Co-Dependency Counseling: Help with Co-Dependency
Tonya and Mark are the perpetual on-again, off-again couple. All of their friends can’t understand what attracts the two of them to each other, because their relationship has never really been stable or good. Tonya seems as though she “loses” herself in Mark – sacrificing her own preferences, tastes, and desires for what he wants and in an effort to keep him happy, but Mark is so self-destructive that she can never really please him. It is obvious that Mark controls Tonya. But in a strange way, she does the same – in her constant, obsessive efforts to please him, she is trying to control him into staying. She knows deep down that she’s deeply terrified of him leaving her again.
Ethan and Erin met at work and had a fast but fun relationship, going to parties, hanging out with friends, etc. Erin always drank more than Ethan, but it started to be problematic after a while. He was constantly explaining her behavior to friends and family, and shielding her from the consequences of her excess. He felt responsible for her when she’d drink so much she’d act inappropriately with other co-workers or miss work the next day, and started trying to keep her from doing it. After a while it became clear that Ethan was enabling Erin’s drinking, and was constantly running around to “fix” the messes it created, sacrificing himself and his own career in the process. He became increasingly unable to develop any real way to stay healthy himself, and became distrusting of friends who tried to help intervene. Even more disturbing was that his friends knew this wasn’t the first relationship Ethan had experienced like this, and were really worried for him.
DEFINITIONS & KEY THOUGHTS
Co-Dependency has become a commonly used word to refer to a number of unhealthy tendencies. Originally, the term referred to the relationship style and responses and behaviors people develop in a relationship with an alcoholic or substance abuser, but now it refers more generally to any relationship where two parties exist in mutual dependency that takes on unhealthy proportions and is characterized by mistrust, intimacy issues, avoidance of feelings, stress, and control. Simply put, Co-Dependency is any relationship where one or both persons have an unhealthy level of dependence on the other that seems to maintain itself through a cycle of fear and control.
It’s widely believed we become codependent through living in systems (families) with rules that hinder development to some degree. The system (usually parents and relatives) has been developed in response to some problem such as alcoholism, mental illness or some other secret or problem.
General rules setup within families that may cause codependency may include:
- It’s not okay to talk about problems
- Feelings should not be expressed openly; keep feelings to yourself
- Communication is best if indirect; one person acts as messenger between two others; known in therapy as triangulation
- Be strong, good, right, perfect
- Make us proud beyond realistic expectations
- Don’t be selfish
- Do as I say not as I do
- It’s not okay to play or be playful
- Don’t rock the boat.
Many families have one or more of these rules in place within the family. These kinds of rules can constrict and strain the free and healthy development of people’s self-esteem, and coping. As a result, children can develop non-helpful behavior characteristics, problems solving techniques, and reactions to situations in adult life.
Recovery from co-dependency really is possible, though it may not seem so when you’re in the middle of it. Here are a few key reminders to help set the healing process in motion:
- The first step is almost always coming to grips with your situation and how difficult it has become to manage. People who don’t have problems in this area rarely (if ever) think about it, or spend time searching the internet and bookstores for help. If you find yourself doing these things, it may be time to admit you’ve got a problem.
- Understand that while the other parties around you may play a part, the better part of your own issues lies with you. “People-pleasers” are often actually working to please themselves. That is to say, they are unable to handle the disapproval of others, that they work very hard to avoid it by being overly accommodating. Because of this, they’re usually very offended when someone suggests that “they” are the problem. But in fact, if an individual compulsively pleases others, the individual is usually trying to please him or herself – to avoid the rejecting pain of disapproval. Learning to look at yourself is part of the healing process.
- Part of making the jump may involve some connection with others who struggle with this same issue. Two support groups in particular are prevalent with these issues – Codependents Anonymous (CODA) and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA). Some local churches often have helpful programs as well, such as Celebrate Recovery.
- Once you’ve started looking at yourself, and understanding how you fit into the problem, remember that you can now begin to also see how worthy you are of having freedom and peace in your relationships. In other words, you can really see where you’re not the problem as well. Self-love is extremely important in learning to develop non-toxic relationships again.
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(Portions of the above material is reprinted with permission from Thrive Boston Counseling in Boston, MA.)