Today, I’m reposting something I wrote a while back on codependency. It’s largely adapted from the work of Robin Norwood, who wrote Women who Love too Much. I cannot recommend this book enough.
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-=[ Codependency: Victims of Love ]=-
Make your own recovery the first priority in your life.
-- Robin Norwood
I have to admit some uncomfortability in writing today’s post. The uncomfortability comes from writing on a topic that affects mostly women and, as a man, I feel an awkwardness. However, codependency does not affect women only – there are many men addicted to relationships. In addition, cultural shifts in recent decades have seen a corresponding shift in the way men and women fall into dysfunctional relationship patterns.
If I were to attempt to reduce gender roles to two specific questions (always a dangerous thing). I would say that the essential questions for men are “Do I fuck it, or do I eat it (or does it eat me),” while the essential question for women is “How do I relate to it.” It is this essential approach to life that somehow contributes to women’s susceptibility toward co-dependence, in my opinion.
Avoidance of pain and codependency go hand in hand because codependence is an addictive behavior that attempts to do just that: avoid pain. In the process of avoiding pain, what generally happens is that a lot of suffering is generated. I believe that there are forms of attachment that we confuse for love. The psychotherapist, Robin Norwood calls it “loving too much,” but I can’t call this form of attachment love, because it’s not about love, but mostly about fear and clinging.
If being in love for you means being in pain, then you are not in love, you’re codependent. When most of our conversations with friends are about our significant others, his/her problems, thoughts, and feelings… and nearly all our sentences begin with “S/he… ,” we are not in love, we’re codependent.
When we find excuses for his/her moodiness, bad temper, cruel sarcasm, and attempt to become his/ her therapist, we are not in love. If we read a self-help book and highlight all the passages we feel would help him/ her, we are not in love, we’re codependent.
If we find ourselves not liking his/ her basic characteristics, values, and behaviors, but we put up with it thinking that if we make ourselves more attractive and loving enough s/he’ll change for us, we’re not in love, we’re co-dependent.
When we allow our relationship to jeopardize our physical and emotional health, and perhaps even our safety, we are definitely not in love.
In spite of all the pain and dissatisfaction, codependency is such a common experience for many people that we begin to believe that it is the way that intimate relationships should be. Most of us have excused codependency at least once and for many, it has been a recurrent theme in our lives.
Addiction is frightening word that brings up images like the heroin addict sticking a needle in his arm, leading a path to certain self-destruction. Most of us don’t like the word and will resist any attempt at applying the word to the way we relate to our significant others. But so many of us have been “man/ women junkies” and before we can free ourselves, like in addiction, the first step is to admit the problem before we can begin to recover from it.
If you ever have found yourself obsessed with a man/ woman, you may know intuitively that the foundation for that obsession is not love but fear. We who love obsessively are full of fear – the fear of being alone, the fear of being unworthy or unlovable, the fear of being ignored, abandoned, or destroyed. We give our love because it is a desperate hope that the man/ woman with whom we’re obsessed with will take care of our fears. What happens instead is that our fears – and our obsessions – become even stronger until giving love to get love back becomes the driving force in our lives. And because this strategy will never work, we try – we love – even harder.
The cycle continues…
The concept of co-dependency has its roots in the treatment of addicts and is understood as a set of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. An interesting finding on preliminary research conducted in this area is that while not all patients grew up in troubled families, their partners nearly always came from severely troubled families in which they had experienced greater than normal trauma/ stress and pain. By struggling to cope with their addictive mates, these partners were unconsciously recreating and reliving aspects of their childhood.
I think it’s worthwhile repeating my initial statement here: I don’t mean to imply that codependency is a “female” phenomenon, but due to the interplay of social conditioning and biological factors, men generally try to find external ways to avoid their pain. We try to protect ourselves through external ways: work, sports, drugs, hobbies, etc. While for women, because of cultural forces working on them, tend to become obsessed with relationships – often with a damaged and distant man. These cultural forces have shifted somewhat, so you will find more men relationally addicted and more women seeking external means of avoidance.
Below I have listed characteristics of a person who is in the process of recovering from codependency (adapted from Robin Norwood):
- S/he accepts herself fully, even while wanting to change parts of him/ herself. There is a basic self-love and self-regard, which s/he carefully nurtures and purposely expands.
- S/he accepts others as they are without trying to change them to meet her needs.
- S/he is in touch with her feelings and attitudes about every aspect of her life, including her sexuality.
- S/he cherishes s every aspect of herself: her personality, her appearance, her beliefs and values, her body, her interests and accomplishments. S/he validates him/ herself, rather than searching for a relationship to give him/ her a sense of self-worth.
- Her/ his self-esteem is great enough that s/he can enjoy being with others, especially members of the opposite sex, who are fine just as they are. S/he does not need to be needed in order to feel worthy.
- S/he allows herself to be open and trusting with appropriate people. S/he is not afraid to be known at a deeply personal level, but s/he also does not expose herself to the exploitation of those who are not interested in his/ her well-being.
- S/he questions, “Is this relationship good for me? Does it enable me to grow into all I am capable of being?”
- When a relationship is destructive, s/he is able to let go of it without experiencing disabling depression. S/he has a circle of supportive (not “enabling”) friends and healthy interests to see him/ her through crises.
- S/he values her own serenity above all else. All the struggles, drama, chaos of the past have lost their appeal. S/he is protective of him/ herself, his/ her health, and well-being.
- S/he knows that a relationship, in order to work, must be between partners who share similar values, interests, and goals, and who each have a capacity for intimacy. S/he also knows that s/he is worthy of the best that life has to offer.
I write the above as a person in recovery, who knows exactly how we fall into these relationship patterns because it has been part of my own history. So I write this from a foundation of my own experience and my research. I put it out here for you, the reader, to use or not use – it’s up to you.