Most of us have heard the term codependence, but don’t know exactly what it means. So, what is codependence? It is not an abnormal dependence on another person, but is best described as the way in which a relationship functions.
In a healthy relationship, both parties take responsibility for their choices and decisions. Both parties also respect and implicitly allow each other the freedom to do so. Acceptance, rather than judgment and criticism of each other’s choices, is a hallmark of positive, healthy relationships.
However, under certain circumstances, one partner engages in behaviors the other dislikes, fears, or for a number of reasons, cannot tolerate. Most commonly, drug or alcohol abuse is involved. Other issues may include criminal activity, sex addiction or physical/emotional abuse.
The partner of the abuser/addict is stuck in a strong emotional connection that she feels helpless to break, and so does everything in her power to control her partner’s unwanted behavior. Her behavior thereby becomes as unhealthy as that of her partner.
Her behaviors often become maladaptive, or enabling. A classic example is that of the wife (or husband) of an alcoholic, who takes the responsibility to call in sick for him when he has a hangover. She does this in part because she doesn’t want him to lose his job; but she also has lost sight of the need for him to be responsible for the consequences of his drinking. Thus, she implicitly colludes with his drinking, a sign of codependence. In other words, she rescues him, and deprives him of the need to face his problem.
As long as she perseveres in this mode, he will be less likely to seek needed help, because she routinely protects him. Treatment for the problem is the desired solution, but when a codependent partner consistently aids and abets negative behavior, there is no motivation for change.
Enabling behaviors occur in much more subtle ways in many relationships, even when addictions are not a problem. Women are more likely, by virtue of their natural tendencies to nurture, to indulge in enabling. They typically worry about their husbands’ well-being. The wife who controls her husband’s diet, no matter how good for him, is guilty of a form of codependence. Conversely, the wife who allows her husband to dictate her style of dress and hair is also indulging in codependence.
In another aspect of codependence, one person in a relationship is consumed with thoughts of the other’s feelings, needs and motivations. They are almost constantly in their partner’s head, trying to second-guess the other’s moods, motivations and predicting their behavior. As a result, the other’s needs are always placed first, regardless of one’s true feelings. A codependent individual is not true to self, but is primarily motivated by fear. Codependent relationships are not usually happy; they are driven by an underlying fear of loss.
What might be the purpose of enabling or codependent actions? Probably the greatest motive is protective; protection against emotional pain, inferiority and fear of loss. If you are absorbed in another’s issues, there is no energy for your own. Even though codependence may feel very stressful and cause great unhappiness, the mind tells you that this is by far less painful than dealing with your own issues.
Enablers have very often grown up in dysfunctional families, where the normal needs for nurturing and protection were not acknowledged or met. Often, one or both parents was either mentally ill or had problems with addiction. They were not available to nurture, teach and protect in the ways we all need. Everyone must feel loved and cared for in order to develop self-esteem and life skills.
Individuals who are raised in these circumstances do not always know what love really is, and fall prey to those who also experienced emotional and/or physical deprivation. So, two people meet, are attracted to each other by virtue of their similar backgrounds, and fall into a codependent relationship, where one follows the footsteps of an alcoholic parent and the other enables him.
A not uncommon tendency is to overcompensate for lack of love by bestowing excessive attention on others as a way of deflecting deeply hidden feelings of emptiness and aloneness. Although this may be highly effective, in that it usually brings needed caring, it creates a separation from oneself, and thus limits emotional growth.
For this reason, the enabler is often stuck in life, unable to make choices based on what he or she really wants. The codependent woman or man can make a decision only if it pleases someone else. Here is a typical example: a couple on a dinner date is scanning the menu. He asks her what she is ordering and she says, “I don’t know, what are you getting?” She is afraid he won’t approve, afraid to trust herself. If both are codependent, making a choice for dinner can turn into a lengthy process.
We are all codependent to some degree, but if you feel dissatisfied and in a rut, you may be ready for a new level of emotional growth, prepared to risk new and more autonomous behaviors. If so, look at your relationships to see if you are pleasing yourself as much as you do others. There should be a comfortable balance. Be prepared for a bit of static if you decide to take better care of yourself, but in the end, your esteem and sense of personal strength will be worth it.
Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org or 394-2861.