Amy: It’s a common occurrence in my office practice for individuals or couples in therapy to refer to themselves as “co-dependent”. I often smile, amused at the way language shapes our ideas about ourselves, and each other. I usually reply, “We’re all co-dependent”. I’m quite sure I mean something different than the usual construction of that phrase. I know that the idea of “co-dependence” originated from the addiction world, referring to people who need each other for the wrong reasons. I have the utmost respect for AA and all its derivative groups, which I consider to be a work of genius. But I don’t think the AA folks meant for that phrase to morph in the way that it has. Another phrase like this is “Pro-life”, a phrase which has been squeezed into the confines of the anti-abortion movement . I ask you, who is not “pro-life”?
In fact, “co-dependence” is an important, vital concept related to how we understand ourselves in relation to each other. I’d like to reclaim that phrase, to distinguish between healthy co-dependence and the toxic kind. “Co-dependence”, referring to the couple’s emotional connection, suggests what we already intuitively know. That our well-being, our ill-being, our growth, and our life experience are determined at least in part by our relationship to our intimate partners. Much of this co-dependence is largely unconscious: We DO depend on our partners to help create a habitable climate in which we can thrive. We DO depend on our partners not to promote an emotional climate that brings us chronic misery. We all need to feel loved and respected. Without it, we wither.
Human beings respond to each other instinctually; we’re often more primal than rational. We react in our bodies. And our language reflects this: We often say, “He gave me such a headache!”, or “She was a real pain in the neck”, or “You warmed my heart.” These phrases reflect our interconnectedness, the way we have the power to create pain/upset/happiness in each other. And this co-connection, or co-dependence is magnified many times in an intimate relationship. So perhaps we can re-think co-dependence as a natural and necessary state, which can become corrupted or distorted in the context of a relationship.
My many years of family therapy practice has taught me a lot about the difference between healthy and un-healthy co-dependence.
Healthy co-dependence: Of course, most couples come for therapy because they’re suffering. The distress runs the gamut, from relentless conflict, to the betrayal of an affair, to quiet estrangement and depression in one or both partners. But the healthily co-dependent folks are available to hear how they both participate in creating the mess they’re in. These folks are willing—with some work—to look at how they inadvertently contribute to their partner’s misery. They accept the idea of interconnectedness. While it’s common for people to feel “wronged” or victimized by their partner, the healthy co-dependents don’t stay there. They exhibit an ability to stretch beyond their usual comfort zone. And, perhaps equally important, this couple demonstrates a deep level of commitment to the relationship. There is an implicit—or sometimes explicit—acknowledgment of “need” for the other person. “Need” is not a source of shame, but rather an expression of whole personhood.
When co-dependence is a problem: Occasionally I see couples where the balance is really off. Often this shows up where one person promotes and clings to the role of “healthy” partner, while the other one is the designated “problem”. It’s easy for this to develop in relationships, but sometimes hard to dislodge.
A clue that unhealthy co-dependence may be at work, is when the “good” partner seems to have a stake in maintaining control of this superior status. Sometimes the unconscious emotional contract for this couple is “Doctor/Patient”, but this is a brittle contract that will require transformation as time goes on. This arrangement may be attractive at the early stages of the relationship: The “doctor” partner may define him/herself narrowly by how helpful/expert/smart/caring he or she is in the relationship. Sometimes this serves to perpetuate a role from that person’s childhood. Heroism may have been a source of esteem or anxiety-reduction for that person. And the “patient” member of the partnership may have grown up lacking ownership over his or her voice, or may have deferred their desire for personal empowerment as an act of (unconscious) care-taking for a troubled parent. There are many variations on this scenario. One or both partners may end up hiding behind this contract in order to prevent the uncomfortable experience of growth.
I saw a couple several years ago where the wife had become convinced that her husband was smarter, quicker, and in general superior to her in most ways. She learned to swallow her voice, to mute her expressions, both verbal and sexual. They came to see me due to the pent up frustrations in the marriage. Much of the work involved helping with wife to find her voice, to realize that she didn’t need to defer her authority, her very personhood, to her husband. These were some long-standing patterns that proved difficult to shake loose. This unhealthy co-dependence showed up as the wife’s unconscious self-sacrifice, diminishing her own needs so as to maintain her husband’s need for dominance.
While not all couples can transform an unhealthy co-dependence for a healthy one, I’ve worked with many couples that DID rework this contract: With some committed exploration—including the courage to look at oneself—a truer, livelier relationship can emerge. When we honor our mutual (voluntary) dependence based on alive, individual voices, with authentic expression of needs and desires, we give “co-dependence” the good name it deserves.