The Undefined: On codependency

March 5, 2024, 12:01 a.m.


I’m in a car with my best friend and we’re talking about her ex-boyfriend. We used to live together, years ago. We became better friends after we stopped being roommates.

Her ex-boyfriend was my roommate too, for the better half of that year. I would come into our room and sometimes find him sitting on the floor alone, doing his homework or scrolling through his phone, even though she wasn’t in the room at all. That winter and spring, he lived in her bed, while I wrote bad, drippy poetry and rewatched “Fleabag.” They ate every meal together, watched movies together and quickly became a unit that lasted until their breakup that summer. 

I ask her if she ever felt like they spent too much time together. Her response is instant.

Oh, definitely, she says. She pauses. I don’t think it would have worked out anyway, but I think that the fact that he was always over didn’t help things. I needed more space.

“California” by Lana del Rey comes on, and she skips it instantly. 

I nod. That makes sense. My best friend is the kind of person who enjoys having a single. In that way we are polar opposites — I like having roommates, possibly a consequence of my upbringing as an only child. I don’t need or like having alone time. Over the summer, I spent only one day alone in New York City and hated it so much that I contemplated texting someone I had gone on a single date with, asking if he would want to go to a museum with me so I wouldn’t have to wander through the streets of SoHo by myself.

Yeah, we probably should have spent less time together, she says again. She turns into the parking lot.


I probably don’t use the word codependency correctly. Google will tell you that a codependent relationship is an inherently unequal one — where one partner constantly has to care for the other to an unsustainable extent, resulting in an unhealthy attachment — but on campus you’ll hear it used colloquially, more as a way to define the extent of an attachment.

Oh, that couple is so codependent — he sleeps over at her place every single night. They’re always together.

I don’t know what the right term for that is, then. Overattached? Overdependent? Codependent, even if it isn’t the right word, is useful shorthand. We all understand what we mean.


I’ve always found it strange that couples housing is an option for students at Stanford. It makes sense for the few undergraduates who are engaged or married to their partners, yes, but the fact is that you can choose to just move in with your partner — as long as you’re in a domestic partnership, a nebulous term defined by Stanford as two adults who have chosen to share one another’s lives in an intimate and committed relationship.

Is that all you have to be — intimate and committed? What are the degrees of that? I know that there’s something with joint bank accounts, or another tangible demonstration of commitment for bureaucratic purposes, but on paper, it seems so easy.

Then again, I know that many couples unofficially live together anyway. Sleeping over once a week becomes sleeping over every other night becomes gradually moving in your laptop and your phone charger and half of your closet. I ask my friends what the appropriate amount of time to spend with a partner is and no one has an answer. 

I definitely see my boyfriend too much, one friend tells me over coffee. But I’m still sleeping over tonight.


Another one of my best friends is 23 and a real adult with a real apartment in New York City, and I spend nights throughout the summer and early fall crashing on her couch, rewatching “Easy A” and eating her bruschetta. She shares her studio with her boyfriend, and they sleep together on a king-size bed with pristine white sheets. They hang posters with text in French on their walls and cook dinner together every day. 

I look at them and think that this is the sort of relationship I want one day, where sharing your life with your partner really means sharing a life — a bed, a kitchen, a conversation every night before you go to sleep. And then I think that she’s really not that much older than I am, that I’m ever closer to becoming a real adult, and that I don’t know how that transition is made. Where’s the stepping stone between grabbing brunch at Wilbur Dining together and cooking brunch for each other on Sundays?

My last partner did cook for me — cacio e pepe and fried zucchini and crepes, partly due to my own hopeless lack of any culinary talent, partly because he actually enjoyed and was good at cooking — but sometimes, it still felt like we were playing out roles from a storybook or sitcom. Was it just because that kitchen was a communal one, and when I’m a real adult I’ll have my own kitchen with my own stovetop and my own cabinets with labeled seasonings? Is there some other switch that flips on and off: congrats, you’ve graduated, now your relationship is the kind where you host dinner parties together and share a grocery list? 

