The concept of codependency seems to permeate North American psychotherapeutic thought and the more I learn about it, the more concerns I have about how it is being applied. Rooted in the addiction treatment successes of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is built around the notion that those close to dependent personalities often have behaviors that inadvertently contribute to the addiction process. From this origin, the concept seems to have morphed in popular culture to include a much broader connotation and is often expressed as consistently putting other’s needs ahead of your own. As one twitter friend worded it, “selflessness is codependency.” This succinct interpretation landed like a holy hand grenade in the middle of my ideology and I’ve been disturbed by it ever since. What I’ve read subsequently regarding the diagnosis of codependency has only added to my concern.
First off, I need to acknowledge that the concept has value. It has helped countless individuals create healthier relations with their dependent others. There are also significant and useful truths throughout Melody Beattie’s self-help book “Codependent No More,” the layman’s handbook on codependency. To be honest, I picked up this influential book wanting to dislike it, but ultimately found that it is not the concept or how her book presents it that I am chafing against. Rather, it is how people are choosing to interpret and apply the concept. Like using a chainsaw as a letter opener, I believe that the struggle against codependency can actually be harmful if applied inappropriately to everyday, long-term relationships.
What follows are just a few of the warning signs for codependency and some of the unintentionally harmful ways that they have been interpreted:
“You may be codependent if you are very sensitive to how others are feeling and feel the same.”
How it is being interpreted: “I am solely responsible for my emotions, you are solely responsible for your emotions, and our emotions should not be connected in any way.”
My value challenged: Empathy
I smiled when my babies giggled, I was upset when they cried. As a wannabe-writer, I feel sincere joy when I hear that a collegue’s book has been accepted by a publisher. I feel pain and am drawn to prayer when a friend or loved one is having difficulties in life. I seek to comfort. In my mind empathy, “walking in anothers shoes,” is part of walking through life with those around me. We affect each other.
Yet, I have met those who are actually outright suspicious of anyone that feels connected in this way. “Your emotions should not be attached in any way to the emotions of others.” And some take it even further saying that, given the disconnect, they are in no way responsible for the emotions of others. To me that is the equivalent of saying, “Since you are responsible for your own tears, I can punch you in the face anytime I want. If you cry, that’s your problem.”
What I think is actually meant: “Do you do yourself harm by being sensitive to what others are feeling? Are you so connected that you cannot feel the happiness or sadness of your own circumstances? Are you able to disconnect from other’s troubles to recharge if needed. Is your empathy enabling negative behaviors in the other person?”
“You may be codependent if you are extremely loyal and remain in harmful situations too long.”
How it is being interpreted: “If anything harmful or uncomfortable happens in my relationship, it is time to move on. Loyalty is for chumps.”
My value challenged: Loyalty
The saying used to be “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Now it seems to be “when the going gets tough, get going far away” and I believe that notions around codependency are frequently used to justify this approach to life. In so doing, it has inadvertently robbed people of growth (I believe all personal growth involves some initial discomfort) and deep, rich, constantly adjusting long-term relationships.
In my own life, my Mrs. has fought an on-again, off-again battle with chemical clinical depression that first appeared after the birth of our children. Before we figured out what was going on, life was hard – very hard. But knowing that we were going to stay together led us to find a solution and our relationship is stronger and life happier for conquering that demon together – if we could get through that, we can get through anything. Loyalty rocks: long term.
What I think is actually meant: “Addiction of any kind is very difficult to overcome and your staying close during the recovery process may be harmful to you and actually enable the addict. You may need to step away.”
“You may be codependent if you lavish gifts and favors on those you care about.”
How it is being interpreted: “Selflessness is codependency.”
My value challenged: Altruism
I frequently teach that “Romantic gestures are not about you. They aren’t for getting you out of trouble or even for making your heartmate love you more. The gift is all about him/her.” Conceptually, romance is to be altruistic (although in reality the initiator often receives reciprocal benefits). Our ability to be altruistic is one of the few characteristics that separates our species from most others. It is extremely rare in nature. Whether giving a flower to a heartmate or sending aid to Haiti, our ability to give selflessly is part of what makes us human.
What I think is actually meant: “If you are being hurt by giving, stop. Expecting anything in return for a gift or favor is not actually giving. It is lending and such behavior ties up the recipient with the strings you’ve attached.”
I believe that a true alpha romantic is empathetic, loyal, and altruistic. In so much as popular notions of co-dependency have made those and other values suspect, I believe we need to sound a warning bell that not everything that has been learned from codependency therapy is being interpreted correctly. Or maybe I am wrong and the interpretations that I am hearing are actually what is being taught by therapists. If that is the case, then colour me a happy and may I have many more co-dependent years ahead of me.