Does Sexist Culture Contribute To Codependency In Women?

When young girls are growing up digesting messages from television, magazines, and the Internet that it’s OK to put someone else ahead of their own care in the name of devotion and loyalty, that’s when it becomes a problem.

It is with both pride and skepticism that I can announce I left my third toxic relationship this past January.

By toxic, I mean that this person had very serious emotional trauma and issues that he was unwilling to work through in healthy ways, and as a result, all of that fell back on me to carry. I was his savior, his light, his grip, and he told me as much.

But he was emotionally abusive in the similar manipulative, possessive and obsessive ways that the two previous to him had been, and I couldn’t ignore those signs any longer than I already had. I had certainly already stayed way longer than I should have, in the hopes that I could fix him.

I do feel for him, but there’s only so much I could take. Unfortunately for me, that “so much” is a much larger amount of bull sh*t than many of my friends are willing to take, so I have often wondered what’s wrong with me. Yet, on the flip side — and fortunately for me — that amount is still a smaller amount than many, many women all over the world are willing to take.

Which leads me to what was the most baffling part for me and others like me, I’m sure — that after everything he did put me through, I still regretted not being able to “save” him, even though I know that is not my job to do. In fact, that is an impossible job for someone in my shoes. I am not a therapist. I’m in my 20s and barely know yet how to handle my own mental health issues, let alone someone else’s. And I’ve done the exact same thing three times now. Why do I keep deciding this is my duty?

After this last one, my mom asked me if I’ve considered looking into codependent therapy. Codependent therapy? What the heck is that? I’m not codependent — in fact, I have always considered myself to be fairly independent. I was always the one in my relationships pushing for more time to ourselves, and respect for each other’s boundaries, personal lives and space.

It’s my empathy that keeps me around, I thought. Not dependency! How could this be my fault? How dare my mother.

But codependency, I learned later, is not about being able to spend nights in your bed alone or go out with your friends on a Friday and dance to “Miss Independent.” Codependency is a concept that is now being viewed similarly to a legitimate disorder or addiction, and it involves being so hooked on the idea of helping someone or fixing someone that you completely lose sight of your own goals and aspirations in the process. Your driving force in life becomes entirely about someone else.

Codependents derive their self-worth and meaning in life not simply from the idea of “having a partner,” but rather, from the idea of helping one. This is often a problem that partners of alcoholics and drug addicts face, but it can also present itself simply in the form of not being able to leave a damaged and toxic partner for fear of literally losing one’s own sense of purpose.

Once I began looking into this concept, I started ticking boxes off right away. That’s me, I thought. To a T. And I also found that the numbers point to this being an issue more largely faced by females. So why is that?

Alongside the major, grotesque and tangible injustices we’re calling out — Hollywood, we’re looking at you — there is definitely a related insidious and sinister sexism about societal norms and, specifically, the expectation of women to conform to potentially damaging behavior within relationships. When looking at heterosexual relationships particularly, we see a dangerous manifestation of these subtleties, which present themselves in phenomena like codependency.

The majority of women, whether those around them intended this or not, have been brought up to believe it is a woman’s duty to someday look after a home and support a partner, in some way or another. Even in our increasingly progressive society, we are still bombarded on the daily with imagery of women as mothers, as wives, as homemakers.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a woman choosing to remain at home and raise a family. But when young girls are growing up digesting messages from television, magazines, and the Internet that it’s OK to put someone else ahead of their own care in the name of devotion and loyalty, that’s when it becomes a problem.

There’s a popular trope developing in the social media world about the “wifey material” girl who stays home on the weekends.

This is exactly the wrong message we should be sending to young women — that just because their partners are insecure, they should be coddling that insecurity by ignoring other aspects of their own lives. If you thought the whole woman-stays-inside-like-a-good-little-housewife trope was gone with the progressivism of 2018, think again.

If your partner wants you to stay in every weekend and never wants you to see your friends or create a life outside of them, your partner is hiding you. They are intimidated, most likely, by the idea that someone else might tell you what you already know deep down: that your partner is not healthy for you.

For months, my ex told me he didn’t want to go out because of his mental health. And, yes, I would understand if that had truly been the case. But what started to ring as weird was that he had no problem going out with his friends when I truly had something I had to do instead of spending time with him. So why couldn’t we go out together?

Ah, yes, that would involve other people looking at me and interacting with me — oh, the horror!

I don’t believe that I was staying in because I wanted to be “wifey goals” or whatever the hell. But the truth is that many of us who were brought up traditionally may be internalizing gender role expectations within romantic relationships without even realizing it.

Additionally, there is a tendency in a codependent to compensate for the dissatisfaction they’re feeling by giving even more of oneself in the hopes that it will fix things. A codependent partner enables an addict or otherwise self-destructive person by allowing them to avoid dealing with the unpleasant consequences of their personal problems.

It’s not a crazy idea, then, to suggest that men actually benefit from this higher affinity toward codependency that women seem to have. Perhaps on an individual level, not all of these men are laughing maniacally as they consciously manipulate their partners into codependence. However, do the patriarchal roots behind our media keep spinning just the right messages— like “wifey goals” — in order to subtly contribute to the larger picture that still works to hold women down, even today?

I’m not blaming the patriarchy for my choice to stay in abusive relationships. I accept that there is probably some aspect of my personality that I need to examine in order to weed out why I keep falling back into the same situation. But what helps us make our choices? It’s not a wild leap or string of assumptions to link a sexist culture to an abundance of codependency problems in women. And in the wake of #MeToo, it’s important for us to keep acknowledging both the subtle and not-so-subtle societal flaws that continue to put women at a disadvantage.

Kate Harveston enjoys writing about social justice and policy change. When she’s not writing, she enjoys hiking the mountains of Pennsylvania to find inspiration. If you like her work, feel free to visit her at

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