The SF Marriage and Couples Center offers the best LGBTQI marriage and pre-marital therapy in San Francisco and Oakland. 

The SF Marriage and Couples Center offers the best LGBTQI marriage and pre-marital therapy in San Francisco and Oakland. 

Co-dependency Revisited

            I have a number of clients who worry about being co-dependent in their relationships. Usually a friend or lover has labeled them as such and they bring this term to therapy, often also experiencing a fair amount of distress in their personal relationships. This word, co-dependent, usually comes along with shame and often a feeling of being “broken.” There is a relational stigma placed on co-dependence, almost like the mental health version of an STD, a feeling that one could catch it somehow, and that it is dirty. There is also, usually, a real lack of knowledge about co-dependence on the part of both my client and the friend who has labeled them. Most notably this term is often evoked to call into question the person’s needs in the relationship. Sometimes if the client simply mentions needing their partner or having emotional needs this is labeled co-dependent. This is why I have been moved to write this blog. I believe we have taken our various fears and shames about needing people and projected those fears and our disdain for them on to those we call co-dependent.

            Co-dependency is, of course, a serious issue. I will elucidate its nature here so I can later disambiguate it from healthy dependency in relationships, which is also, equally a real thing (yes, there are healthy needs). Co-dependency was first described by those most deeply studying the impacts of alcohol abuse on the family members of alcoholics – Alcoholics Anonymous. Since the formation of Al-anon in 1951, co-dependency has been studied by thousands and many outstanding books have been written on the subject (Beyond Co-dependency, Melody Beattie & The Road Back to Me, Lisa A. Romano for starters). Co-dependency occurs, not because of the presence of drugs or alcohol, but by the unpredictability they may elicit. Therefore, one can be co-dependent without having been raised around an alcoholic or addict, if the environment in which one was raised was not stable, safe and/or attuned to their needs.

          Essentially, it is the parents’ job to attune to the child and figure out what they need and feel. In being attuned to as infants and children, and having our needs and feelings reflected we learn that we exist and that we have needs, and they can be met. If for any reason this doesn’t happen, our brilliant little system built to attach in relationship (more on that later) will figure out how to attune to their parent or stop feeling it is legitimate to have needs. If the parent(s) exhibit violence, have wild emotional swings or explosive needs of their own, the child will learn to tune in quickly and vigilantly to the parents’ mood states and needs for safety and survival. This adaptation is an ingenious response to an unjust situation, not something to be ashamed of.

            The problems that arise later in relationships are many. Because this pattern of being vigilantly attuned to the needs of the “other” and the lack of validation from parents can mean that the sense of self is not very developed. They may feel like a martyr or savior to those they love, but not know how they feel or what they need. They may also have an unconscious or semi-conscious hope that by giving everything in relationship, they will one day find someone who will reciprocate. Therefore, many people labeled as co-dependent can be quite unconsciously (or semi-consciously) manipulative, aiming many of their emotions and behaviors at an “other” hoping to elicit some response. They may feel abysmally low self-esteem and require reassurance and validation from others. They can struggle with deep indecision as their self-drive, their feeling of want, may be stifled and very difficult to find.  Those who partner with co-dependents often love the feeling of adoration they initially receive, only to later move on because they cannot find the deeper layers of their beloved or because the merged, enmeshed, every day, all the time love becomes stifling to their own sense of self.

           These traits and tendencies are nothing but the logical effects to be expected when one learns early in life that what they want is not important to the people for whom it should matter most. It takes work to learn to feel into one’s own center and know what you want or need, but this work can be done. It really helps to have a relationship (therapeutic, romantic or other) in which you get both the attunement that you didn’t get as a child and the space to explore feeling into your own desires. If you have a partner or friend telling you that you are not allowed to have needs because needs are co-dependent, it doesn’t help. In order to develop fully, it is vital that you can experience a reparative relationship, one which can hold the process of going back and retrieving your repressed infantile needs, expressing them, and developing, through tolerating longing and yearning, a mature, healthy dependence.

            Depending on what point in their childhood someone stopped noticing what they wanted, and the degree to which their needs were neglected or reviled, they may have relational needs as babies, or toddlers have needs – a consuming and overwhelming experience. This is actually a step in the right direction. However, sadly, many are overwhelmed when they encounter a partner with such big, raw needs of them. They label that person co-dependent and walk away. The co-dependent person learns again that it is not ok to have needs. This will happen over and over, with each relationship until someone comes along (often a therapist) who can stay in relationship with someone with big, overwhelming needs AND also gently and empathically guide them to begin maturing in their capacity to tolerate the discomfort of having unmet desires.

            I actually prefer to think in terms of attachment theory when considering relationships, because it takes everyone’s patterns into account, not simply the frowned upon co-dependents. I recommend everyone learn about attachment theory. It is an illuminating framework for understanding relational patterns. Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller and The Course of Love by Alain de Botton are both fantastic. I cannot do the theory justice here, but I will say that I believe many of the “co-dependent” folks I work with have what would be considered an anxious/preoccupied attachment style, which means they worry about losing attachment and tend to want to merge and be close as opposed to moving away from and cultivating distance in a relationship. Those whose tendency to move away and create distance are said to be avoidantly attached. Underneath the avoidance is often a similar set of circumstances that led to the co-dependence or preoccupied attachment – their needs weren’t met as children. Avoidantly attached folks take the message that needs are not ok to heart. They become self-reliant and commitment phobic. Because we seem to seek balance in relationships, avoidantly attached people and pre-occupied folks often end up in relationship. When they do it is often a mere matter of time before the avoidant person labels the pre-occupied person co-dependent.

            Yet, underneath the avoidance, are the same infantile needs that exist in the so-called co-dependent partner. That is why avoidant folks get so set off by pre-occupied lovers (and also maybe friends sometimes), why there is that feeling that co-dependence is contagious. Because those big, overwhelming emotions that avoidant people so dread live deep down inside them and a lot of work goes in to keeping them down there. If they allow certain feelings, intimacy, and need to exist in their partner, their own feelings will start knocking at the door for escape. The balance that could ideally be found between these two types of people is obvious. If they both give a little and learn how to tolerate what is difficult (closeness for the avoidant person, and space for the pre-occupied person), they can both experience a healthy dependence and a sense of self and self-worth. None of this is easy, but like all work in relationships it is worth doing.           This work is all shut down when the avoidant person simply labels their partner co-dependent and feels righteous in their superiority as a healthy person because they don’t need anybody. This way of being goes against the truth of our humanity, which is that we develop and exist first and foremost in relationship (Read The Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel, or at least check out this short piece by him). We were made to attach to each other. We all need each other. Our post-modern, Eurocentric values tell us we don’t, that we should “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” be “self-made” and so on. Not only is this an ignorant, privileged and often racist standard, it is also very anti-relationship and antithetical to our nature. No one is self-made. No one doesn’t have needs. If your partner says they need you to hold them when they are in their feelings, to be there to hold their hand, to be able to call you when they are sad, and this freaks you out, it is not because you don’t have these needs, it is because you do that you are scared and/or repulsed.

            If you find you are calling your partner all hours of the day because of your needs, and never really sure they love you no matter how often they say it, you may need to develop tolerance for distance and learn how to reassure yourself. You may even be co-dependent. But that is not the end of the world. You can learn to tolerate distance and love yourself. Just remember the work is not yours alone. Your partner may also need to learn how to tolerate closeness and intimacy. Don’t back away from your work or let anyone in a relationship tell you it is all on you.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.

 

 

           

 

 

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