man and woman hugging near trees

The True Difference Between Codependency and Love Is Not What You’d Think

There are many definitions of codependency in a relationship, so it can be hard to know what exactly it is. One definition is when a person prioritizes the other person or a substance over themselves and their own health within the context of the relationship. Another definition is when a person cannot survive without the other person due to instability, mental health problems, or addiction, or when one person enables or allows these issues to persist.

While those definitions make sense on a surface level, what I have found to be the core wound in codependent or toxic relationships was this — choosing fear or feelings of anxiety over love.

In some cases, like when a person is sick, they might need to depend on another person. That does not make the relationship inherently codependent.

If a relationship is truly codependent, two people will spend time with each other simply because they feel like they have to, rather than truly wanting to. They might feel obligated to one another in some way, or they might feel that they don’t have any better options, or that they want to settle down, so they choose someone hastily or for egoic or fear-based reasons, like their stability, money, looks, or charm. Another reason a person might become codependently attached is because they were sexually intimate with the other person in the past, or because they spent some amount of time together, so they continue the relationship mindlessly and perhaps out of fear of having to start over, rather than wanting to be with them for who they are.

Alternatively, a person might feel like they want to attach to another person quickly because it feels good in the moment, but essentially, the two people are using one another for reasons that are not loving but fear-based. They might feel a sense of lack in their life, so they fill that void with another human being, rather than coming together with another out of love and intentionality.

This is not love. Love is a vibration of energy that comes from the heart center. It is built upon trust, and it takes time to build. It isn’t always perfect, but it is done with intention.

Let me explain what I mean. You might meet a person who is so in love with their life that they just have this energy about them, and you can feel it from across the room. You go up and talk to them and you find out that they sell their own art and host art therapy support groups in hospitals. They have a special energy about them because they are so excited about what they do. This is the type of person who could make someone fall in love, because they are resonating at the frequency of love and joy. They have a full life in which they are fulfilled and happy, so they will match that energetic vibration.

Then you meet another person who works for an accounting firm. It pays the bills, and it’s a stable job, but they hate it. You can sense that about them. They are going to be less attractive to others who are healthy, because they are not living in alignment with love or joy. Someone like this is more likely to attract a codependent relationship — one that is based in fear, because they are also choosing fear in other areas of their life.

That isn’t to say that the art therapist couldn’t be in a codependent relationship, and the accountant couldn’t be in a joyful loving relationship, or that their relationships couldn’t shift over time, but the type of energy you put out into the world tends to come back to you in all areas of your life. Since work is a big portion of most people’s lives, what they feel about it tends to be important in terms of attracting love.

The root of codependency is choosing fear over love. There are certainly relationships that might be defined as “codependent” in modern psychology — like a stay-at-home mom and a man who is the breadwinner. This relationship might be technically defined as codependent because the stay-at-home mom could not survive financially on her own without the support of her husband, but perhaps she genuinely loves being a mom. And maybe she does other things she loves too, like teaching yoga on the side and hosting a mommy-and-me class. Perhaps she plans to start working more full-time when the kids grow up and need less attention. Just because she is not fully financially independent does not make the relationship inherently codependent, because relationships and life are much more complex than that.

Another example might be an elderly couple in which the husband has dementia, but the wife continues to take care of him because she is able to draw from the memories of their past together, and trust has been built within the relationship over time. She still feels love for him in her heart, and even though it might be tough, her love for him remains strong.

So, when it comes to codependency and toxicity in relationships, it comes down to this question: Which will you choose, love or fear?