely with a mental health professional to learn the tools you need to build your confidence. In doing so, you can find the inner strength you need to take care of yourself. The more you practice making decisions on your own, the easier it will be to believe in your decision-making skills.

Sometimes it's okay to rely on friends and family for emotional support when you are in distress and overwhelmed by negative emotions. However, you will come across instances where you'll have to be able to manage negative emotions on your own. Pathways Recovery Center understands the balance it takes to maintain healthy relationships. We offer a variety of treatment options that can help you manage DPD, SUD, and other mental health conditions. We are here to help you through your recovery one day at a time. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, call (888) 771-0966 to learn how we can meet you where you are in recovery.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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