Part One: Co-dependency, Enmeshment and Attachment Style
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “emotionally dependent” relationships lately, as my perspectives have significantly evolved and shifted in this area. It seems that in a lot of ex-gay literature and ministry, there is an emphasis on avoiding or getting out of emotionally dependent relationships. “Dependence” has become a bad word, not just in the ex-gay movement, but in our culture as a whole. However, the more I have learned about psychology and grown in my own experience of close friendships, the more I have started to question such negative views of emotional dependency.
One of the important theories that has led me to question this fearful and negative attitude towards dependency in relationships is attachment theory, which explains why depending on other people can be a positive thing. (I will go into more detail about this in Part Two of this article.)
The terms “co-dependency” and “enmeshment” are often used to describe unhealthy forms of emotional dependence, so it’s crucial to understand the real meaning of these terms and to see how they are different to healthy, intimate friendships. So much unnecessary shame and feelings of condemnation come from using such labels in inaccurate ways.
Here is a useful explanation of co-dependency:
“Co-dependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive. The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. Co-dependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.
Co-dependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence. Originally, co-dependent was a term used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals. Today, however, the term has broadened to describe any co-dependent person from any dysfunctional family.
Co-dependents have low self-esteem and look for anything outside of themselves to make them feel better. They find it hard to “be themselves.” Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine – and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like workaholism, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity.
They have good intentions. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the caretaking becomes compulsive and defeating. Co-dependents often take on a martyr’s role and become “benefactors” to an individual in need. A wife may cover for her alcoholic husband; a mother may make excuses for a truant child; or a father may “pull some strings” to keep his child from suffering the consequences of delinquent behavior.
The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy caretaking of the “benefactor.” As this reliance increases, the co-dependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” When the caretaking becomes compulsive, the co-dependent feels choiceless and helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it. Co-dependents view themselves as victims and are attracted to that same weakness in the love and friendship relationships.”
Source: Mental Health America
As well as that, here is a helpful description of enmeshed relationships:
“The trouble occurs when time passes and you stop becoming an individual with your own separate thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions, hobbies and so on. It’s nearly universal in high conflict relationships, where one or both people can be enmeshed. It’s not limited to partners; even whole families can be enmeshed.
In enmeshment, people feel like their well being is not complete unless they’re meeting their partner’s needs all the time. They worry that their relationship is not “close” if they’re not their partner’s shadow–“if we’re not intertwined emotionally we’re nothing.” Both people feel like they need to constantly be involved in aspects of each others’ lives, but then may resent that fact when they want some individual space.
In healthy relationships with a strong connection, however, each person can pay attention to the other without losing or compromising their sense of self. Neither changes who they are or what they think or feel to please the other person. They can be apart without falling apart and be together without losing their individuality.”
Source: Psychology Today
If you look carefully at these descriptions, you will realise that many close, intimate friendships which Side B people are involved in do not actually fit these categories at all, so it’s a mistake to label them as “enmeshed” or “co-dependent”. Yes, many Side B people will struggle with feelings of temptation and attraction in their same-sex friendships, but this does not mean that we should stop having close friendships or label them in a knee-jerk fashion.
Labels like these can be damaging and stigmatising when we don’t use them correctly, as people become fearful of all close, intimate friendships and afraid of healthy vulnerability. It seems to me that we have become so influenced by our culture that we idolise independence and self-sufficiency. Not only that, I don’t see much support for this idealised “independent” lifestyle in Scripture.
However, I think our culture (including Christians and many in the ex-gay movement) stigmatise people with an Anxious-Preoccupied attachment style by labelling their relationships as “codependent” or “enmeshed” when that is frequently untrue. They may just prefer more closeness than most people are used to in our culture, but it doesn’t mean it’s always damaging or sinful. Just because you deeply grieve the loss of a friendship, does not mean that the friendship was ungodly or unhealthy – in fact, I would question those people who don’t grieve the loss of their deepest and closest friendships.
Of course, there is a need for balance here. It seems to me that the most healthy, ideal type of relationship is interdependent – neither, excessively dependent, or excessively independent. Interdependence also correlates with a secure attachment style, so people with an Anxious or Avoidant attachment style will tend to lean towards one extreme or the other (the Anxious tends will tend to be more dependent, while the Avoidant more independent).
For a simple overview of attachment theory in adults, read: How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationship
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