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Clearing Up Codependency

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Los Angeles therapist, Rose Grakal, M.A., MFT, and I had an interesting discussion about codependency. What is it? More importantly, what to do, if you suspect it is a problem in your life? We agreed it's an often-misunderstood term, so overused in our culture that it has become a cliché and the butt of jokes.

How many times have we heard a cry of exasperation, "I'm so codependent!" when in fact the person is actually doing some 'garden variety' enabling, which ironically enough is another term which has become muddled in its meaning. We can enable (inter-changeable with help) someone with the intention of assisting, but in actuality, wind up reinforcing negative behaviors instead.

Here are two examples of enabling: a husband calls in sick for his wife who is hung-over; or a mother defends her son to his eighth grade math teacher pleading for a better grade while the son skipped half of the classes. These are aspects of codependency but not exactly what codependency is.

Rose cites a definition of codependency from Charlotte Kasl's book, Women, Sex, and Addiction: A Search for Love and Power. Kasl defines the codependent person as "someone whose core identity is underdeveloped or unknown, and who maintains a false identity built from dependent attachments to external sources -- a partner, a spouse, family, appearances, work or rules. These attachments create both the illusion of a self and a form from which to operate... to survive in a world defined by others... (knowing) more about those in power than about himself or herself."

When Kasl discussed codependency in women, she states that, "Codependency represents an attachment to all those things that give a woman the security of knowing she exists. It follows that, at its deepest level, codependency is essentially an addiction to security."

A therapist may experience in their practice a client in crisis, unable to function if their relationship is perceived to be in jeopardy or has ended. The client is devastated to reflect on the fact they have staked too many good years -- what feels like a waste of their entire life -- investing precious energy into the relationship.

Often unaware of and not accepting that the downfall has occurred, how could this happen when they cared so deeply? When did they become unattractive and suffocating to their partner? The unfairness that doing the right thing -- being committed and making sacrifices at the expense of their own self care -- did not save or make a significant difference to further the relationship. Ultimately much of the disillusionment comes from the client having drawn their entire identity and worth around their partner, their interests, and the relationship.

Rose and I note that though this is certainly a 'low place,' it is the place to start the work. We are both fans of Pia Mellody's work in this area. Mellody states that codependency is about emotional immaturity. "Codependency is state of dis-ease (without ease) caused by child abuse that renders a person unable to experience appropriate levels of self-esteem, set functional boundaries with others, own his/her own reality, deal with adult dependency issues around needing and wanting, and express his/her reality with moderation."

Mellody uses "child abuse" in a specific way that we know sounds exaggerated. To quote Mellody, "child abuse is about anything that's less than nurturing. Children need to be living in a nurturing environment in order to grow up, develop and thrive. If they don't have an environment that is nurturing, they can't do the business of growing up and that's why I believe there is so much codependency in this culture." According to Mellody, the result is that a person lives in a "constant level of internal stress."

So is it an underdeveloped identity leading to dependent attachments or an immature grown up unable to live in the reality of an adult world? Our thought is it's both.

The two authors converge in their assessment that many codependent adults are like kids in adult bodies. Often these folks cling to unhealthy or abusive relationships in which their own weaknesses are covered up. It would also make sense that many codependents turn to addictive processes to relieve the stress and anxiety of living in dysfunctional relationships.

What is the best approach to treating codependence? There are 12-step programs available for help recovering from codependency including CODA. Another option is to seek out individual therapy. Today's therapists know (or should know) how to treat codependent clients by helping to identify codependency and look at family of origin (history) to uncover the roots of codependence. The goal is to take responsibility for one's choices and become accountable for one's actions.

All of this hard work can feel tentative. There may be setbacks and relapses. Mellody cautions that it is common in recovery to feel worse before one feels better. As old counter-productive habits fall away, regrets and feelings of guilt can loom large. There may even be pressure from others not to change, because they in turn may need to change as well.

Be assured that such disequilibrium is transitional and ultimately worthwhile. Recovery from codependence, according to Mellody, can yield the joy of "living in action for yourself, rather than constant reaction to what is going on around you." We couldn't agree more. Talking with Rose leads to many other topics of mutual interest. Expect to hear more from us in the coming weeks.