Codependency was first discovered by professionals working with alcoholics and those suffering from chemical dependency. They found the addicts they were trying to help were not maintaining sobriety or recovering as quickly, in part, because of dynamics in their own families.
Behaviors and symptoms exhibited by their patient’s intimate partners and other family members became a focus of research and were identified as a completely separate disorder that coexisted and exasperated the disease of addiction.
Labeled “Codependency”, the disorder led to new treatment programs designed to complement addiction treatment, allowing professionals to treat the whole family and not just the patient. The following is a concise and thorough definition of Codependency, posted at the Mental Health America website:
“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.” (http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/codependency)
When people feel an excessive need for emotional intimacy, intensity, and closeness, and seek out the role of caretaker, hero, and or rescuer in order to get it, they are considered codependent, especially when they repeatedly seek out abusive or unreliable partners.
Codependency is believed to be the root cause for the attraction to troubled individuals in the first place, as alcoholics and other addicts are often in need of rescue and require enablers to continue in their addiction cycle.
In the chemical dependency model, codependents are understood to be trapped in a cycle of gratification and withdrawal just like alcoholics are. Codependents may seek passionate exchanges with their partners and can experience withdrawal symptoms of desperation and anxiety when their partner pulls away.
Addicts will pull away when they go on “binges”, indulging their drug of choice. Eventually, once the addict has obtained “a fix” or a “high” achieved with drug and alcohol abuse there are consequences to face for their behaviors. This is when the codependent has the opportunity to obtain their own “fix” by rescuing the addict to obtain the sense of closeness they seek and the satisfaction of being needed.
This dynamic between addict and codependent is often described as a dance. The disorder of Codependency leads a person to accept and enable relationships that are deeply one-way but that also harm the other individual as it contributes to their ongoing addiction.
However, there are some who would argue that we ought not go too far with the idea that dependence is just another addiction. Consider this quote from the book Attached, by Amir Levine M.D. and Rachel Heller M.A.:
“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.”
Levine and Heller go even further, suggesting that what seems like an excessive need for attachment can be a matter of evolutionary biology. Codependency is treated by the book as a construct influenced by social norms and an outdated idea of self-reliance.
Having been modeled after an antiquated child-parent bond philosophy that touted a healthy, self-reliant child, no longer supported by research, codependency has given dependency a bad rap, say the authors. Attached boldly declares a “New Science of Adult Attachment,” one that suggests dependency is not an addiction but rather written into our DNA.
Ironically, the ideas promoted in Attached seem to compliment the old scripture in Genesis that says “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is described quite literally by the authors who assert happiness comes from our partners, not from within or by our own means:
“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.”
Attached describes a sort of mutual reactivity of one partner becoming upset on behalf of the other and responding to things experienced by the other as if they were experiencing it themselves, like being unsettled.
But such intermingling of emotions are indeed viewed by codependency experts, and the mental health community in general, as a “lack of boundaries” or “emotional enmeshment” and Attached recognizes there is a problem in over-attachment, referring to it instead as 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.”
Still, instead of promoting emotional independence and “differentiation,” Attached suggests we embrace our inherent need as one that must be met. It seems oxymoronic to suggest that dependence is the key to security, but that is exactly what the book asserts:
“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.”
So the “new science” proposes not that we place our need-fulfillment in the hands of others, but that it already is, while codependency warns us that our need to attach can be learned and influenced by our childhoods and can become addicting. Ironically both thoughts, old and new, offer one similar solution: seek out the right partner, one that meets our needs, in the first place.
While addiction circles label the needy individual as “codependent” and “addict”, and attachment circles, like Levine and Heller, categorize them as biologically “anxious” and “avoidant.” The dance is the same: please-love-me types and go-away types find each other time and time again. In her article, “Overcoming Codependency: Reclaiming Yourself in Relationships”, Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW, states:
“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 other’s needs before their own.”
Attached explains the attraction to those who do not meet our needs in terms of biology, but still recognizes dependency is a difficult thing to depend on:
“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?”
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW, lists self-sabotage, self-defeating thoughts, self-judgments, lack of support, and a fear of rejection, as obstacles to finding love. (see attached picture), while Attached offers new ways of self-identifying, asking readers to consider clashing “attachment styles”.
Full chapters in the book are dedicated to deciphering one’s own style and that of one’s intimate partner. How attachment styles play out in everyday life are explained and readers are taught what can be done to improve relationship skills and resolve conflict.
Attachment Styles listed in the book include: anxious, secure, and avoidant. One cannot escape noticing that they line up with the addiction model of codependent, interdependent, and detached.
Those born with an anxious style of attachment love closeness and intimacy, fear to lose their partners, and desire to be close to them. They read subtle cues in expression and gesture and tend to take things too personally. The Anxious style can get upset too easily, “acting out”, or saying things they regret.
Those with a secure style of attachment are “warm and loving” and comfortable in relationships, enjoying a balance of intimacy and feeling secure. They communicate their needs effectively and are good at reading emotional cues.
Finally, those with avoidant style value independence and autonomy in relationships. They want intimacy but feel uncomfortable if things get too close. These individuals do not open up to partners, and their partners often criticize them for being too detached.
But Levine and Heller seem to suggest in their book that the information they provide is more helpful for relationships in general, while concepts of codependency are still helpful in matters of substance abuse and abuse in relationships. Things to avoid like the kind Terry Gaspard offers her readers is still clearly relevant and just sounds like good old practical advice:
Do you find yourself falling into one or more of these codependent relationship patterns?
- People pleasing: You go above and beyond to make others happy. You might avoid confronting your partner about important issues because you fear rejection or worry more about a partner’s feelings than your own.
- Define your self-worth by others: Do you care too much about what others think of you?
- Ignore red flags: Do you ignore a partner’s dishonesty, possessiveness, or jealous tendencies?
- Give too much in a relationship: You might even ignore your own self-care or feel that you’re being selfish if you take care of yourself.
- Have poor boundaries: This can mean you have trouble saying “no” to the requests of others or allow others to take advantage of you.
- Stay in a relationship with someone who is distant, unavailable, or abusive – even though you know deep down inside that they may never meet your emotional needs.
The benefit to the Attached perspective is that it removes the stigma from problematic patterns relationships seen in otherwise normal couples and offers them a way of looking at relational problems in terms that do not bog them down with lingo and instruction that is largely meant for families with substance abuse.
The information in the book can best prepare those who are looking for love and help them look in all the right places. For those who are already partnered, Attached gives its readers a user-friendly way to look at problems with clashing styles and what can be done about them to make current relationships more satisfying.
Codependency is more complicated and better explains toxic family dynamics in cases of substance abuse, offering a path to breaking free from abusive relationships and the tendency to be in relationships that are damaging to adults and children alike.
Perhaps the best way to go about determining if the codependency path is you is to use available resources to assess possible addiction issues in your family.
Sources available to screen for addiction include the National Center for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence website (https://www.ncadd.org/get-help/take-the-test/am-i-alcoholic-self-test), offering self-screening for both alcohol and drug addiction; the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals website, offering sexual addiction screening and other tests (https://www.recoveryzone.com); among others.
If no signs of addiction issues are present, Attached is a good resource for relationships in general.
“Face-off”, Courtesy of Silvia and Frank, Pixabay.com; CC0 License; “In Love”, Courtesy of Henry Washington, Pixabay.com; CC0 License; “Walking in the Park”, Courtesy of Mabel Amber, Pixabay.com; CC0 License; “Heartsickness”, Courtesy of Tu Anh, Pixabay.com; CC0 License