Attachment Styles and Codependency: You’ve Never Heard This Before

In codependent relationships, one person usually takes on the role of caretaker while the other becomes more dependent. This term is often used to describe all types of relationships, but what does it actually mean? In this article, we will explore the caretaker and dependent roles in codependency as well as provide two case studies demonstrating how insecure attachment styles can play out in dealings between people.

So let’s dive in!

What is a codependent relationship?

A codependent relationship is one where someone often becomes a caretaker or rescuer and the other person, as a result, becomes dependent.

Without their partner, the caretaker constantly loses their sense of purpose and value. Their thoughts and actions always prioritize the well-being and happiness of their partner above themselves.

As the more functionally competent partner, the caretaker generally cedes to their partner’s dependent and self-destructive behavior, which frequently includes addictive behaviors. The caretaker was usually a parentified youngster in a dysfunctional family that tried to smooth things over so as not to cause a fuss.

The dependent partner is commonly plagued with feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety about failure, self-doubt, guilt, and remorse. This person is the child who absorbed the family’s dysfunction during their childhood and now reproduces it as an adult.

Importantly, BOTH partners are preoccupied with being physically and emotionally close to someone you consider essential for satisfying your needs, and so that your sense of identity and self-worth is saved, whether you’re the rescuer, or the rescuee.

The Rescuer/Caretaker

To help illustrate the role of a caretaker, let’s consider Mary. As a nurse, she takes pride in her profession and has a big heart. When it comes to relationships, Mary often finds herself attracted to people who need rescuing. This creates codependent dynamics where she ends up putting their needs above her own.

Mary feels compelled to earn love and acceptance, so she is attracted to individuals who are “trying” or “edgy,” and who made her work for it. On the other hand, if Mary encountered a partner that lavished her with affection and attention too readily, she found them “boring” or “nice” and doubted their sincerity of affection because they didn’t appear to need her and/or she hadn’t worked hard enough to deserve it.

Mary’s partners in the past tended to take her for granted while refusing to commit long-term, yet also unwilling to let the partnership finish. Mary would then assume the blame for not loving her partners well enough because she thought it was up to her to make them love her better.

But in reality, Mary went through a lot of effort during the relationship not disclose her problems and deepest feelings so that her partners would stay around because she believed this would keep them there.

Mary felt that if she took on all of the blame for the relationship’s failure, it must be in her power to repair it. However, as a result of her “fix it” attitude, which included harsh internal critic, she frequently seemed cold or judgmental to her more sensitive and emotionally expressive partners.

Mary’s lovers would often express to her that they felt emotionally alone in the relationship, which would inevitably lead them to leave her. This only confirmed Mary’s deepest fear: that she was unlovable and unworthy.

The Dependent

John is a cisgender heterosexual male who recognizes the codependent pattern in his present relationship with Jenny. John is frequently outspoken, but people may perceive him as irritable or emotional at times. Jenny would enter conversations to edit his phrases and make them more acceptable for others in the early stages of their connection.

John felt both disgraced and condescended to in that moment, but he also started receiving more social invites and holiday cards. He slowly came to realize that Jenny was usually right, and she had “the gift of gab.” So he became quieter and less vocal in the relationship, silently giving in to Jenny’s methods.

John is a procrastinator, but he performs best under pressure. However, Jenny gets anxious easily, and she absorbs John’s stress as her own. Now John feels guilty for putting Jenny through such turmoil, so he constantly seeks assurance from her that she still loves him.

Additionally, Jenny annoys John by attempting to micro-manage his life and fix everything, so he acts impulsively to spite her by deliberately failing. He believes that if she is going to do everything for him, why bother trying? Still, John has come to rely on Jenny to save the day because deep down he doesn’t trust his own ability to succeed on his own. In the end, John frequently comes across as the bad guy who never learns from his mistakes.

Jenny was confused by his mixed signals. After all, he would ask for help and then get mad at her when she’d try to accommodate him. To Jenny, it seemed as if her good deeds were never rewarded.

If this sounds familiar? I am going to suggest something radical:

What if beneath these roles of a codependent dynamic, Mary and John are actually struggling with the symptoms of insecure attachment styles?

What Are Attachment Styles?

Attachment styles are four distinct patterns or habits of loving, that are usually learned in childhood and extend through adulthood. It’s like a guideline for how much space or closeness we desire in our relationships. Attachment styles are also linked to the survival mechanisms of your brain and nervous system.

Therefore, Mary and John will continue to fall into toxic patterns in love, until they recognize how their attachment styles are motivating their thoughts and behaviors on a subconscious level. This also happens to be why they keep attracting partners that appear to be their opposites but are actually struggling with similar wounds and damaging core beliefs.

Your attachment style influences your ideas about the potential for love in your life, making it simple to anticipate how relationships will repeatedly fail and why, as well as how passionately involved you might become with your partner, even if–or rather, especially if–they mistreat you.

