Through the years I have been repeatedly presented with this question from troubled lovers who are seeking to understand themselves, the person they are attempting to build a relationship with and the nature of the relationship they are in. Others do not ask the question but continue to doggedly pursue relationships that make them unhappy.
What is codependency?
The term "codendency" is not in the DSM and is borrowed from the language of drug and alcohol addiction. In actuality, it is a rather vague and difficult to define term, which has resulted in many people having different definitions. I will define it as seeking love based on feelings of inadequacy that one hopes will be repaired by one's lover. In this scenario, the lover cannot be the individual they really are, but must fulfill a role their partner has for them. That role is to provide unbending love and security. The trouble is that there is never enough love. That is where the codependent come in. Because of low self esteem and deep seated insecurity, the codependent cannot be the person they really are. Instead, they work to please the other person in order to ensure they will be loved. Therefore, a codependent submerges their needs for those of the other person.
In the parlance of alcohol and drug abuse, the codependent makes it easy for the alcoholic to continue to drink because they fear that, if they recover or if they are confronted, they will recover and leave.
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Abusive relationships in which one or both partners are beaten verbally, physically, psychologically or all three are characterized by this type of relating. It is sometimes referred to as "sado-masochistic relating." People remain in the relationship because they fear abandonment. The live under the concept that "it is better to be abused than to be alone."
How do you know if you have a loving relationship or one that is codependent? The answer is that if you constantly submerge your wishes for the wishes of another or fear asserting what you may wish, then, you may be in a very self destructive relationship.
One example of the way this works is the following:
1. This can refer to the man or the woman but, in my experience, it is women who most often become embroiled in a self destructive relationship.
2. The woman has a talent for finding men who do not want marriage and say so from the onset. Ignoring this early warning, she sets for herself and for him, the goal of changing his mind and winning his hand in marriage.
3. Having set this goal, she is also sensitive to any type of behavior that feels like rejection. In fact, she even expects it, probably based on past experiences with men, and she asks for reassurance. At first, some reassurance is given. However, the very next time he has either a trip or dinner that is business in nature, she becomes suspicious and expects that he is attempting to avoid or reject her. Then, her demandingness becomes more strident.
4. Because this is a man who is not particularly interested in an exclusive or monogamous relationship, he experiences her nagging as more than he can tolerate and he begins to pull away. She becomes more shrill in her demands and displays of emotion.
It is not unusual for the relationship to come to a disastrous end. Sometimes, the couple manages to find their way through dating and courting and do get married. However, marriage does not relieve her insecurity and need for reassurance that she is loved.
The scenario has many variations and is not limited to the one example just given. There are those times when it is the man who is extremely insecure and dependent. It is not unusual for this type of individual to be an alcoholic. If the woman is equally insecure, she will overlook and enable his drinking so that she can keep the relationship.
There was a very funny book written back during the 1970's by Dan Greenberg, titled "How to Be A Jewish Mother." In the introduction he makes it perfectly clear that, to be a Jewish mother, you need not be Jewish, nor a mother, nor a female. In hysterically funny terms he teaches everyone how to train to be a Jewish mother.
I believe the popularity of the book at the time was based on the fact that it hit certain ethnic truths about American Jews whose roots were in Eastern Europe. However, it also touched something deep in everyone that had to do with growing up in a home that could very well have trained people to be codependent and, therefore, very self destructive. How is this so?
The concept behind the book and behind codependency, is that it is necessary to train children to remain young and dependent the rest of their lives. As Molly Goldberg, a comedian and radio and television actress from decades long gone by, is reputed to have said about how to be a Jewish Mother, "Never let your children know that they can live without you." Yes, this notion, put in terms that are comic, also portrays how one becomes codependent. The individual remains always yearning for approval and never able to assert who they are. Therefore, the "Jewish Mother" trains her children to become the types of people who need to be taken care of.
Continuing with the metaphor of Greenberg's comedy and the issue of codependence, the person is constantly communicating to their lover, "I need to be taken care of. I will die if you do not care for me." The extent to which the "other" in the relationship believes this and "buys" into it is the extent to which they will have to submerge their own desires and wants.
Do you recognize yourself or someone you know in this? Please send your comments and stories so we can continue the dialogue.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD