All of us learned how to form attachments to friends, family, and loved ones growing up — but not all of us learned equally healthy ways of relating to people.
The family systems we grew up in demonstrated to us how to form bonds.
While some people learned how to have healthy attachments to people in our lives, others learned codependency based on how they were treated and cared for or neglected. This is what psychologists refer to as attachment theory.
If caregivers were absent, dismissed your emotions, or taught you that you needed to act a specific way to earn love and approval, there’s a good chance you may be codependent in your relationships.
“Children who grow up to be codependent tend to grow up in families where they did get a certain amount of good loving contact: hugging, kissing, rocking, and holding from a parent. However, at other times, the parent was not emotionally available to them,” Gabrielle Usatynski, MA, LPC, a psychotherapist, explains.
“In other words, the child would feel emotionally abandoned by the parent at times. This naturally produces a lot of anxiety around a fear of abandonment when this child becomes an adult.”
Therefore, codependent people learn to put the needs of others ahead of their own and will sacrifice their needs and principles in order to maintain relationships.
People who are codependent feel a strong pull toward validation and self-worth from others.
Therapists who spoke to Healthline agree that the best kind of relationship to aim for is interdependency, which is where both partners value the emotional bond and benefits of the relationship but can maintain a separate sense of self and personal happiness.
Simply learning how to be more independent is not as simple as deciding to change the kinds of relationships you have.
Codependency can be hinged on attachment trauma. This can lead a person to question if they’re loved and worthy, if others are and can be available and responsive to them, and if the world is safe for them.
These emotions are being triggered even more than usual right now because of the pandemic, according to Usatynski.
“Using your partner as a way to have an identity is an unhealthy form of dependency,” Judy Ho, PhD, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, tells Healthline. “If your partner is thriving, so are you. If your partner fails, then you do too.”
She explains further, “You do everything to try to keep your partner happy. You keep saving them from self-destructive acts or clean up all their messes to try to get them to stay in the relationship.”
This self-sacrificing nature is typical of codependency and can lead to significant relational issues.
“You are so afraid of losing your partner that you would put up with terrible, even abusive, behaviors from them just to keep them in your life,” Ho explains.
That’s where attachment trauma comes in. Here’s how it may be showing up for you:
Experiencing codependency and unhealthy attachment styles doesn’t mean you’re a lost cause.
You actually can unlearn these patterns. It starts with building your self-concept outside of and apart from others. For some of us (especially those with dismissive-avoidant traits), this also means detangling our sense of self-worth from our careers, too.
To be able to have healthy, mutually loving relationships, we need to be able to put the parts of our brain seeking safety at ease by cultivating that security within ourselves, rather than externally.
“Doing self-reflection and getting to know yourself better by developing hobbies and doing things independently is really helpful for that,” says Ho.
Once you know yourself better, you can learn to be present with yourself and to trust yourself to nurture and take care of your own needs.
So what does a secure attachment style end up looking like?
According to Usatynski, one of the hallmarks of secure attachment is an “intact signal response system.” This means that Partner A can signal a need that they have and Partner B will respond to that need in both a timely manner, without feeling they’re “owed” something in return.
For the relationship to be secure, or to become securely attached, that response system needs to be mutual.
Codependence, on the other hand, operates in a unidirectional way, with the codependent partner meeting the needs of their partner, without this being reciprocated.
That in and of itself can create further attachment trauma, which is why it’s critical that partners work to address their own attachment histories.Questions to explore attachment trauma
Attachment trauma can be a deep wound that, if you’ve carried it with you throughout life, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, Ho explains. How can you begin to heal it?
Going back to your younger years and rewriting your “abandonment story” can help you heal from attachment wounds, including codependency. “Visualize your inner child being healed, cared for, and loved, as a start,” says Ho.
No matter your attachment traumas, the underlying fear is that people won’t be able to tend to your needs consistently and regularly — sometimes it may even feel as though you simply need (or are) too much.
This is why the most important work you can do first is actually with yourself, to unlearn thoughts and feelings that are harming you.
Despite your past experiences, it’s possible to have relationships in which everyone’s needs are prioritized and reciprocated — and this is exactly what you deserve and deserved all along.
By approaching your trauma rather than turning away from it, you can begin to build relationships with people that are mutually healthy, respectful, and caring.
Elly is a New York-based writer, journalist, and poet dedicated to community and justice. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here or follow her on Twitter.