Discovering The Root of Codependent Tendencies and How to Change Them
By: Valeria Palacios
I arrived at my first Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) meeting 20 minutes early with no idea what to expect and a tremendous amount of nerves. My fear was big, but my feelings of emptiness and loss of self from not being able to let go of an extremely toxic relationship got me through the waiting. I was surprised to see the room fill up with about 50 people, mostly younger adults, with equal amounts of men and women. The severity of the stories ranged, but the feelings and attributes of codependence were all shared. I did not feel out of place, but rather left the meeting knowing that there is a lack of awareness for what codependency is and who is affected by it. I no longer wanted to be in codependent relationships that drained me, I wanted to build relationships with healthy boundaries. To make this change, I knew an important part of my recovery would be to explore where this dynamic originated. I hope to share my knowledge on the subject to help others who also wish to change.
What is codependency in terms of romantic relationships?
Codependence has been described as a condition that is manifested through a dysfunctional pattern of relating to others. Characteristics of this behavior pattern include extreme dependence and preoccupation with another person, extreme focus outside of the self, lack of open expression of feelings, and a drive to gain a sense of purpose through relationships4. The term codependency arose in the 1980s to describe the family members of substance abusers. A common example of “attempting to gain a sense of purpose through relationships” would be the wife of an alcoholic who endures all the difficulties resulting from her husband’s alcoholism but justifies her situation with the terms “he needs me”. She feels purposeful as her husband’s “fixer”10. A recurrent theme in the literature on codependency is the “loss of self”. The need to maintain a relationship, even an unhealthy one, is so powerful that codependent individuals tend to suppress their feelings, needs, and desires to please their partner4. A codependent person may not want to engage in a disagreement due to their fear of losing or upsetting their partner even if they feel strongly on the subject at hand. This cost of self-expression ultimately leads to identity disturbances4. Codependency has also been characterized as a set of self-defeating, learned behaviors that diminish the capacity to initiate and participate in healthy, loving relationships5. The keyword in such definitions is “learned”. It puts into question where do these codependent tendencies come from?
Where does codependency originate? Exploring the power of attachment style
Because attachment affects how people think, behave, and feel in close relationships, we must explore attachment theory to understand codependency3. Infants turn to their caregivers for support during times of fear, anxiety, or distress. These early experiences help the infant develop an internal representation of a “caregiver”3. Three principal attachment patterns emerge from these early caregiver interactions: secure attachment, insecure attachment (ambivalent or avoidant), and disorganized attachment. Attachment styles in infancy help predict various aspects of social development including the trajectory of adult romantic relationships1. Thus, there is a link between codependency in romantic relationships and in secure attachment styles starting in infancy. Insecure attachment in infancy comes from inconsistent availability from caregivers during times of distress. This type of inconsistent parenting during childhood can create a fixation on keeping people close. Many infants may grow up to worry that their needs can’t or won’t be met consistently. They may be preoccupied with abandonment and have expectations that others won’t be there for them2. By adolescence, these early attachment experiences and feelings towards caregivers are internalized and incorporated into our personalities2. Anxiously attached adults worry excessively about losing their romantic partners, are heavily invested in their relationship, have negative self-views, question their self-worth, and yearn to get closer emotionally to feel more secure5. People in codependent relationships rely on each other not for love and care, but for relief from these feelings of insecurity. It is safe to say that codependent individuals have some degree of anxious attachment as a result of negative early childhood experiences with their caregivers, which is manifested in their adult romantic relationships.
Common Codependent Behaviors5:
● Being a caretaker
● High-stress levels
● Tend to be people-pleasers
● Want to feel needed
● Fear of abandonment
● Dependent on relationships
● Hard time trusting others
Is codependency bad? Tips on breaking the pattern of codependency
Codependent relationships are often unfulfilling and sometimes abusive. Codependent individuals are at a higher risk for other mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression2. Codependency leads to damaging relationships and deprives people of the chance to meet their own needs. Leaving codependent relationships and working on changing codependent tendencies allows you to have relationships that stem from love rather than necessity. Let’s explore some tips on making this change.
