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Codependency For Dummies
By Darlene Lancer
John Wiley & SonsCopyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All rights reserved.
When Relationships Hurt
In This Chapter
* Introducing you to codependency
* Briefing the controversies about codependency
* Facing the problem
* Understanding the stages of codependency and recovery
* Identifying goals of recovery
All relationships have their troubles. There are times when people you love the most hurt and disappoint you, and you worry when they're suffering. Addicts obsess about their "drug" of choice, whether it's alcohol, food, or sex. They plan and look forward to it. Codependents do that in relationships. Their lives revolve around someone else — especially those they love. Their loved ones preoccupy their thoughts, feelings, and conversations. Like jumpy rabbits, they react to everything, put aside what they need and feel, and try to control what they can't. The stress of it feels normal, but it's not. This chapter introduces you to codependency and what it means to be codependent. It explores the goals and the process healing process, called recovery.
What Is Codependence?
The term codependence is controversial. What it is and who has it has been debated for decades. There's also disagreement about whether or not it's a disease. (See Chapter 2.) Experts agree that codependent patterns are passed on from one generation to another and that they can be unlearned — with help. In 1989, 22 leaders in the field convened at a national conference and came up with a tentative definition of codependency:
"Codependency is a pattern of painful dependence upon compulsive behaviors and approval of others to find safety, self-worth, and identity. Recovery is possible."
That didn't end attempts to define codependency. My definition in Chapter 2 cuts to the core cause.
The controversy around codependency is divided into two camps — for and against. At one end are mental health professionals who advocate that codependency is a widespread and treatable disease. On the other is an array of critics of codependency, who argue that it's merely a social or cultural phenomenon, is over-diagnosed, or is an aspect of relationships that doesn't need to change. They state that it's natural to need and depend upon others. They claim that you only really thrive in an intimate relationship and believe that the codependency movement has hurt people and relationships by encouraging too much independence, and a false-sense of self-sufficiency, which can pose health risks associated with isolation.
Other naysayers disparage the construct of codependency as being merely an outgrowth of Western ideals of individualism and independence, which have harmed people by diminishing their need for connection to others. Feminists also criticized the concept of codependency as sexist and pejorative against women, stating that women are traditionally nurturers and historically have been in a nondominant role due to economic, political, and cultural reasons. Investment in their relationships and partner isn't a disorder, but has been necessary for self-preservation. Still others quarrel with Twelve Step programs in general, saying that they promote dependency on a group and a victim mentality.
I have lobbied for it to be recognized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, which would allow insurance coverage for treatment. A major obstacle is the lack of consensus about the definition of codependency and diagnostic criteria. For insurance purposes, clinicians usually diagnose patients with anxiety or depression, which are symptoms of codependency.
Codependency's detractors are correct to claim that people are meant to love, care for, and depend upon others, and need and thrive in relationships; however, it's not the concept of codependency that's to blame for the increase in divorce, loneliness, and unhappiness. Part of the problem of codependency is an inability to have satisfactory intimate relationships. When you look at codependent relationships up close, you discover that many of the benefits of healthy, intimate relationships elude codependents due to their dysfunctional patterns of interacting. Instead of feeling supported and enhanced by relationships, the symptoms and consequences of codependency provoke anxiety in relationships and cause pain. Codependents complain of feeling lonely and unhappy in their relationships. Often when they're not in relationships, their untreated codependency causes them to isolate, rather than reach out to connect with others.
Recovery from codependency doesn't necessitate ending a relationship to become independent. The goal is to be able to function better and more independently in the relationship. I've worked with many codependent individuals and couples whose relationships benefited when they became more autonomous and assertive. Having a false sense of self-sufficiency is part of codependency. Ignoring their needs is typical of people who are invested in caring for others. Calling it what it is doesn't create the problem. People feel rewarded and contented doing that, but where codependency is involved, it usually leads to self-sacrifice, control, resentment, and conflict.
Some recovering codependents choose to leave an abusive or painful relationship as an act of self-preservation. Remaining in such a relationship may also pose health risks from the chronic stress. Separation doesn't have to lead to isolation. There're healthy ways to cope with loneliness. Recovery helps individuals receive support in healthy, nurturing, interdependent relationships.
