Martha devotes herself to being a good wife and mother, constantly taking care of her children and husband, but she is out of touch with her own needs and feelings. Inwardly, she is resentful that all of her efforts seem to be taken for granted and that no one seems concerned about her needs. At the same time, she feels guilty for having those "selfish" feelings. She believes that if she were a "good Christian," she would be able to serve and love Mark in a more unconditional way. In reality, Martha has a difficult time believing that her own needs and feelings are important. Instead of attending to her own needs, hurt, and confusion, her efforts are directed toward trying to get her husband straightened out and under control.
In another community, Joe tells his counselor, "The family I grew up in was pretty normal. I'm not really sure why I am here, or if I need to be. Nobody was alcoholic or abusive, and nothing really dramatic happened in my family. All I know is that something important seems to be missing in my life." Joe went on to say that he is good at detecting what people around him want and adjusting himself to fit into their expectations. He is a people pleaser. At the same time, he is not really sure of what he needs or feels or wants, and he often feels empty or disconnected from himself and others. As he put it, "Sometimes I feel like a robot on auto pilot."
In still another family, Don spends most of his vacation with his in-laws even though he doesn't want to. He knows it will upset his wife and her parents if he wants to do something different, so he doesn't say anything in order to keep peace in the family. Many of us hide our real thoughts and feelings occasionally, but for Don, this has become a way of life. He often winds up feeling frustrated and resentful toward his wife for not being more sensitive to his needs. At the same time, he avoids dealing with his own fears of being more open about his real feelings and wishes.
Martha, Joe, and Don all struggle with codependency, a phenomenon that initially attracted the attention of professionals who were treating alcoholics. Counselors working with alcoholics have noticed that alcoholics often have spouses or partners who are having significant psychological struggles that interact with the problems of the alcoholic. These partners are often consumed with trying to fix, rescue, or "pick up the pieces" for the alcoholic, but their efforts only help to perpetuate the problem. The term "co-alcoholic" was initially given to these partners of alcoholics.
Codependents are 'addicted,'
not to a destructive substance,
but to a destructive pattern
of relating to other people.
Martha fits the classical description of the "co-alcoholic" because she is caught up in a pattern of rescuing behaviors that actually helps Mark continue his alcoholic lifestyle. Rather than setting limits on what she will put up with, such as making clear to Mark that he needs to seek treatment if he wants her to stay, Martha keeps bailing him out of his irresponsible choices. She calls his boss with excuses for his tardiness, and she takes on extra evening jobs because Mark has not maintained steady employment.
Even though Martha resents "having" to rescue Mark, on a deeper level she apparently wants to do so, or she wouldn't continue. Taking the role of helper and responsible caretaker provides her with some sense of identity, wards off her fear of being left alone, and maintains the illusion that if she will just do the right thing, she will eventually help Mark get his act together. The thought of giving up her rescuing role or telling Mark that she will not put up with his irresponsible alcoholic behavior is scarier than continuing to live in their dysfunctional relationship. Martha's misunderstanding of Christian virtues like turning the other cheek, having a servant attitude, and being unselfish, make it even more difficult for her to draw a line in the sand and establish some boundaries or limits that would help both her and her husband.
In the mid-1980s, addiction counselors began to expand their focus from addiction to alcohol and cocaine, to addiction to activities such as sex, work, shopping, and gambling, to name a few. The term "co-dependent" came to replace "co-alcoholic." As psychotherapists started to study codependent people, they soon realized that these people actually have their own recognizable, dysfunctional compulsions. Their problems are not just a by-product of being in relationship with an addict. Nancy Groom, in her book, From Bondage to Bonding: Escaping Codependency Embracing Biblical Love, writes that codependents are "addicted," not to a destructive substance, but to a destructive pattern of relating to other people. Typically, these destructive relationship patterns can be traced back to what they learned as children growing up in dysfunctional families.
Joe and Don provide examples of codependency in this broader sense of the term. There is no addiction to a physical substance in Joe's life, yet he is exceedingly dependent on the approval of others. He is so "addicted" to meeting other's expectations that he has serious difficulties taking care of his own God-given needs and connecting with his own independent thoughts and feelings. It is this loss of self-awareness and failure to attend to his own needs in order to please others that reflect his psychological dependency.
Don's fear of upsetting his wife and in-laws by telling his wife he would like to spend some of their vacation time away from her parents is a sign of his codependency. Don doesn't want to be responsible for the disappointment and anger his wife and parents-in-law might feel if he expressed his real preferences, so he keeps quiet. Peace at any price. If he wasn't codependent, he could let his wife know that he would like to spend some vacation time with her and their children alone or with his family. That would force his wife and in-laws to take responsibility for their decisions and their part in having good family relationships, rather than letting Don shoulder the responsibility for their insensitivity to his feelings.
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