Co-dependency would not exist without anxiety. As with addiction-related disorders more generally, the main driver of co-dependency is the attempt to control. This may take the form of actively manipulating another person or doing so by continually adjusting oneself in relation to them.
From the start of life our needs are met by others; in the first instance by parents. It is an appropriate form of dependency. When needs are not met, the neurochemical alarm bells of anxiety ring. The urge to control arises from feeling powerless and helpless at this critical time. Compounding the simple deprivation of needs, we may also have suffered rejection, punishment or outright abuse. Given our imprinted vulnerability we inevitably feel vulnerable to the possibility of this happening again.
To stave off the anxiety that comes with this predicament people set about finding ways to “fulfil” unmet needs by any means available. Some form relationships with mood-altering substances or addictive behaviours while others are magnetically drawn to other people to serve this purpose; becoming co-dependent in the process.
There’s one problem. We cannot get in the here and now as an adult what we should have had at the time it was needed. No substitute obtained today can make up for it. That doesn’t stop us behaving as if we believed it could. To stave off the conscious experience of the distress of not getting needs met appropriately, we struggle to get them filled in a myriad of ersatz ways, including through the debilitating dance of co-dependency. The effect is constantly to postpone the acceptance of painful realities, which is where freedom is to be found.
The struggle keeps hope alive and this (unrealistic) hope powers the struggle. In co-dependent relationships it revolves around looking to the other person to fulfil needs. They are the one to make us feel alright in and about ourselves; thereby preventing conscious experience of hurt. Like a drug, the other person becomes the source of good feelings and of the prevention and relief of feelings like anxiety. When they don’t play the part we have assigned them, we become distressed. It is the same anxiety a substance-addicted person experiences when the continued supply of their drug of choice is threatened.
Co-dependent people lose themselves by growing an inauthentic self whose role is to obtain what the real self needs. But it can never succeed in this. No matter what is given to the unreal self, it can never satisfy the needs of the real self. So why not abandon the struggle? Anxiety about what might result is the answer. No wonder, because it will mean confrontation with uncomfortable, even painful realities.