Origins of the Term:
Back in the 1980’s, Melody Battie coined a term, “co-dependence.” She worked in the addictions field. Melody, along with others at the time, saw the devastating impact of alcoholism and drug addiction on not just the user, but also their partner or spouse. Al-Anon and A.A. had long noted the “Merry Go-Round of Alcoholism,” that could pull family members in to a dysfunctional dance with each other around addiction. In her 1986 book, Co-Dependent No More, Ms. Battie offered a liberating voice for people caught trying to control, accommodate or bend themselves in pretzels to deal with being married to an alcoholic or addict. This book sold over 5 million copies over the years, speaking to a need to understand what happens to love and relationship when we commit to someone and find out later that addiction is taking them away from us.
A Good Idea Gets Stretched Thin:
As with any good idea, it got grabbed by the popular press, oversimplified and extended to apply to just about anyone in an adult love relationship. By the mid-1990’s, “co-dependence” mutated to apply to any adult who “needed” their partner. In one group discussion, I remember a friend saying, “To feel what your spouse is feeling, that’s co-dependence. Depending on them is wrong.” Didn’t seem right to me at the time. 7 years or so in to my marriage, I found myself rather fond of the growing emotional bond with my partner, Patrice. She seemed fond of it too. So what happened? And how can we think about co-dependence in a useful way when facing addiction in a family or adult love relationship? How can we make sense of it without shaming our natural pull to grow more and more “emotionally dependent” on each other over time.
Making Sense of Dependence:
We have so much wonderful research and practice demonstrating the process of attachment in relationships. Sue Johnson, in Love Sense, The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Love, speaks with clarity and conviction about the depth of bonding adults can have with each other over time in marriage. She speaks of adult love as closer to the parent-child relationship, except we take turns being there for each other. Dr. Johnson talks about our natural ability to feel and to feel with others. We feel most deeply with those closest to us. Over time, the sense that Patrice is in me grows. In a good way, I have this love sense that we are intertwined more than we are two separate beings in some type of negotiated adult bargain relationship with good returns.
It can be helpful to think of how basic relationship attachment is affected when the loved one is not available emotionally and behaviorally. We feel it as survival distress. As one researcher, Pankseep, from Washington State University calls it, we can enter in to a “primal panic.” Children can show it transparently, like a child separated accidently from their parents at a busy shopping center. They cry out, “Mommy, Daddy!” and wail. We’ve learned to hide it, to express it indirectly, or to act as if it does not matter to us. Yet, when our lover is not available, we will seek to maintain that relationship in some way. Losing a relationship feels akin to death and we will go to great lengths to preserve our bond. While our partner is numbing through alcohol or drug dependence, we may be in panic mode.
People in healthy, secure relationships sacrifice to preserve that connection. If our loved one is ill, or lost, we will be there, no matter the cost. That’s not sick, that’s natural. Sue normalizes this. She wrote in Love Sense, “Emotional dependence is not immature or pathological.” Humans are, after all, social mammals. Sharing life with another makes the hill of life easier to climb. Add our ability to bond sexually, to care for others together and for each other, shared memories, and it is no surprise that we depend on each other. Sue goes further adding that emotional dependence between adults is “our greatest strength.” The ability to care for each other and to lean on each other in tough times got humans we were are today (able to read the words of another person via the internet for example). So, it makes love sense that when one partner is slowly being pulled away from another through addiction, that the partner try to remain close and connected.
Addiction Messes with our Emotional Bonds:
But when we become addicted, there isn’t much room for a close relationship, is there? The drug moves in and becomes our lover. On the outside, it looks to our partner like we are there, but we aren’t really. Faced with this confusion, our partner will go to great lengths to reach us, sacrificing their own needs in that pursuit. As the one using numbs out more and relies on the substance as a sort of “substitute attachment” or relationship, the non-addicted partner ups the ante.
When we understand the power of attachment in human relationships, we can see how natural and inevitable it is to continue seeking connection with our partner. We don’t give up the search for water just because we are stranded in the desert, we search with even more determination, knowing that if we give up, we die. The need for connection is that powerful – we can lose sight of everything else in our longing.
Making Sense of Protests:
In the face of the emotional withdrawal that often accompanies addiction, the couples emotional dance changes. The non-addicted partner may get upset. They make overtures to show their support. They take care of their partner when they have a hangover. They make excuses with their work. They complain, “I try to talk sense into you about what alcohol is doing to you and to us.” Perhaps, they make sacrifices and try to compromise. Othertimes, they get loud and lecture to get the alcoholic’s attention. Perhaps these desperate behaviors might be best understood as attachment behaviors. With a root in healthy relating, these behaviors exist as caretaking behaviors, loving behaviors and behaviors to get another’s attention when they might be harming themselves. It’s like a parent protesting to a child who is about to burn themselves by touching the oven, “Stop, that is dangerous!” The husband yells now at the wife, “Can’t you see you drink too much and it’s ruining everything.” This is like a protest lodged by the non-addicted spouse, “Stop! It’s hurting us, me and you.”
Melody Beattie named this dynamic in families of addicts and saw how destructive it was when addiction made it impossible to connect. Lots of people have found healing by recognizing this and treating the addiction before trying to heal the relationship. Codependency was a term coined to describe how a partner becomes a co-addict, in essence, because both partners become controlled by the addiction. The hope was that the lens of codependency would help partners, who weren’t physically addicted, find their own center and not get sucked into the addiction themselves. I think that where the codependency concept has helped is in giving a name to this powerful dynamic. Where the concept becomes less helpful is when it is misinterpreted to mean that we should never depend on others. We cannot not depend on others. Depending upon each other is at the basic core of human survival.
Emotional Dependence is Normal and Expected:
Fortunately, we have learned to separate the powerful and healthy human need for connection from the distorted dis-connection that occurs with addiction. Depending upon others is central to our human needs. The search for connection satisfies when our partner is available and soothes our thirst just as water in the desert. We would never tell someone that thirst is pathological, we would know that water is exactly what they need, and we would help them find a well that would last them a lifetime, bringing bloom to the desert. That’s what couples and family therapy is all about – unclogging the pipes and opening the spigots so love flows. In our case, the pipes that deliver the life giving substance of love are constructed not with copper or steel but emotional vulnerability, intimacy and presence.
In E.F.T. and E.F.F.T., we make sense of “co-dependent” behaviors as a sign of attachment distress as in, “I am frightened by what is happening to us because of addiction…I am trying to change things.” We put these protests in to a couple’s negative emotional, behavioral dance of distress. The E.F.T. Therapist wants to understand the deeper significance of these behaviors. And, we are careful not to shame people for the basic need of wanting connection. We honor rather than dismiss adult love and the innate pull to emotionally rely on each other more over time. An E.F.T. Therapist can help slow things down so partners can talk in a more vulnerable, open way about what alcohol abuse or addiction does to their emotional bond.
In this way, “co-dependence” begins to make sense in a new way. And once free of the shackles of addiction, partners learn to turn towards each other. They can grow closer and develop a healthy, effective dependence on each other that is wired in to us as humans.
Jim Thomas, Copyright, 2014