The term “codependency” describes a condition that was first identified in the context of alcoholism and chemical dependency. The family dynamics of alcoholics were actually playing a role in preventing them from becoming or staying sober.
Researchers began to study the spouses or intimate partners and members of the alcoholics’ families and identified a distinct disorder that exists alongside of addiction and makes it worse.
This disorder was labeled codependency. Discovering and defining codependency has led to the creation of treatment programs that work alongside addiction treatment. Professionals assess and treat family dynamics as well as the person struggling with addiction. Mental Health America defines codependency this way:
“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.”
A codependent person has an unusually high desire for emotional intimacy. To fulfill this desire, they play the part of caregiver or rescuer. They often find themselves in relationships with unreliable or abusive partners.
When a person is repeatedly attracted to unstable partners, this is a red flag for codependency. People who struggle with alcoholism or other forms of addiction are in dire need of help and rescuing. From an unhealthy perspective, they need a partner who will enable their addiction.
The addiction model describes the process of gratification followed by a withdrawal that addicts experience. The concept of codependency explains how codependents are also trapped in this cycle. They want to be passionately engaged with their partners, and if their partner creates distance, the codependent can go through withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and desperation.
What causes the alcoholic to create distance? It’s when their cycle reaches the binge phase of self-indulgence in their chosen substance. Once they’ve achieved their fix or high, they inevitably face the consequences. At this point, the codependent can seek his or her own “fix,” achieving a sense of intimacy and being needed by “helping” the alcoholic and saving them from the consequences.
Outside of the cycle description, this dynamic has also been compared to a dance between the addict and the codependent. The codependent accepts a one-way relationship, but it doesn’t only hurt them. It also hurts the addict and contributes to the addiction taking a stronger hold in their life.
Not all experts agree that codependency should be called an addiction. Amir Levine, M.D., and Rachel Heller, M.A., in their book Attached, describe it this way:
“While the teachings of the codependency movement remain immensely helpful in dealing with family members who suffer from substance abuse (as was the initial intention), they can be misleading and even damaging when applied indiscriminately to all relationships.”
According to Levine and Heller, a seemingly excessive attachment need can be rooted in evolutionary biology. Their book describes codependency as a social construct based on a cultural norm of independence and self-reliance.
Research no longer supports the idea that healthy parent-child bonding requires complete self-reliance on the part of the child. Levine and Heller claim that codependency concepts, applied indiscriminately to non-addictive relationships, make even healthy dependency patterns seem questionable.
Attached posits a theory called “New Science of Adult Attachment,” suggesting that dependency is based on our DNA, not on addiction.
Christians may relate the theory of healthy dependency to the book of Genesis, which says, “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Levine and Heller claim that we actually do receive happiness from our partners, not just from within ourselves:
“Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.
The emphasis on differentiation that is held by most of today’s popular psychology approaches to adult relationships does not hold water from a biological perspective. Dependency is a fact: it is not a choice or a preference.”
In Attached, the concept of “mutual reactivity” is described as an example of normal dependency. Partners become upset on each other’s behalf and respond to each other’s emotions and experiences like they are their own. But this description of mutual reactivity is viewed as a lack of boundaries or emotional enmeshment by codependency experts and the mental health community.
Attached does acknowledge the possibility of over-attachment, which the authors call an “activated attachment system.”
“Remember, an activated attachment system is not passionate love. Next time you date someone and find yourself feeling anxious, insecure, and obsessive – only to feel elated every once in a while – tell yourself this is most likely an activated attachment system and not love! True love, in the evolutionary sense, means peace of mind. ‘Still waters run deep’ is a good way of characterizing it.”
Attached proposes a more balanced approach than the common mental health emphasis on differentiation and emotional independence. Instead, the authors say we should acknowledge that we have an inherent need for attachment and dependence on our partners, and when this need is met, we will feel secure.
“Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs. When their emotional needs are met, and the earlier the better, they usually turn their attention outward. This is sometimes referred to in attachment literature as the ‘dependency paradox’: the more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become.”
This newer approach suggests that we simply recognize that looking to others to fulfill our needs is natural human behavior. Meanwhile, the concept of codependency sounds the warning that our attachment needs could be based on harmful patterns learned in childhood and that they may become addictive.
In both theories, the solution is similar: seek out the right partner, one that is emotionally available and willing to meet your needs.
Levine and Heller describe a needy person differently than an addiction expert might. In addiction circles, the needy party will be called a codependent or an addict. But those who speak in terms of attachment, such as Levine and Heller, would instead use words like anxious or avoidant.
Either way, the dance between the needy person and their partner looks the same. The person who says, “Love me, please!” and the person who says, “Go away” are often attracted to one another and end up in relationships.
