Codependency in Multiple-Partner Relationships

Codependency in Multiple-Partner Relationships

Codependency in Multiple-Partner Relationships

Often when we think about codependency, we think about a very traditional two-person monogamous relationship. However, codependency can show up in all different types of relationships. People in open marriages, polyamorous relationships, throuples and other “non-traditional” relationships can and do deal with codependency. It just may look a little bit different than typically described.

Understanding Codependency

Codependency refers to an excessive and unhealthy reliance on others for emotional validation, self-worth, and a sense of identity, specifically within relationships. We typically think of this as two people that are co-dependent on one another. This stems from a model of addiction in which the person with an addiction issue is enabled by a codependent partner. However, this is only one understanding of codependency.

Learn more about codependency.

What Codependency May Look Like in "Non-Traditional" Relationships

What Codependency May Look Like in “Non-Traditional” Relationships

People can design their relationships in any way that works for them and the other consenting adults in the relationship. As a result, codependency is going to show up differently in different relationships. Something that might feel like a problem with codependency for one person may not be a problem at all for someone else. With that in mind, here are some ways that you might see codependency show up in “non-traditional” relationships:

  • Excessive reliance on multiple partners for emotional validation and self-worth.
  • Fear of abandonment or jealousy over partners’ involvement with others.
  • Blurred boundaries and enmeshment, neglecting individual needs and identity.
  • Sacrificing personal well-being to maintain the relationship structure.
  • Difficulty expressing personal desires or setting boundaries with multiple partners.
  • Prioritizing partners’ needs over one’s own, leading to neglect of self-care.
  • Enabling harmful behaviors among partners to preserve the relationship dynamics.
  • Feeling subordinate or overly dependent on a specific partner with more authority.
  • Avoiding conflict or uncomfortable conversations to keep the relationship harmonious.
  • Seeking validation and self-worth through multiple relationships.
  • Suppressing emotions or feelings to avoid rocking the relationship’s stability.
  • Feeling a lack of control or autonomy due to complex relationship dynamics.
  • Struggling with communication and emotional intimacy among multiple partners.
  • Overextending oneself to meet the emotional or material needs of multiple partners.
  • Loss of personal identity as partners define themselves solely by their roles within the relationship.

Differences From Codependency in "Traditional" Relationships 

Differences From Codependency in “Traditional” Relationships

Since much of the literature available refers to codependency within the context of a two-person monogamous relationship, it’s important to consider that there are differences in codependency when it comes to non-monogamous and/or multiple-partner relationships. These may include:

Dependency on Multiple Partners vs. Single Partner

In relationships like open marriages or polyamorous arrangements, codependency might involve a dependency on multiple partners for emotional validation, support, and identity. Individuals may rely on different partners to fulfill various needs, which can complicate the dynamics.

Complex Boundaries and Jealousy

“Nontraditional” relationships often have more complex boundaries to navigate due to the involvement of multiple partners. In these settings, codependency may manifest as partners struggling with jealousy and insecurity over the sharing of affection or time with others. In traditional monogamous relationships, codependency might revolve around fears of abandonment, possessiveness, or a strong need for constant reassurance and attention from the single partner. This is similar to, but may manifest differently within, “nontraditional” relationship structures.

Differences From Codependency in "Traditional" Relationships 

Identity and Autonomy in “Nontraditional” Relationships

Nontraditional relationships can challenge individual identity and autonomy, leading some individuals to merge their sense of self with the relationship, resulting in codependent patterns. The more people involved in the relationship, the more challenging this can be.

Power Imbalances

Nontraditional relationships may experience different power dynamics among partners, especially in hierarchical polyamory setups. Codependency might involve partners feeling subordinate or overly dependent on a primary partner with more authority.

Types of Enabling Behaviors in Nontraditional Relationships

In nontraditional relationships, codependency can lead to enabling behaviors concerning multiple partners, such as tolerating unhealthy behaviors or overlooking harmful actions to maintain the relationship structure. Enabling often occurs in codependent relationships but looks different in terms of how it impacts a multiple-partner relationship.

Differences From Codependency in "Traditional" Relationships 

Case Study of Differences in Codependency: 2 Relationship Structures

Let’s look at two examples (these are not of real clients):

Case Study 1: Monogamous Couple with Codependency Issues

Background: Emma and Jack have been in a monogamous relationship for five years. They share a deep emotional bond, but over time, they have developed codependent behaviors that negatively impact their relationship.

Codependency Issues:

  1. Emotional Enmeshment: Emma and Jack rely heavily on each other for emotional support and validation, often neglecting their individual needs and interests. They struggle to maintain emotional independence and often feel anxious when apart.
  2. Lack of Boundaries: The couple has difficulty setting and respecting boundaries, leading to frequent conflicts and resentment. They find it challenging to assert their needs and desires within the relationship, resulting in communication breakdowns.
  3. Insecurity and Jealousy: Emma and Jack experience jealousy and insecurity when one partner interacts with others outside the relationship. This fear of losing each other leads to clingy and possessive behaviors, further fueling codependency.
  4. Avoidance of Conflict: They avoid addressing underlying issues or conflicts, fearing that open communication may threaten the relationship’s stability. This avoidance perpetuates unresolved tensions and hinders personal growth.
  5. Shared Identity: Emma and Jack’s identities have become intertwined within the relationship, making it challenging for them to distinguish themselves as individuals outside the partnership. Their lives have become heavily centered on the relationship.

Differences From Codependency in "Traditional" Relationships 

Case Study 2: Throuple Relationship with Codependency Issues

Background: Amy, Mark, and Sarah are in a throuple. They entered the relationship with a sense of excitement and openness, but over time, they noticed codependent patterns emerging.

Codependency Issues:

  1. Emotional Neglect in Triad: While the three partners initially embraced the idea, they find it challenging to balance emotional connection among all members of the triad. One partner may feel neglected or excluded, leading to feelings of insecurity and codependent behaviors.
  2. Inability to Set Healthy Group Boundaries: Amy, Mark, and Sarah struggle to establish and maintain healthy boundaries within the triad. This lack of clear boundaries can lead to conflicts and emotional distress, as the lines between individual and group needs blur.
  3. Emotional Reliance on Triad: Each partner begins to rely heavily on the other two for emotional validation and support, which can create a sense of dependency on the triad’s stability for their emotional well-being.
  4. Comparison and Competition: Insecurity arises as partners compare themselves to each other or compete for affection, leading to codependent behaviors driven by the fear of losing their place within the relationship.
  5. Fear of Exclusion: Amy, Mark, and Sarah may avoid expressing their true feelings or needs within the triad, fearing that doing so might lead to rejection or exclusion from the group.

Comparison:

  • Both cases involve emotional enmeshment and a lack of healthy boundaries, leading to communication difficulties and emotional struggles.
  • In both scenarios, codependency arises due to fear, insecurity, and a lack of emotional independence among the partners involved.

Contrast:

  • In the monogamous couple, the codependency issues primarily revolve around two partners with a shared identity and emotional reliance on each other.
  • In the polyamorous relationship, codependency issues are more complex, involving multiple partners struggling to balance emotional connections and boundaries within the triad.
  • While the monogamous couple may face jealousy and insecurity concerning external relationships, the polyamorous relationship may experience emotional neglect and fear of exclusion within the group dynamic.

This is just one example of how codependency can show up similarly and differently depending on relationship structures.

Find a therapist who can help you work through these challenges in our therapist directory.