Contextualize your codependent tendencies and embrace healthy relationship characteristics you wish to improve (ex: lower your relationship anxiety)9
Acknowledgment is the first step to healing and changing. Acknowledging anxious attachment and wanting to change has proven to decrease codependent tendencies. Research has found that people who acknowledge their wish to become more secure and less anxious in relationships decreased attachment anxiety at a faster rate than people who did not. Having such “change goals” will help you act less anxious and maintaining these change goals over a period of time causes them to become learned and habitual.
Look into Co-Dependents Anonymous Org. (meetings, webinars, etc.) 10
Group therapies are effective for some codependent individuals. These group settings will help you acknowledge your relationship “addictions” while helping you to increase your self-esteem and self-worth. It also gives you a space to build networks and interests outside of your romantic relationship, which helps to build a sense of self. Co-Dependents Anonymous also has other resources such as books, workbooks, and podcasts to help in your recovery.
Practice meditation for anxiety relief within romantic relationships or moments of solitude11
To decrease codependency, work on coping with the symptoms of anxiety which often stem from fears of abandonment, the need for control, fears of loneliness, etc. The practice of meditation, breathwork, and self-affirmation interventions, have all proven to be effective in decreasing anxiety. There are many apps and websites such as Headspace, Calm, and Buddhify that provide free meditation/breathwork exercises. Netflix and YouTube also have a wide range of guided meditations. With lower levels of anxiety, you can assess your fears from a more realistic point of view. This will help you cope with solitude and romantic relationships in a healthier manner.
The good news is that change is possible. Studies have shown that by simply modifying your thoughts and behaviors to align with a desired trait, you can willingly change your attachment styles9. Working on being more secure in relationships has been associated with better functioning and more success in romantic relationships, better mental health (including less depressive and anxious symptoms), better physical health, higher friendship quality, and even better cognitive processes such as memory and attention9. Although it isn’t always easy, overcoming codependency will open the doors for you to engage in more loving relationships not only with a romantic partner, but also with yourself. It is important to be accepting and forgiving towards yourself during this time of healing. Just like I learned during my first CoDA meeting, you are not alone, and people can and do overcome codependence.
1.Cassidy, J., & Berlin, L. J. (1994). The insecure/ambivalent pattern of attachment: Theory and research. Child Development, 65(4), 971. https://doi.org/10.2307/1131298
2.Dagan, O., Groh, A., Madigan, S., & Bernard, K. (2021). A lifespan development theory of insecure attachment and internalizing symptoms: Integrating meta-analytic evidence via a testable evolutionary mis/match hypothesis. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/h3ewf
3.Simpson, J. A., & Rholes, W. S. (2012). Adult attachment orientations, stress, and romantic relationships. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 279–328. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-394286-9.00006-8
4.Cowan, G., Bommersbach, M., & Curtis, S. R. (1995). Codependency, loss of self, and power. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19(2), 221–236.
5.Morgan, J. P. (1991). What is codependency? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 47(5), 720–729.
6.Insecure attachment and abusive intimate relationships. (2012). Adult Attachment and Couple Psychotherapy, 67–85. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203137901-13
7.Eller, J., & Simpson, J. A. (2020). Theoretical boundary conditions of partner buffering in romantic relationships. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(18), 6880. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17186880
8.Chopik, W. J., Edelstein, R. S., & Grimm, K. J. (2019). Longitudinal changes in attachment orientation over a 59-year period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(4), 598–611. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000167
9.Hudson, N. W., Chopik, W. J., & Briley, D. A. (2020). Volitional change in adult attachment: Can people who want to become less anxious and avoidant move closer towards realizing those goals? European Journal of Personality, 34(1), 93–114. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2226
10.Irvine, L. J. (1995). Codependency and recovery: Gender, self, and emotions in popular self-help. Symbolic Interaction, 18(2), 145–163. https://doi.org/10.1525/si.19126.96.36.199
11.La Forge, R. (2016). Mind-body (mindful) exercise in practice. ACSM”S Health & Fitness Journal, 20(4), 6–8. https://doi.org/10.1249/fit.0000000000000212