Sunday, September 24, 2017

What is Co-Dependency?

I've discovered many people do not know what the word "co-dependency" means.  It's a somewhat complex clinical term.

"Co-dependency" was coined in the addiction treatment field to describe a phenomenon observed among family members of alcoholics and addicts. Treatment professionals and others noticed that spouses of addicts and alcoholics frequently were high-functioning individuals, but that they often helped the addict/alcoholic cover up their addiction and "enabled" the addiction through "caretaking." These "enabling" and "caretaking" behaviors sometimes allowed the addict/alcoholic to continue their addictive behaviors past the point where they might have been forced to change, had they been on their own. These observations led to a belief among treatment professionals and others that family members of addicts needed their own treatment.

"Enabling" and "caretaking" can take a variety of forms. The spouse/partner might make excuses for the addict/alcoholic to employers, "explaining" that the person is "sick" and can't come to work, for example. If the addict/alcoholic is fired from employment, the co-dependent may take on additional work to make up the difference, instead of demanding that the addict/alcoholic stop the addictive behaviors and find a job.  The co-dependent in some cases may even facilitate the addiction by keeping alcohol in the home or by driving the addict/alcoholic to social events or perhaps even the liquor store. Why do people engage in these behaviors?

A theory began to emerge that the co-dependent was "dependent" on the spouse's addiction the same way that the addict/alcoholic was dependent on the substance. By comparing her/himself to the addict/alcoholic, the co-dependent could feel superior. The care-taking behavior was seen as making the co-dependent feel important. In some cases, the co-dependent behavior led to a "martyr complex," in which the co-dependent believed that he/she was a valiant and long-suffering individual. Underneath  these behaviors and beliefs there is typically a lack of self-esteem. Treatment for the co-dependent involves helping the person get in touch with his/her feelings of low self-worth, and guiding the person to finding productive ways to raise their self-esteem instead of through comparing themselves to a dysfunctional person whom they need to remain dysfunctional in order to fulfill this purpose.

Because so many alcoholics and addicts are men, for a long time the stereotype of the co-dependent was that of a wife. However, it's been my observation that more men than women have co-dependent traits, and that these traits are often normalized in men--the "White Knight" who rescues a damsel in distress, or the man searching for an "Angel with a Broken Wing." We are so familiar with these characterizations that we may think of this as normal male behavior. Needing to feel superior is a sign of low self-esteem, and just because it may be common in men doesn't mean it isn't pathological.

Even though the co-dependent may "help" the dysfunctional partner or family member, the relationship doesn't serve anyone's interests. It enables the dysfunction and stresses the co-dependent. The dysfunctional person often starts to resent the co-dependent, sometimes sensing consciously or unconsciously that the care-taking behaviors are a form of control.

Anyone who has a close relationship with an alcoholic or addict should seek their own counseling. Any man who searches for an "Angel with a Broken Wing" as a partner should take a serious look at his own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.