What can you do to end the cycle of co-dependency? How do you know if you are co-dependent or not? My husband and his first wife had trouble with this, and now I feel that we are going through the same thing. I am not happy unless he is happy. He just left me, and before he comes back — if he comes back — I would like for us to make some drastic changes in our marriage so this does not happen again.
Co-dependency is a concept that has come to us from the substance abuse recovery movement. This concept was originally spurred by work that people did on trying to understand the role that spouses and partners play in addictive behavior.
“Dependency” means addiction to a mind-altering substance, something that alters a person’s perceptions of and reactions to the world. “Co-dependency” was developed as a term to describe a pattern of behavior where people do things that support and encourage their partner’s addictions or dependency. This often happens in an unconscious and complicated manner, and often at great cost to the co-dependent person’s own health and well-being.
A typical example is the wife of an alcoholic. Her husband drinks a great deal of wine every evening, and his behavior becomes rude, obnoxious, threatening, and jealous — sometimes even abusive. The more he drinks, the worse the behavior. If the wife tries to point out something about this drinking behavior, or if they go to a restaurant where alcohol isn’t served, the husband becomes defensive, angry, sulky, and bad-tempered. He says that he doesn’t have a problem with alcohol, that the only reason he drinks so much is because he’s under stress, and that he can control his drinking any time.
In a “co-dependent” effort to not rock the boat, the wife decides to help her husband “control” his drinking. She doesn’t want to make him angry by insisting that he stop alcohol all together and get into treatment, but she doesn’t want him to drink to the point of becoming abusive either, and she certainly doesn’t want to have to deal with his anger when there isn’t any alcohol in the house. She rationalizes all of this by saying he just needs to drink because he is under so much stress, and that as a good wife, she shouldn’t add to his stress by pressuring him. So, she makes sure there is always just one bottle of wine around each evening, since one bottle will keep him “happy.” She figures that with this one bottle of wine, he will only get mildly obnoxious in the evening, which she feels she can tolerate, since this will keep things calm and smooth between them.
You can see all of the operative principles of co-dependency in this antecdote. The first is “enabling” behavior, where the co-dependent wife actually helps her spouse stay addicted to alcohol by bringing in a steady supply of one bottle of wine each day and by helping to keep him out of trouble and not have to face the consequences of his drinking.
The second is “people-pleasing,” the need to keep people “happy” and “on an even keel,” no matter what the personal cost.
The third is “collusion,” where the wife makes excuses for her partner’s addictive behavior, and where she colludes with the unhealthy behavior of her husband by putting his needs above her own needs or those of the children, by blaming herself for the “stress’ he is under, and by not confronting him about the effect of the alcoholic behavior on his family and life.
The fourth is denial, where she minimizes the seriousness of the problems. The fifth is control — the illusion that, if she just does everything right, she can “control” the pathological behavior and keep everything going smoothly. The sixth, which is related to all of the other principles I have just listed, is poor boundaries, where the wife has an overdeveloped and unrealistic sense of responsibility for her alcoholic husband’s actions and the consequences of those actions.
Co-dependent behavior can be seen in other contexts besides substance abuse. It is almost always seen in relationships where one spouse is psychologically and/or physically abusive to another. It is often seen in relationships where there is some kind of a “secret” or “weakness” that is being guarded in the relationship. Co-dependency is a complex and painful intertwining of the unhealthy needs of two people (and sometimes an entire family): The addicted person is enabled to continue his or her self-destructive and abusive behavior, while the co-dependent spouse works hard to keep a fragile illusion of control and of maintaining the status quo, and thus is also able to feel “needed.”