When does everyone come to the collective realization that what we dismiss in college as codependency — spending every night together, never going a day without seeing your partner — is the norm, and even to be strived for? 


It’s early December and pouring rain in Scotland, and on the long bus ride to the city center, I read a book where the protagonist is scared to be too available to her partner, to want him too much. He understands her with a glance and she is terrified of how much he knows. The moral of the story is that we shouldn’t be scared to need other people, I think. 

I look over at my own boyfriend, who will no longer be my boyfriend in a week, who is listening to music in a language I can’t understand. He has an uncanny ability to always know what I’m feeling. I’m underlining passages in this book with this protagonist who is scared of commitment, who is scared of herself, and I see myself reflected in a cloudy mirror. I wonder if he knows how scared I am all the time. 

Unexpectedly, tears well up in my eyes, and I do my best to blink them away because I’m sitting on public transportation and holding a book with a review on its champagne pink cover proclaiming it to be consuming and sexy and I want to tell whoever wrote that review that they clearly didn’t read the book, or at least they didn’t understand it like I did, because it isn’t consuming and sexy, it’s emotionally devastating and far too relatable, and I can’t cry because if I cry my boyfriend will ask me what’s wrong and I’ll have to tell him that I’m crying because of this book that I picked up because I confused it for another book altogether, that I’m really crying because of him, or maybe because of myself. I think of how he gave me his gloves the day before because I was cold and how I lost one within the hour. I tell myself that I should complain less. 


But on paper, there’s something beautiful about attachment. 

I reread Sally Rooney often, specifically, “Normal People,” “Conversations with Friends” and her short story “Mr. Salary.” Perhaps controversially, I like “Conversations with Friends” the most.

Are the characters unlikable? Yes.

Are the protagonist’s choices indefensible? Yes.

Did my high school friend tell me that she put down the book and never picked it up again because she found all the characters morally repugnant? Yes. 

But there are some beautiful lines, and one in particular has always stuck out to me. It comes near the end of the book, from the protagonist’s love interest, after they’ve already ended things: 

You know, I still have that impulse to be available to you.

Yes, the character who says this line is minimizing his own guilt in his extramarital affair. Yes, the character he says this line to is hopelessly incapable of making the morally correct decision. Yes, their relationship is and will be doomed. 

But I understand the sentiment. Early on, before anything ever happened, I found myself lingering in the kitchen whenever my last partner was cooking, often without the excuse of hunger. When we did start dating, I made myself available at almost all opportunities, sitting on his bed and waiting for him to return, even as I told myself that I couldn’t feel attachment, that I couldn’t feel like I needed him, especially not more than he needed me. 

I tell this to my best friend, and she doesn’t exactly respond with sunshines and rainbows. 

the big thing was always making yourself available, she texts me. concerning. 

And maybe it is concerning. But I have this conversation with my high school friend as well — the same one who hates “Conversations with Friends,” hates Nick and Frances and their steaming dumpster fire of a not-relationship — and her response isn’t concern, exactly.

i like the deep embarrassment of the urge to be made available to someone at all times, she texts. And I think, yes, yes, that’s exactly it. It’s embarrassing to feel like you always want to be available, that you need the other person. But is that need, however embarrassing, necessarily unhealthy? Where’s dependency, and where’s overdependency, and where’s codependency, and how do you tell the difference when you’re in the relationship and there isn’t some checklist for you to read off — yeah, three nights over at their place is fine, but four is pushing it, and five is a stop right there, do not pass go? When is it commitment issues and when is it a healthy boundary?

I don’t know. I don’t know when I’ll know, or if anyone knows, for that matter. But then again, every relationship is different, and you’ve never had that exact relationship before, no matter how many partners there have been, no matter how many self-help books you’ve read. Maybe everything is relationship-specific, person-specific, moment-specific. There’s no checklist for codependency, and maybe there shouldn’t be. 

Kathryn Zheng ’24 is from New Jersey. She is majoring in Economics and currently writes for Arts and Life as a columnist under the Culture desk.

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