A while back, the term “co-dependency” was all the rage. Classic examples of co-dependency involve individuals who put up with all sorts of problematic behaviors because they deeply fear separation and have impaired levels of autonomy. I recently saw a therapy video of a woman dating an alcoholic. She would be his designated driver repeatedly, while he got inebriated and even at times verbally abusive. Instead of placing a boundary and separating from him until (or unless) he changed, she would become upset, cry to her girlfriends, and then make excuses for him and repeat the pattern. It was a classic example of “co-dependency.”
Dependency is a definite problem for many folks who come into therapy. But almost as common, but much less talked about is the problem of “counter-dependency.” Indeed, I just recently asked my class of six first year doctoral students in professional psychology, “What is counter-dependency?” and none of the six knew the answer, which is why I decided to write this blog.
Whereas maladaptive dependency is fundamentally about a failure to trust one’s self to manage life separately from others, counter-dependency is fundamentally about a failure to trust others. While there are many things that contribute to counter-dependency, it often has its earliest developmental roots in an insecure attachment pattern resulting in the emergence of an “avoidant attachment” style. This style emerges from a misattunement between infant and caregiver(s) or possibly even abuse, and it is characterized in the young child as exaggerated autonomy and a suppressed emotional reliance on care-givers.
The key in understanding counter-dependency is differentiating it from healthy autonomy. Healthy autonomy is a state of confident self-reliance in which an individual a) recognizes their interdependency with others; b) has an agentic sense of self (i.e., a sense that one can effectively control one’s destiny) and c) is not unduly controlled or influenced by others. The primary defining feature of a healthy autonomy is first that the autonomy motive is an “approach mindset,” meaning that the individual desires to be (relatively) self-reliant because they want to recognize their full potential as an individual, but one who is simultaneously and securely interconnected with others. Second, healthy autonomous individuals can regularly form effective, meaningful, intimate long term relations with others. That is, they can share, be vulnerable, and are comfortable relying on others when it is reasonable to do so.
On the surface, counter-dependency may look similar to a healthy autonomy. For example, both involve the capacity to separate from others. But what drives counter-dependency is an “avoidance mindset,” namely the avoidance of relying on others because of a fundamental mistrust of the consequence of doing so. In addition, although these individuals might have superficially positive relationships, but because they fundamentally fear intimacy and do not trust others, they do not form lasting deep relationships. Indeed, even in marriage, a counter dependent will hide core aspects of their experience, resist showing dependency needs, and be reluctant to open up. Instead, they will often offer a superficial confidence and/or simply separate and avoid whenever a need or opportunity for deep emotional connection surfaces. It can be a very frustrating experience for the partner.
Janae and Barry Weinhold, authors who were known for articulating co-dependency, have recently been writing on counter-dependency. Describing it as a “flight from intimacy” they argue that the following seven signs point to counter-dependency.
- Difficulty being close to others
- A strong need to be right—all the time
- Self-centered and egotistical
- A resistance or refusal to ask for help
- Expects perfection in self and others
- Extreme discomfort appearing weak or vulnerable
- Has difficulty relaxing and is addicted to activities like work or exercise.
As a clinician, I do see counter-dependency tendencies quite regularly. Indeed, many couples present as one individual being on the dependent side, with the other adopting a more counter dependent role. It is a valuable pattern to be able to identify, either in one ’s self or in others.