Finally, I agree that the term codependency shouldn't be used to judge people. It arose out of Western socio-political thought and should be considered in a cultural and ethnic context. There may be instances where codependency is adaptive, and change would be disruptive. This poses a problem as American and European ideas spread to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. I've received correspondence from men and women who feel conflicted between their eager desire for independence and the oppressive restraints of their religion and culture. Many don't have the institutional or cultural support necessary for change that exists in the West.
A brief history
The first proponents of codependency were clinicians in the trenches. They witnessed the self-destructive patterns of family members of alcoholics who tried to get the drinker sober and maintain order amidst chaos. (See Chapter 2.) They saw husbands and wives who'd lost themselves and become empty shells trying to control an uncontrollable situation. Surprisingly, they noticed that codependent patterns predated the alcoholic marriage and continued even after the alcoholic sobered up. Still later, it was observed that those patterns appeared in others who weren't involved with an addict but had grown up in dysfunctional families. (See Chapter 7.)
Eventually in 1986, the self-help program Co-Dependents Anonymous (referred to CoDA) was founded by two therapists, Ken and Mary, who both grew up in dysfunctional, abusive families and had histories of addiction. CoDA is modeled on the Twelve Step program, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Around the time AA was getting started in the late 1930s and early 1940s, leading neo-Freudians and humanists began focusing on the development of personality. They believed that individuals were fundamentally good, but due to poor parenting and cultural influences, they were thwarted in their natural striving to actualize their true nature. One of the leading proponents for self-actualization was psychoanalyst Karen Horney. She conceptualized a compliant personality alienated from the real self that today resembles the traits of a codependent. Some of her other personality categories apply to codependents, too.
Codependency is real and painful
Codependency is insidious and powerful. It robs you of joy, peace of mind, and the ability to have sustained, loving relationships. It affects your relationship with yourself and with others, in some cases all your relationships and sometimes only one person — a spouse or romantic partner, a parent, sibling, or child, or someone at work. Ask yourself if your relationships feed you or drain you.
Codependents live with a high degree of shame, stress, and reactivity. They suppress their feelings or explode, and have behaviors that stem from fear, guilt, and the need to control others. This limits flexibility in the relationship and the flow of communication. Often codependent relationships involve emotional or physical abuse and addiction. Even when that's not the case, codependents feel trapped and unhappy because they give up themselves by denying or suppressing their needs and feelings and fear being alone or rejected. To cope, they sometimes disregard what's actually happening in the present. Problems with intimacy and communication arise due to confusion about personal boundaries and responsibilities to themselves and others. Instead of bringing couples closer, frequently communication is avoided or used to manipulate and leads to conflict. (Chapter 3 takes a closer look at the characteristics of codependency.)
Codependents feel uncomfortable being themselves. They develop a persona in the world that reacts to others, to their own self-criticism, and to their imagined ideal of who they should be. To be acceptable to others and to themselves, they hide who they are and become who they aren't. Shame due to earlier trauma conceals their real, core self, which they can't access. Many codependents aren't even aware of how self-critical they are, yet they suffer "tyranny of the shoulds," a phrase coined by Horney. Even though you may not relate to this, it still may be operating beneath your conscious awareness. You may only be aware of your persona illustrated in Figure 1-1 and nothing on the inner circles.
Dysfunctional parenting in childhood (such as, critical, indifferent, rigid, invasive, inconsistent, or rejecting parents) causes codependents to repress their authentic feelings and develop deep, shame-based beliefs about who they are and their rights, needs, and lovability. Sometimes their beliefs are due to abuse, and sometimes they're inferred from the behavior of indifferent or emotionally unavailable parents. Shame is also the result of the anger they turned against themselves, instead of directing it toward the parents they looked up to and relied upon for survival. (See Chapter 7.)
To get by, many codependents learned to comply and measure up to an imagined ideal. Others withdrew or rebelled. As adults, some codependents constantly feel inadequate, whereas others identify with their ideal self and think they have high self-esteem. Many become perfectionists to balance the self-hatred they feel inside. They may strive to be loving, good, beautiful, accomplished, or successful in an effort to prove their worth and/or to be independent and never again need anyone. Yet, the more they try, the more depressed they become, because they're abandoning the real self that wasn't nurtured by their original caretakers. Some enter therapy because of an addiction or relationship problem, while others come because they don't understand why they're depressed despite the fact that everything in their life is working.
