Attachment is one framework for considering the way we relate to each other. Another is patterns of dependency in relationships. Insecure attachment styles can appear in stronger forms as elements of counter-dependency and co-dependency.
Counter-dependency refers to the fear of depending on other people. If you are counter-dependent, you will go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. You may have a great fear of feeling, or appearing to feel, in need, and find it exhausting to meet the needs of others. You can see the connection to avoidant attachment!
Co-dependency, the other side of the coin, is characterized by a person belonging to a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person expends all of their energy other meeting the emotional and self-esteem needs of the other. It also describes a relationship that enables another person to maintain their irresponsible, addictive, or underachieving behavior. Characteristics of codependents include low self-esteem, people pleasing, care taking and poor boundaries.
Healthy relationships, over time, have an equal balance of give and take in terms of fulfilling needs, rather than favouring the needs of one partner. Codependent relationships are built around an imbalance of power that favour the needs of the taker, leaving the giver to keep on giving. This is an imbalanced relationship pattern where one partner assumes a high-cost ‘giver-rescuer’ (codependent) role and the other the ‘taker-victim’ (counter-dependent) role.
A partner’s emotional dependence on one another is a normal human need, and therefore should not be shamed. A 2006 MRI study by James Coan that demonstrated how partners can regulate each other’s psychological and emotional well-being. Codependent partners live through or for each other, while ignoring their own needs and wants, thus leading to resentment and other emotional distress. Secure functioning relationships, on the other hand, are based in true mutuality, which allows both partners’ needs and wants to be honored.
What is counter-dependency?
People with counter-dependency can appear strong, self-confident and successful, but inside feel weak, fearful and needy. They frequently have poor relationship skills, are afraid to get close to others, and avoid intimate situations. They are also well defended against anyone seeing their weaknesses and vulnerability. They keep very busy trying to show everyone they are ok and they do not need anything from anyone. They control and restrict the amount of love, intimacy and closeness they can receive, creating feelings of loneliness, alienation, and quiet desperation. They attempt to hide normal fears and anxieties from others, feel unable to express feelings, have a lack of trust in the motives of others, attempt to always look good and be right, find it difficult to relax and need to be constantly engaged, prefer to work alone and not ask for help, fear being smothered by others and have little awareness for their needs or feelings, and tend to sexualise nurturing touch.
So even though those with avoidant attachment patterns view themselves as independent, they may actually tend towards codependent relationships if they rely on taking without balanced returning, or conversely if they fear they sometimes give too much and feel responsible for the actions of others, requiring approval for their self-worth.
As avoidants/counter-dependents, when we demonstrate our own counter-dependency and resist engaging with emotions to show we can hold our partner's needs and desires, we actually suggest those needs are not innately valid and so encourage co-dependent actions. Partners may try to retain their worth by self-sacrificing, getting our and others approval, fulfilling a saviour function by fixing things for us, and resisting expressing their true feelings. This then encourages more counter-dependent behaviour in us.
What is codependency?
Someone who always puts the other first in relationships, at the expense of our own health or well-being, we may be codependent. Codependency is an emotional and psychological state in which one is excessively preoccupied with taking care of another person at the expense of one’s own needs. The giver may find themselves in an intimate relationship with a person who has addiction issues that cause them to be emotionally unavailable, positioning themselves in the 'saviour' role. Their partner or they themselves may be workaholics or develop some other compulsive behaviour to avoid looking within and dealing with emotions.
Those assuming these roles, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuate the taker’s addiction-driven (mis)behaviour, by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behaviour. The subconscious hope is that the other person will see all the sacrifices we give and be inspired to change. Ultimately we believe that if we just hang in there and give our love, understanding, and support, we will finally get the love that we desired from our parents. This thinking is destructive if we do not have healthy boundaries that protect us from physical or emotional harm and signal to our partner that their abusive or neglectful behaviour is not acceptable.
The codependent’s excessive focus on caretaking does not only occur with his or her primary partner; it can apply to work relationships, friendships, and relationships with extended family. People with codependency have a hard time leaving relationships that are abusive or depriving, tend to stay in jobs that are stressful, and are prone to ignoring their medical needs. Because of their high tolerance for denying their own needs, they tend to wait until they have experienced serious consequences before seeking a path of recovery. Internally, codependents tend to struggle with thoughts of not feeling good enough, excessive worry about what other people think of them, constant waiting for disaster or the other shoe to drop. They may perceive neutral or even positive situations as negative.
Where do they come from?
"One fairly common denominator was having a relationship, personally or professionally, with troubled, needy or dependent people. But a second, more common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace for relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems; open expression of feelings; direct, honest communication; realistic expectations such as being human, vulnerable or imperfect; selfishness; trust in other people and one's self; playing and having fun; and rocking the delicately balanced family canoe through growth or change - however healthy and beneficial that movement might be."
- Melody Beattie, Codependent No More
Strong codependency is a learned behaviour. If our mother or father had a problem with boundaries, was always the martyr, could never say ‘no’ to people, and had unhealthy ways to communicate, we most likely learned these behaviours and brought them into our intimate relationships. Children who grow up with emotionally unavailable parents also are at risk for being codependent. They often find themselves in relationships where their partner is emotionally unavailable, yet they stay in the hopes that they can change the person. No matter what happens, they won’t stop hoping that one day things will be good.
Some relationships (such as with addicts) are very codependent, while others can slip into aspects of codependency. Avoiding codependence does not mean not leaning on each other or being able to be the stronger support at different times, which is vital in relationships. But just as codependency and counter-dependency are learned behaviours, they can be unlearned, and the relationship made healthier.
How does dependency map onto attachment?
Codependency/enabling and counter-dependency were more traditionally used to refer to the dynamic between a partner with an addiction and the codependent who “loves him/her to death” through enabling.
However, in more stable relationships one partner displaying an avoidant attachment style can influence the other partner to feel tremendous anxiety and want to cling to her/his partner, and appear as codependent. In the couples therapy field, attachment theorists offer us a unique perspective on codependency that doesn’t blame or shame the partner being labeled codependent by explaining that the codependent is behaving in a normal way to an abnormal situation, which is his/her partner disconnecting from the relationship (sometimes to connect with something else such as an addictive substance or behaviour). This distancing from the codependent’s partner will likely propel the codependent to take extreme measures in an attempt to reconnect with his/her loved one because it has been found in research that adults, similar to children, experience “primal panic” when they cannot emotionally reach their loved one and/or their loved one stops emotionally responding to them. Likewise, someone behaving in a very codependent, self-sacrificing way can encourage counter-dependent behaviour. It's a self-reinforcing cycle. People with low self-esteem may also swap between taking on codependent and counter-dependent roles.