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Know your attachment style and overcome codependency

A woman leads a man along a forest path by his hand, walking in front of him and pulling him along behind herCodependency is about over-functioning in someone else's life but under-functioning in your own. It involves placing the focus of your life around somebody else and not taking care of your own needs. It may involve a personality type that draws an individual into relationships with others (usually avoidant) who demand love, respect and care but who cannot give the same back. In spite of not receiving love and respect in return, a codependent will stay in that relationship no matter how upset they become. Narcissists are considered to be natural magnets for the codependent.

A codependent is someone who cannot function from their innate self and whose thinking and behaviour is instead organised around another person. They let another’s behaviour affect them, and are obsessed with controlling that individual's behaviour. Active codependency is when there is conscious manipulation and aggression. Passive codependency is when someone has historically operated from a victim (usually a martyr) role.

You may be codependent if you are overly giving, fixing, caretaking, serving and ending up speaking for someone else. Think of what is excessive and unhealthy. Codependent behaviour can involve making someone’s decisions for them. We might think we are helping someone else but actually, we are not. We are limiting another person's growth when we are over-involved in their life. Also, under-involvement in our own life can mean we are self-neglecting, failing to consider our best interests in decisions and witnessing the development of secondary issues such as anxiety and depression.

We embrace or avoid emotional intimacy with others along a continuum, but often there is one of the following three adult attachment styles predominating when dating or when in a long term relationship or marriage.

Secure attachment 

In this style there is an abundance of love and warmth. They most likely benefitted from a 'secure base' when growing up and they easily accept another’s shortcomings. They are not seeking perfection in another. There is no manipulation in the relationship. Because they have high levels of self-esteem they can deal with criticism from others in a healthy and mature way. Rather than becoming defensive in potential areas of conflict they can more easily de-escalate tensions by learning to compromise. This could mean, in practice, that they are more likely to apologise, forgive or problem solve in order to keep relations intact.

Securely attached individuals can still experience anxiety (such as when a partner or child is unexpectedly missing from home, for example) and this should not be confused with being codependent. 

Anxious attachment 

Anxiously (preoccupied) attached individuals can be hypervigilant for signs of distance in their partner. In order to be close and intimate, they are more likely to place the needs of their partner ahead of their own (but because they don’t get their needs met, they typically end up being unhappy). They tend to take things personally. There is a form of catastrophising where they routinely predict negative outcomes about things in the future. To help deal with the anxiety there may be game playing and manipulation, such as not returning calls or provoking jealousy.   

Anxious attachment derives from some form of developmental rupture in early life. There was likely to have been some form of damage to the 'secure base' such as abuse, alcoholism, violence, abandonment or a traumatic event.

Avoidant attachment 

Independence and freedom are more important than a feeling of intimacy. Avoidant attached types (either fearful or dismissive) can be hypervigilant for signs that their partner is seeking to control them in some way. They are not comfortable sharing feelings. Once committed, they may focus on their partner’s minor flaws or fantasise about an idealised relationship. This is done to create mental distance with ongoing dissatisfaction about their relationship.

It is important to realise where we are ourselves along the continuum.  We might feel we are by and large securely attached but may experience anxious attachment when triggered by certain people or behave in a more avoidant way with others.

Seeking help

Seeing a therapist can help bring insight and awareness to your way of operating in the world. Recognising your attachment pattern can help you to better understand your strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship. For the therapy to be effective the process can provide a form of secure attachment to allow you to grow and become more autonomous, not less. Transforming your attachment style and healing from the pain of codependency are similar paths and they typically entail the following tasks/outcomes:

  • Finding out your attachment style and learning about the options for change. You can achieve an 'earned secure attachment' by healing past wounding and experiencing healthy reparative relationships.
  • Learning to be assertive in expressing emotional needs and setting healthy boundaries. This involves not bottling up your frustrations but expressing any irritations in a civil way (and avoiding the risk of becoming overly assertive and coming across as a bully).
  • Boosting self-esteem and healing shame. This will help to avoid the temptation of taking things personally.
  • Avoiding the victim role and taking personal responsibility for own decisions.
  • Challenging your defences and learning to trust more, for more positive outcomes.
  • Accepting yourself and seeing others as humans with faults.
  • Refraining from reacting in an automatic way. This involves raising your awareness of your triggers, boosting self-nurturing and learning to self-soothe in a healthy way.
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Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited clinical psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.… Read more

Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

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