Facing the Problem
Maybe you're wondering if you're codependent. (See Chapter 4.) It may be hard to tell at first, because, unless you're already in recovery, denial is a symptom of codependency. (See Chapter 5.) Whether or not you identify as codependent, you can still benefit from alleviating any symptoms you recognize, enabling you to function better both in and out of relationships. Recovery helps you to be authentic, feel good about yourself, and have more honest, open, and intimate relationships.
The spectrum of codependency varies from individuals who show only slight symptoms to others who have all the typical characteristics. (See Chapter 3.) The horizontal vector in Figure 1-2 illustrates how opposite codependent personality traits can manifest in a relationship. Individuals may reverse roles. For example, you may be the pursuer in one relationship and a distancer in another, or flip back and forth in the same relationship. In an alcoholic marriage, the sober spouse may scold and blame the irresponsible, needy alcoholic, who behaves like a victim. Then their roles switch, and the alcoholic dominates and controls his or her partner. Sometimes the spouse who acts needy or "crazy" gets well, and the self-sufficient, invulnerable partner breaks down.
The disease and recovery exist on a scale represented by the vertical vector in Figure 1-2. Codependent behavior and symptoms improve with recovery, described at the top, or if you don't take steps to change, become worse in the late stage indicated at the bottom.
As you get better acquainted with the symptoms and characteristics of codependents, you may see yourself. If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of having codependency, instead, focus on the patterns and behaviors you want to change. If you're committed to change, it really doesn't matter whether or not you consider yourself a codependent. However, it's important to realize that codependency won't get better or go away by itself. Support is essential, because you won't be able to make permanent changes on your own.
The Stages of Codependency and Recovery
Counselors treating alcoholic families considered codependency to be a chronic disease like other addictions (see Chapter 2), because they observed that codependency was progressive. Addiction counselors noticed that the addicts' spouses showed progressively worsening symptoms that paralleled those of alcoholics. In the later stages, both had serious mental and/or physical problems. Left untreated, codependency spiraled downward, just like alcoholism did. However, both markedly improved when treatment began and shared a similar trajectory of recovery. You can commence recovery at any time to reverse codependency's adverse progression — the sooner, the easier. This section generally summarizes significant characteristics of the early, middle, and late stages of codependency and recovery as they apply to relationships. Notice that over time the symptoms on the left side of the following Tables 1-1, 1-2, and 1-3 get progressively worse, while the symptoms on the right side improve. Reference to addict and other addictions only apply if you're involved with an addict, in which case, symptoms and progression are more pronounced. There's more dysfunction, feelings of helplessness, and conflict. However, you may relate solely to symptoms in the early stage, or only a few of the symptoms. If you start making changes now, you can turn things around more quickly.
Early stage of codependency and recovery
The early stage of codependency begins by becoming attached to someone and ends with unhealthy dependency on him or her. In recovery, the early stage ends with starting to reclaim yourself.
The disease process
You may be attracted to a needy person or be overly involved with a family member and naturally want to help or please him or her. Gradually, you become increasingly emotionally dependent upon and obsessed with that person to the extent that you lose focus on yourself and start to give up personal friends and activities.
The recovery process
You begin coming out of denial (see Chapter 5), which means you squarely confront the problem and acknowledge reality — a prerequisite to changing it. This shift may be inspired by someone else's recovery, by reading this book, or, more likely, it's triggered an event — a wakeup call, referred to as hitting bottom — that makes change imperative. Instead of ignoring or minimizing the facts, you recognize them as difficult and painful, but true. You don't have to like them, but you see them as they are.
Beginning recovery starts with getting information and reaching out for help. By reading this book, you've already begun searching for new answers and options. Many people start psychotherapy or join a Twelve Step program, which gives them hope and starts the process of rebuilding their identity. Table 1-1 shows the progressive stages of early codependency and recovery.
Excerpted from Codependency For Dummies by Darlene Lancer. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Excerpted by permission of John Wiley & Sons.
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