Navigating the Challenges of Codependency and Avoidant Attachment

Attachment theory helps us understand how our early experiences in childhood impact our relationships, including romantic ones. Those with an avoidant attachment style tend to keep their emotions at bay and have trouble developing meaningful connections, whereas those with a codependent tendency put their partner’s needs before their own, often leading to an unequal dynamic in the relationship.

This blog post will discuss the ways in which avoidant attachment can appear in codependent relationships and offer advice on how to deal with these issues.

After reading this article you will…

  • Have a deeper understanding of how avoidant attachment and codependency are related in relationships.
  • Feel capable with practical tips to help you navigate the challenges of avoidant attachment in codependent relationships.
  • Feel self-assured in your capacity to create positive relationship patterns and give importance to your emotional health.

So let’s dive in!

What is Avoidant Attachment?

People who have an avoidant attachment style usually come across as distant and self-reliant when it comes to emotional matters. This attachment style is generally formed during childhood as a way to cope with inconsistent care from a caregiver. A child who receives care sporadically may learn to suppress their emotions and distance themselves from others as a way of avoiding the hurt of being rejected.

Individuals with an avoidant attachment style may experience difficulties in developing close bonds with their partners in adult relationships. This may be attributed to their tendency to avoid emotional intimacy and rely more on themselves to fulfill their emotional needs. They may feel uneasy about displaying affection, including physical touch and verbal expressions of love.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is when someone in a relationship puts their partner’s needs before their own, leading to a dysfunctional dynamic. People who are codependent often have low self-esteem and rely on their partner for validation and meaning. They may have difficulties setting boundaries and assume responsibility for their partner’s emotional state.

In codependent relationships, there is often an unequal distribution of power, with one person exerting more control than the other. This type of relationship is characterized by a pattern where one partner takes on a “caretaker” role, while the other partner is more “dependent.” The caretaker tends to see themselves as a “rescuer,” while the dependent often feels and acts as though they are less competent or reliable.

The Caretaker’s Role in Codependency:

There are two types of caretakers, which I will categorize in a very rudimentary way: those who are “nice” and those who are “mean.”

The first type of caretaker is the “nice” one. While they may seem friendly and caring, they may have a hidden desire for control and a belief that their partner needs them. This can lead to them discouraging their partner’s efforts to be independent, such as saying “Let me do it for you, you’ll never be able to do it yourself.” This behavior shows that they want their partner to continue relying on them, out of a fear of losing their sense of purpose if their partner becomes too independent.

Alternatively, a caretaker who is more narcissistic and dismissive of their partner’s feelings may take on a “mean” role. This type of caretaker may overtly bully their dependent partner, using their resources to invalidate their partner’s agency and affirm their own power and sense of security. This behavior is also a way to maintain a close attachment to their partner. The observed behavior may be an example of gaslighting, where one partner tries to make the other question their own feelings and perceptions in order to keep them confused and lacking in trust in themselves.

The Dependent’s Role in Codependency:

There are two ways that a dependent partner can present themselves, as well. One type is known as the “well-behaved” dependent partner. This person is friendly and agreeable, and they will do whatever their partner wants. They do this because they want to earn love and avoid being abandoned. They tend to conform to their partner’s wishes and may have trouble understanding their own identity outside of the relationship.

Alternatively, there is the dependent partner who may exhibit problematic behavior. Despite appearing confident and conceited, this individual struggles with self-assurance and has a tendency to harbor negative feelings toward their reliance on their partner. As a result, they may direct their frustrations toward their partner by using tactics such as passive aggression, sudden outbursts, unnecessary competition, or emotional detachment without clarification.

They may seek attention by behaving destructively, such as being unfaithful in a sexual manner, overspending jointly shared finances, or ruining a holiday gathering, and then ask the caregiver to pardon or justify their actions.

The situation can become unhealthy if either or both individuals feel compelled to remain in the relationship, even if it feels toxic.

How Does Avoidant Attachment Show Up in Codependent Relationships?

In a codependent relationship, an avoidant partner may take on different roles that create emotional distance between themselves and their partner, preventing them from feeling secure and being able to clearly express their needs and boundaries as an individual.

The caretaker who appears to be nice may actually be rescuing their partner to avoid shedding light on their own emotional struggles. By constantly dealing with their partner’s crisis, they can avoid dealing with their own problems and maintain a more distant and powerful role. However, this may leave the dependent partner feeling isolated and lonely, despite their partner’s efforts to fix everything for them.

The caretaker who is being mean may be blaming all their issues on the dependent in order to avoid their own shame and portray themselves as a victim. However, if they were without their partner, they would have to face their feelings on their own. For the dependent, being constantly blamed or mistreated by someone they rely on makes it hard to feel secure and emotionally close to them.

Individuals who are considered “well-behaved” dependents are commonly accused of neglecting their own needs and desires due to their internal disorientation and inadequate self-definition. This suggests that there is a discrepancy between their perception of themselves and their genuine emotions, wants, and beliefs in accordance with their personal values. An avoidant person may adopt a role of constant people-pleasing that involves sacrificing their own needs and emotions to prioritize others, which ultimately renders them emotionally unavailable.

If a dependent partner is labeled as “misbehaving,” their low self-esteem and resentment may cause them to feel like they must compete constantly to earn love and respect. This is a losing battle that may push them to use short-term solutions like drugs or alcohol to ease their emotional pain and avoid it. This can lead to destructive behavior and a disregard for how their actions may affect others.

How to Navigate Avoidant Attachment in Codependent Relationships:

Although it can be difficult to deal with avoidant attachment in codependent relationships, there are ways to address these issues and establish a healthier dynamic in the relationship.Here are some tips:

Notice Repeating Cycles of Behavior.

To start addressing avoidant attachment in codependent relationships, it’s important to identify the behavior patterns that are causing the power imbalance. This could involve reflecting on the dynamics of the relationship and asking for input from a therapist or trusted friend.

Communicate is Key:

In codependent relationships, it’s crucial to prioritize clear communication, as one partner might struggle to speak up about their needs or issues. Open and honest communication is vital, as well as actively listening to each other’s viewpoints.

Clarify Boundaries:

It is important to establish healthy boundaries in order to deal with codependency and prevent any power imbalances that may result from avoidant attachment. Clear boundaries should be set by both partners regarding their emotional and physical needs, as well as their expectations for the relationship.

Find A Counselor:

Working with a therapist or counselor can be incredibly helpful for navigating the challenges of avoidant attachment in codependent relationships. A therapist can provide guidance and support for establishing healthier relationship dynamics, as well as tools for managing anxiety and other emotional challenges.

To sum up, being avoidantly attached can pose difficulties in codependent relationships. However, by acknowledging it and working on it, partners can establish a beneficial relationship dynamic. It is important for both to communicate effectively, set healthy boundaries, seek professional guidance, and prioritize self-care. This can help create a stronger and more satisfying relationship based on trust, mutual respect, and love. Over time, it is possible to overcome unhealthy behavior patterns and build better relationships.

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

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