Understanding the origin of codependency, it’s long-term effects and available treatment options

By Alisha Barnes, M.S.


What Is Codependency

 Codependency is the reliance on another person for reassurance, validation and security. A codependent person may present with difficulties making independent decisions, struggle with self-esteem outside of the context of the relationship and a value system that is heavily concerned with the thoughts and opinions of others. While a healthy relationship incorporates the input of both parties, a codependent relationship heavily caters towards one party more than another. Codependency can present itself in various contexts, but universally consists of one individual thriving on needing to be needed, assuming a “giver-rescuer role,” while the other individual comes to rely heavily upon the support of the giving individual and adopts the “taker-victim role.” Although this may appear within romantic relationships, codependency is just as commonly found in platonic relationships and may even be the product of a parent-child dynamic. It is unlikely that an individual is born with a codependent personality; rather, it is developed based upon interactions with primary individuals in the persons’ life. Thus, early childhood attachment is critical in developing healthy relationships with appropriate boundaries.  Attachment theory addresses the importance of a bond between an infant and caregiver and how this attachment influences the child’s behavior and emotions into adulthood.


Attachment Theory

There are four different theories of attachment, including secure-autonomous, avoidant-dismissing, anxious-preoccupied and disorganized-unresolved.  Each attachment style differs in how the individual communicates their needs in a relationship, as well as how they listen and understand the emotional needs of the other person.


Secure-Autonomous Attachment

The child who forms a secure-autonomous attachment is likely to have been raised in a household where their caregivers were in-tune with the child’s needs, sensitive in the ways in which they responded to these needs and further encouraged the child to express their concerns in a healthy manner. This child enters into adulthood able to communicate their needs, willing to address conflict as it arises and able to respect space within the relationship. This individual is unafraid of rejection, as they have experienced a sense of independence that has previously been respected, without creating a challenge to the relationship itself.


Avoidant-Dismissing Attachment

The child who forms an avoidant-dismissive attachment is likely to have been raised by disengaged caregivers. This child develops into an adult who is logical in nature and therefore, responds well in a crisis, but avoids the communication of emotional needs. This individual tends to perceive relationships as interfering with autonomy and infringing upon independence.

Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment

The adult who presents with an anxious-preoccupied attachment most closely resembles the characteristics seen in the codependent personality. This child was likely raised by caregivers who were inconsistent in their parenting style, who may have been unpredictable and whom often either misunderstood or were unable to meet the needs of the child. This child often develops into an adult whom fears abandonment, rejection and remains anxious of these possibilities within the context of the relationship. The issues of the past tend to intrude upon current relationships, leading the anxious-preoccupied adult to seek reassurance, exhibit needy or clingy behavior and present with poor personal boundaries.

Disorganized-Unresolved Attachment

The child who forms a disorganized-unresolved attachment are likely to have experienced significant losses or traumatic experiences in childhood that were poorly tended to by presenting caregivers. As adults, these individuals tend to present with difficulty regulating emotions, a tendency to engage in dysfunctional relationships and an unconscious pattern of recreating past traumatic experiences.

Attachment styles tend to be passed down from one generation to the next, as individuals tend to parent in the manner in which they themselves were parented. While the above-mentioned attachment styles offer insight into how our emotional connections in adulthood are impacted by childhood, this is not an exact correlation. Ultimately, how emotions are managed is more important than the circumstances that led to the presence of said emotion.


The Role Of Boundaries In Relationships

While the knowledge of attachment theory is crucial in understanding the origin of codependent behavior, of equal importance is the role of boundary setting throughout all phases of life. Healthy boundaries serve to determine acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in a relationship. They further identify ones emotional needs, desires, and value system, while establishing limits. Implementing healthy boundaries requires that an individual be open and honest in communicating who they are and what they want, with healthy boundaries being best derived from a firm sense of self.  While boundaries can be influenced upon ones upbringing, they are further developed over the course of friendships, romantic relationships and other interpersonal experiences. An individual’s sense of boundaries may expand over the course of these experiences, as the person grows to better understand who they are and what they are seeking through various relationships. In contrast, unhealthy boundaries involve a disregard from ones own emotional needs and limits.  The development of unhealthy boundaries may result from poor self-esteem, uncertainty regarding ones needs and a desire to please others. Part of building healthy and stable relationships is through the use of healthy boundaries, with codependent behavior often being further exacerbated through a lack of healthy boundaries.

So can someone be addicted to another person? In short, yes. Codependency often serves to distract from inner pain or emptiness, that may or may not have been experienced through childhood, but is almost always further exacerbated through unhealthy relationships in adulthood. As a result, codependency only continues to grow and intensify, as the behavior does not address the underlying cause for the emptiness. Instead, the codependent individual attempts to fill this void through having emotional needs met through human relationships and interactions, as opposed to working towards evolving on their understanding of their emotional needs and becoming better able to meet these needs through communicating in a clear and healthy manner.


Addressing Codependency In Treatment

Similar to issues experienced through substance abuse, treatment exists for the codependent individual.  As addiction commonly presents as a family disease, family therapy is currently one of the leading treatment recommendations to address codependent behavior. This allows for unhealthy patterns of behavior to be explored as a whole, with the family working to break dysfunctional behavior and to learn new methods of coping and interacting. Treatment further involves processing and resolving past interactions that may have further exacerbated the behavior, while developing a better sense of the importance of boundaries.