For example…

  • People who want more intimacy with their partner often have anxious attachment; I refer to them as “Open Hearts.”
  • Individuals who want more room are typically avoidant in their attachment; I refer to them as the “Rolling Stones.”
  • People who both crave and fear intimacy are sometimes considered fearful-avoidant or disorganized; I call them “Spice of Lifers.”
  • People who can balance intimacy and independence well are said to be securely attached; I like to call them “Cornerstones.”

So let’s examine our case studies through the framework of attachment styles.

What About Attachment Styles and Codependency?

Though we often think of caretakers as those with anxiously attached open hearts, avoidantly attached Rolling Stones can play that role as well.

There are many who, though they’ll devote their time, resources, and energy to others or marry a lifelong partner, will still withhold emotional intimacy because of fear. They may be apprehensive about seeming weak or being too emotionally vulnerable. Others have never learned an emotional vocabulary and were conditioned early on to remain dismissive of emotions. Mary’s dilemma is reflective of this larger issue.

Many unhappy partners would rather stay together and “settle” than risk being single or divorced, even though they may consistently argue and clash. They usually don’t want their partner to change things about the relationship either, preferring instead to maintain the status quo.

In these situations, we see the attachment system has been activated with survival concerns around maintaining the physical and emotional “proximity” in the relationship, even if the relationship has become a cold and distant one. In other words, keeping their partners “not too close, but not too far away, either–just right where it’s safe and comfortable”. But desiring safety and comfort through a spacious attachment proximity is not necessarily the same thing as a willingness to explore and experience an intimate, expansive, soul-shaking love.

Anxious Rescuers are caretakers who often take on too much responsibility and sacrifice themselves for their partner’s benefit. Good deeds earn admiration and approval, but the endless performance often leads to feeling depressed and anxious, as well as ironically, a deeper feeling of being unseen and unacknowledged.

People who are Avoidant Rescuers or caretakers struggle to remain emotionally present and detach themselves in order to keep things running as they should. While they may have difficulty being emotionally available during good times, they excel in crisis situations. Consequently, these people are often drawn toward others who seemingly always need their help – namely, those who are perpetually in some sort of crisis. For the avoidant caretaker, it is easier to fix a partner than to create an emotional bond with them.

Regarding the dependent partner, in John’s case, he illustrates a fearful-avoidant, or disorganized presentation. On the one hand, he anxiously asks for Jenny to save him–but then resents her when she does because it means he failed to do it for himself and is therefore helpless and powerless.

He is constantly comparing himself to Jenny and finding himself lacking, which means its too threatening to let himself love her. He also despises how much he needs her because from his perspective, she will always have more influence over him than he has over her, and he feels like he vanishes when she’s around. The frustrating thing is that if Jenny attempted to make things easier for John, it would just exacerbate the situation and enable him even more.

Surprisingly, when it comes to insecure pairings like this, if you find the passion in your relationship wearing thin, it may be because one or both partners are becoming too secure and self-reliant. This often occurs when people have similar psychological injuries that they used as a bond early on in the relationship, and once those injuries start to heal, they become confused about what role they are supposed to play, and the chemistry dies.

Final Thoughts

Insecure lovers of every attachment style often conflate their own confused, angry, yearning, and suffering feelings for their partners with true and predestined love, and so they remain in unhealthy, what some might even call “toxic” relationships, hoping one day that it will bear the fruits of its potential.

And it’s true, there is potential there. And it is also true that if you can move beyond defensive attachment triggers, you might in fact be compatible with your partner! But you won’t know the real chance it has until you become aware of how your attachment styles might be unconsciously motivating your perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.

Once you realize the power your attachment system has over almost your every waking thought, feeling, and action, when activated, it’s like a splinter in your mind driving you mad. And you just HAVE to know, which style YOU are. So that you can start to break all those old destructive, codependent relationship habits, and start to experience the kind of fulfilling relationships you’ve always dreamt of. That’s why I have created a suite of online courses and group coaching programs, to help my clients feel more confident and secure in their relationships, which you can learn more about through the link below.

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself in either the caretaker or dependent role in your codependent relationship? Have you been able to move beyond the defensive attachment triggers that keep you stuck in unhealthy patterns? Share your story below in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

Briana MacWilliam is an author, educator, licensed and board-certified creative arts therapist & frequent teacher at AVAIYA

1 Response

  1. Lisa says:

    I’m pretty sure I just divorced a “John” type of man. That dynamic was WAY spot on for our 12 year marriage. I found myself choosing my words carefully when I tried to offer help. I’d reframe things so it would seem like it was his idea, of he landed on a solution. although, most often no solutions were reached. we just went over the same ground again and again with no changes. he resented me and often attacked me for recommending he see a therapist, stating that I was just trying to put him off on someone else because I didn’t care about him. sigh. glad that’s over!

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