Vallarta Tribune, Apr 2-8, 2006, issue # 469, pg 21
Codependency may be difficult for people to understand, but we often explain that it is the other side of the addiction coin. It is a term that tends to generate controversy because individuals/institutions can’t seem to agree on a definition. It became popular in the 80’s. Some of you may be familiar with the famous book Melodie Beattie wrote, “Codependent No More.” The reason the concept was never fully embraced is that the characteristics were so numerous they seemed to describe everyone and surely not everyone was codependent and the mental health world could not give everyone that diagnosis. Consequently, it does not even exist as a formal diagnosis. Today the addiction field still uses the term and utilizes the concepts in a more cautious and limited way than before.
NOTE: I are going to describe the most classic and accepted form of codependency, which is the one who is in a relationship with an addict. I will refer to the codependent as a female and the addict as a male.
What is a codependent?
She is usually seen as very kind, thoughtful, and giving, always doing for others. She sacrifices meeting her needs believing that she will get to them eventually, easily able to justify why she had to do ten other things first. She is so focused on others (outside of herself) that there is no time or energy leftover to focus on herself. She may be seen as a hero, admired for her survival instincts, her take charge attitude, and apparent problem solving abilities. She is hyper-vigilant, highly attuned, and excessively tolerant. Sometimes she can be very strict and rigid; inflexible, always follows the rules and expects others to do the same. She takes life too seriously, unable to let go enough to have fun. Since she has unrealistic expectations for herself, she also has unrealistic expectations of others and ends up disappointed and angry when they are not met. But she doesn’t give up. She is so determined that she can help them or change them that she forges ahead. She believes her way is the right way; the best way, and imposes it on others every chance she gets, of course with good intentions.
Caretaker, Controller, Enabler, Rescuer
Basically the codependent role is that of a caretaker; the one who “cares for” the addict (and children). She must find a way to make the couple and the home life feel as normal and stable as possible. This is important in order to maintain her own minimization and/or denial as well as to maintain the outward appearance of a normal functioning couple or family. Over the years she becomes quite apt at managing the chaos. In this sense she is very controlling. The more she can control situations by attempting to control others’ behaviors, ways of thinking and of feeling, she can control outcome and therefore eliminate some of the unknown; the unexpected surprises. She also enables his behavior and his addiction by protecting him from the natural consequences of his behavior and therefore rescues him by: a) making excuses for his behavior at work, with friends, legal authorities, and family members, b) excuses or justifies his alcoholic/addict condition because his past; family of origin or childhood traumas, c) keeps his behavior a secret and avoid him when he’s intoxicated in order to keep the peace.
Who am I in all of this?
Their identity revolves around who they are in relation to others, in this case, the addict. The addict is at the center of the codependent’s life. As they expend all of their energy running circles around the addict, they lose themselves in the process. They make incredible efforts to counterbalance the addict’s chaos, keeping all of the balls up in the air, accepting all of his responsibilities, allowing him to become more and more dependent on her. She even assumes responsibility of others’ feelings and behaviors. She continues to adapt and keep this vicious cycle alive by learning to tolerate more and more, always with the threat that “this is it,” “the last time,” “no more.” Because of her weak boundaries, she forgives him and doesn’t give up hope that things will change and eventually get better.
“You complete me”
Eventually, they do not know who they are without the addict, everything they think and do and feel is defined by their life with him. The couple becomes extremely enmeshed to the point that they do not where one begins and the other ends. She is more aware of his feelings than he is, and is usually quite unaware of her own. They no longer feel separate; they exist as one; they complete each other. They have no sense of autonomy, all of their goals and plans include the other, as well as their social life, friends, and things they like to do.
As it progresses….
As her codependency progresses, those self-protective behaviors cease to serve their purpose and become self-destructive. She becomes very resentful and feels unappreciated. Her anger surfaces and she begins to retaliate. She realizes she has lost herself. She doesn’t know who she is or what she wants. She may even become depressed. The relationship falls apart and she is left feeling a tremendous void, an overwhelming emptiness, As a result, the codependent must now discover how to become the center of her own life, how to meet her needs first, how to balance her interactions with others in a way that is not detrimental.
Written by: Giselle Belanger, RN, LCSW, CADC