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW, has written an article called “Overcoming Codependency: Reclaiming Yourself in Relationships.” She says:
“Many people stay in self-defeating relationships too long because they are fearful of being alone or feel responsible for their partner’s happiness. They may say they want out – but they end up staying. Others may leave but repeat the same or a similar self-destructive pattern in a new relationship.
The adrenaline rush that they experience when they feel passionate toward someone can be addictive. For many people, the reason behind excessive emotional reliance on a partner is codependency – a tendency to put others’ needs before their own.”
The authors of Attached say that this neediness is rooted in biology, but that doesn’t mean recognizing its legitimacy will solve all our problems:
“The question is what happens when the person we rely on most–and in fact depend on emotionally and physically–doesn’t fulfill his or her attachment role?
After all, our brain assigns our partner the task of being our secure base, the person we use as an emotional anchor and a safe haven, the one we turn to in time of need. We are programmed to seek their emotional availability. But what if they aren’t consistently available?”
Gaspard lists several obstacles to finding true love, including self-defeating thoughts, self-sabotage, fear of rejection, self-judgments, and a lack of support. Levine and Heller offer explanations of different attachment styles to help people navigate competing needs in their relationships.
They devote several chapters to explaining the nuances of the different styles and how you can identify which one describes you and which describes your partner. They also give examples of how different types of attachment look in real life, along with solutions for improving your relationship and resolving conflict.
So what are the attachment styles Levine and Heller have identified? There are three: anxious, secure, and avoidant. (You may recognize that these are similar to the addiction model of codependent, interdependent, and detached.)
If you have an anxious attachment style…
You will place a high value on being close and intimate with your partner. You will fear to lose your partner. You will be attuned to the subtleties in your partner’s nonverbal communication, and you may take everything personally. This style can be overly sensitive, prone to getting upset and saying things they’ll regret.
If you have a secure attachment style…
You’ll be a loving partner who feels comfortable and secure in your relationship, balancing your sense of freedom with a healthy level of intimacy. You will also be good at communicating what you need and reading your partner’s emotional cues.
If you have an avoidant attachment style…
You will place a high value on your autonomy and independence. This doesn’t mean you won’t desire intimacy, but too much might make you feel uncomfortable. Your partner might often complain that you seem detached or don’t open up enough.
Levine and Heller suggest that the concept of codependency is more useful in relationships characterized by substance abuse, while their theory of attachment styles is better for non-addictive relationships.
Considering both theories can offer us a helpful balance and suggest relationship patterns to avoid, such as those described by Gaspard. Can you identify any of these patterns in your relationship?
- Poor boundaries. Do you have trouble saying “no” to requests? Do you let others take advantage of you?
- Ignoring red flags. Are you unwilling to confront major problems such as dishonesty, jealousy, or destructive habits?
- People-pleasing. Do you overachieve just to make other people happy or win their approval? Are you afraid to bring up problems because you don’t want your partner to reject you?
- Staying in a destructive relationship. Have you been abused or neglected in your relationship and felt like you couldn’t leave?
- Giving too much. Are you in a one-sided relationship? Do you neglect self-care? Do you think that taking time for yourself is inherently selfish?
- Defining your self-worth by what others think of you. Are you so focused on other people’s opinions that you don’t value your own opinion of yourself?
The theories in Attached are helpful ways to describe problematic relationship patterns in otherwise healthy couples. This avoids the stigma surrounding codependency and concepts that are intended to address issues related to substance abuse.
If you are not yet in a relationship, you can benefit from reading Attached and understanding how to find a partner who is willing to meet your emotional needs. If you are already married, Attached can help you identify the attachment styles in your relationship and how to overcome problems to have a more fulfilling connection.
Where family dynamics are extremely toxic or affected by substance abuse, the concept of codependency offers a road to freedom from destructive relationship patterns that affect both children and adults.
If you feel that there are attachment or codependency issues in your relationship, it may be helpful to make use of tools to assess any addiction problems in your family, such as:
- The alcoholism/drug addiction self-test at the National Center for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
- The sexual addiction screening or other tests at the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals
Once the presence of addiction has been ruled out, Attached can be a helpful resource for understanding and growth of relationships.
“Face-off”, Courtesy of Silvia and Frank, Pixabay.com; CC0 License; “Hold My Hand,” courtesy of Ezra Jeffery, magdeleine.co, CC0 Public Domain License; “Lean on me,” courtesy of Rosie Ann, peels.com, CC0 License; “Green spaces,” courtesy of jean_mingmo, Flickr Creative Commons, CC0 License