We hear the terms a lot: codependent, enabler, dysfunctional.
We’re used to applying those terms, perhaps lightly, to our friends who call with their recurring relationship dramas, and more seriously to those who are living in situations where violence or substance abuse is common. Sometimes, we can see it in others—but not in ourselves.
Codependency is a relatively recent label attached to certain feelings and behaviors, originally an outgrowth of the Alcoholics Anonymous organization. The AA 12-step program is well-known for its effectiveness with those who follow its recovery protocols. AA stays open to the reality that not everyone makes it through the first time they try. Their door is always open.
Al-Anon began as an AA support group for family members and friends of those addicted to alcohol, so they could share their struggles, shame, insights and coping mechanisms. Sometimes, kids just need to know there are others going through similar family situations. Meanwhile, Narcotics Anonymous began to specifically address drug abusers.
While some disdain the 12-step program’s reliance on the concept of a “higher power,” I have a friend who just celebrated 30 years clean and sober; his atheistic approach is Star Wars and “The Force.”
“It doesn’t matter how you get there,” he says. “It’s just about working the program.”
The psychological community has its own approach to codependency, focusing on those who associate with dysfunctional people. For example, Robert Rotunda writes that in 1941, German psychoanalyst Karen Horney suggested that some people adopt a “Moving Toward” personality style, drawn to others to gain “approval and affection, and unconsciously control them through their dependent style. They are unselfish, virtuous, martyr-like, faithful and turn the other cheek despite personal humiliation. Approval from others is more important than respecting themselves.”
All About Counseling acknowledges that the original definition was “the set of responses and behaviors people develop while living with a partner or family member who is an alcoholic,” but adds that codependency may develop in anyone living in a dysfunctional relationship or environment, regardless of whether there is substance abuse, even where someone has a chronic mental or physical illness.
Why is it important to recognize oneself as possibly codependent? Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry indicates concerns about the development of psychosomatic illnesses, self-defeating behaviors, the likelihood of attracting further abuse, being more likely to stay in a stressful job or relationship, and being less likely to seek medical attention when needed.
My first marriage was to an alcoholic, who was the son of an alcoholic father and grandfather. His brothers have all struggled with substance abuse of one kind or another. Our children have had to confront this inherited reality as well.
I was young, with twin babies. When my husband drank every night after work, I saw my role as keeping as much peace as possible in the household. “You’ll wake the babies,” I would say. And whatever was bothering him, I would engage and try to calm him down, or agree so as to avoid an argument, or cry at the hurtful things he would say.
I consulted a therapist, who kept telling me, “It’s not your problem,” but I didn’t get it. “I’m in the house with him when he’s ranting or storming around. Of course it’s my problem.”
You don’t get things until you get them. One night, with the usual scenario unfolding, I found myself sitting on the staircase that led to the upstairs, watching him as he stormed around the living room. And all of a sudden, I got it. What he was going through wasn’t my problem, and I couldn’t fix it. I sat there watching, saying nothing, refusing to be drawn in or to engage. It was like watching a movie as opposed to being in it.
He left that night. I had gone up to bed at some point, and when I woke up in the morning, he was gone. We divorced shortly thereafter.
The national group known as CoDA, Co-Dependents Anonymous, uses the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous principles to focus on what they describe as the journey of self-discovery—learning to love oneself. Through group sessions, people of all ages, races, backgrounds and experiences share their stories and their insights to help each other find the confidence to handle their individual situations. Resources include a checklist of behaviors and attitudes that help one to self-evaluate, categorizing symptomatic behaviors of denial, low self-esteem, compliance, control issues and avoidance patterns.
CoDA has several meetings throughout the Coachella Valley, from Desert Hot Springs to La Quinta and Borrego Springs. There are meetings every day of the week, at churches, meeting halls, even restaurants. Some groups are for women or men only, and programs may involve group discussion (one may just listen), studying the 12-steps, or such subjects as “Winners vs Whiners” and “Peeling the Onion.” You can get more information about the local groups and their calendar at www.DesertCoDA.org. On Friday, Sept. 25, the meeting at St. Margaret’s Church in Palm Desert will include a special guest speaker. Meetings are open, welcoming places, and one can go alone and feel comfortable.
What I learned from my first marriage, and the realization that “It’s not your problem,” was what I now refer to as the Ping-Pong Theory. It can be applied to codependency situations, bullying, recurring relationship issues, and even interactions with your children: In a game of ping-pong, when someone hits the ball over the net, you always have the option of picking up the racket and hitting it back—or not. It’s your choice whether to play. Once you pick up the racket and hit the ball back, you’re in the game. Skillful players, especially those who know you really well, are adept at enticing you into a game. Just remember: You always have the choice not to play. Then, it’s truly not your problem.
I was struck by a comment made by one of the women at the CoDA orientation I attended at St. Margaret’s. She said, “I finally realized that no matter what he was doing, I was stuck on a drug of my own. Hope was my dope.”
There really is hope—but first, you have to recognize that the only person you can fix is yourself.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.