Emotional Intimacy vs Codependency | Understanding the Difference

Couple Being Intimate

To be honest with you, dear readers, this subject is something that even I struggle with, and I don’t think I’m alone in confusing emotional intimacy vs codependency. Rationally, I know the difference between the two—but when you are enmeshed with another human being, sometimes the lines can blur.

Romantic relationships hinge on emotional intimacy, and when it’s good, it’s great! But sometimes, we can put a foot over the line and cross into codependency territory without even realizing it. That’s why we all need to understand the difference between emotional intimacy and codependency!

Yes, they might seem connected in some way, but they are fundamentally different in how they affect both our romantic partnerships and our own personal growth. Join me as I (hopefully) finally learn how to distinguish the two and how and why each one impacts the dynamics in our love lives in their own way.

emotional intimacy

The Definition of Emotional Intimacy

According to the good ol’ trusty Wikipedia, the definition of emotional intimacy is as follows:

“Emotional intimacy is an aspect of interpersonal relationships that varies in intensity from one relationship to another and varies from one time to another, much like physical intimacy. Emotional intimacy involves a perception of closeness to another, sharing of personal feelings, and personal validation.”

Ok, that’s settled! But what does it actually look like in action? We know it’s the cornerstone of strong, happy, and healthy relationships. It shows a deep emotional connection, and couples can share their feelings, thoughts, and experiences in a safe and loving atmosphere of shared understanding and total trust.

To break it down a little bit, the following are some of the hallmark traits of emotional intimacy:

  • Trust and Safety: This is the first and most important base of emotional intimacy. Partners feel secure and safe in sharing their darkest fears, wants, and vulnerabilities, confident in the knowledge that whatever they reveal, no matter how weird, will be heard. Basically, it’s a zero-judgment zone.
  • Mutual Respect: There’s a super strong element of respecting each other’s emotional needs and boundaries, and this respect creates a healthier space where both parties feel appreciated and heard.
  • Independence and Interdependence: While emotional intimacy involves a very close bond, it also takes into consideration each partner’s independence. This means they support each other’s growth and are okay with having separate identities and interests outside of their relationship.

Understanding Codependency

Standing in stark contrast to emotional intimacy, codependency is most often a byproduct of intense emotional issues, like the fear of abandonment or a deep-seated need for approval. It’s actually a behavioral condition characterized by unhealthy levels of emotional reliance on a romantic partner.

The main characteristics of codependency look like this:

  • Enmeshment: Those trapped in a codependent relationship often struggle to differentiate their own personal emotions and needs from those of their partner. This enmeshment can lead to a loss of one’s personal identity and emotional autonomy.
  • Lack of Boundaries: There’s a tendency to prioritize the partner’s needs over one’s own and to an unhealthy extent. This can turn into one person neglecting or ignoring their own personal needs, wants, and even their emotional or physical well-being.
  • Fear of Abandonment: People in codependent relationships routinely experience overwhelming anxiety and a fear of being abandoned by their romantic partner. This worry can manifest as clinginess, possessiveness, or even going to extreme lengths to keep the relationship going—even if it’s toxic or an unhappy pairing.

intimacy vs codependency

The Main Differences Between Emotional Intimacy vs Codependency

While emotional intimacy and codependency may share some elements, like closeness and a strong emotional connection, their main differences lie in how these elements present and affect personal development.

Emotional intimacy is a balanced and reciprocal exchange of support, promoting individual and joint growth. Codependency, conversely, is usually one-sided, with one partner sacrificing much more, leading to an imbalance that can be emotionally exhausting and harmful to personal development and overall well-being.

psychological perspective

The Psychological Perspective

Psychologically, emotional intimacy and codependency differ in their impact on mental health. Emotional intimacy is associated with positive outcomes like better mental well-being, less stress, and an overall happier existence. But its dangerous counterpart—codependency—can greatly add to damaging emotional states, such as anxiety, low self-esteem, and, sometimes, serious depression.

According to Mental Health America, “Codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.

It is also known as ‘relationship addiction’ because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive. The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. Codependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.”

building relationships

Building Healthy Relationships

Now that you can tell the difference between these terms, you will be better able to build and maintain healthier romantic relationships. We aren’t saying it’s easy—building emotional intimacy takes work! It involves lots of open communication, respect, and pursuing your own outside interests in tandem with the partnership.

Those are things you can work on together, but addressing and overcoming codependency usually requires professional help. If you suffer from it, you’ll need guidance and the building blocks to develop healthier relationship patterns and rebuild your sense of self.


While emotional intimacy reinforces and boosts relationships, codependency can lead to an unhealthy dynamic, which negatively affects your personal emotional health and growth. By recognizing the differences, you can take proactive measures towards making connections that are not only intimate but also unshackle yourself from any unhealthy behaviors.

Knowing the characteristics of codependency is the all-important first step towards change. If you see yourself in any of the things we talked about, you can get help by going to therapy, checking out a self-help group, or even doing some work on yourself with available resources online.

And if you want to work toward better emotional intimacy with your partner, you can work on communication skills, empathy, and keeping a good balance between together time and “me” time.

To wrap it all up in a pretty little bow, the difference between emotional intimacy and codependency is critical as it relates to understanding our romantic ties. By working toward emotional intimacy, we build a foundation for happy and healthy connections that show great regard for each other’s identity and shared growth. In doing so, we improve our relationships and take care of our emotional well-being.

Molly Davis
Molly Davis

Molly is an East Coast writer who lives on West Coast time. She’s been in the journalism field for over 20 years — newspapers are her first love but she’s finding digital media to be just as fun and challenging as print! When she’s not giving therapist-quality dating advice, she’s curled up watching movies, reading, or volunteering at local dog shelters.