"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Linda Ronstadt released an album with Aaron Neville called "Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind". One of the songs in the album immediately captured our attention. This song "When Something is Wrong with my Baby" could easily be designated the theme song for enablers. "When some- thing is wrong with my baby then something is wrong with me," is the way it begins. You can see where it's going from there. An image arises of a ball and socket; of two objects that are equally dependent upon one another. "If you are happy I will be happy; if you hate ice cream I will never eat it around you." Many of us have observed codependent relationships all of our lives, but could never define exactly what was happening in those relationships. Then, with the emerging public aware- ness about psychotherapy that developed in the 80's, a term for this phenomenon finally surfaced - codependency. As often happens when something is given a name, it was as if a light bulb went on in our collective consciousness, as if to say - "so this is what is happening - codependency. I can't be different or separate or have my life in any way be independent from yours. If I allow myself to have my own reactions, my own life, I might feel something." Codependent individuals try to rescue the other in the relationship from having to see something or feel something in themselves. On some unconscious level they are trying to be helpful, nurturing, caring towards the other person, at the expense of their own lives.
Codependent behavior usually originates in childhood. Many of us who grow up in a dysfunctional family learn from early on to take care of everyone else's feelings in an attempt to avoid or diminish the level of conflict in the family, and so we often sacrifice the fulfillment of our own needs in order to contribute to holding the family together. There is a great deal of collusion, secrecy, and covering up for the one who is the real problem. The denial involved can be so extreme that members of the family can block memories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. When the codependent person enters a relationship as an adult, the behavior of caring and nurturance toward the other person becomes compulsive and supports the denial of feelings learned in the family.
When we forget or deny what has happened to us, we lose a sense of who we are; we lose a sense of self. In a dysfunctional family, it is the family that is important, not the individual. Individuals who try to get their needs met are told that they are selfish. It is all about taking care of someone else, not our- selves, so that it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between what is ours and what is not. Some members in the family get taken care of, and the others get abused.
In a dysfunctional family, it is a great risk to separate or have different feelings or needs of our own. But there is a need for separation, even in the closest relationships. No one should have to lose himself, or sacrifice his own feelings on a long-term basis, for the sake of the relationship. One should not have to disregard one's own feelings and emotions. This is learned when the child experiences blame for parental stress. The parent says or implies, "you are nothing but trouble." The child then comes to believe that he really does intend to drive the parent crazy. In reality, it is often the other way around.
A two-year-old needs to develop a sense of separateness. He does this by saying no. He doesn't do this deliberately to aggravate or annoy a parent but to develop a sense of individuality - independence.
If the parent reacts angrily then the child becomes confused, starts to believe he is bad, and feels ashamed. The child then feels responsible for his parents' feelings. As a result, this child grows into an adult denying his own feelings since he believes they will be harmful to the partner. Of course, there are many more events that lead to codependent behavior but this is often the way it begins. Growing up in a dysfunctional family does not allow a child to learn who he is. His attention is always focused outside of himself in an attempt to protect others and himself. Thus, he doesn't learn how to have proper boundaries or self-respect. In this system, all boundaries flow together so it is difficult to separate. This makes it difficult to get needs met, or even to know what they are. He is likely to assume that the fulfillment is outside of himself. Setting healthy boundaries within a relationship becomes almost impossible for a codependent, and is often prevented by intense guilt feelings. This often leads to increased resentment against the partner. Since confronting one's resentment is not allowed by one's own beliefs, this then leads the "co-dependent" to act out angry feelings in unhealthy ways. This in turn causes precisely what the partner wanted to avoid in the first place: a lot of conflict, hurt feelings, arguments, etc, which never really resolves the real problem.
An example of this could go something like this: I am married to you and you don't like Christmas and I am codependent, I have a few possible reactions. I avoid Christmas too, or I try to cheer you up - or I make you feel bad, or wrong about your feeling. But if, on the other hand, I am healthy, I can express how I feel about your not liking Christmas and continue to have my own separate and distinct experience of Christmas.
This brings up some difficulties that would have to be faced in relationships. I might feel alienated from you. I might feel you will leave me or I might feel like I want to leave you. I might feel lonely, abandoned, deserted, frightened, and desperate. How can I feel good if you are feeling poorly? "How can I have my life if you continue to drink, overeat, over exercise, gamble, have a disease, etc.?" Ah! The dilemma of the codependent relationship.
Please note that wherever "he" or "his" appears, "she" or "hers" is also meant, but for grammatical purposes, we will use only the masculine form.