The classic model of codependency in most treatment settings portrays the wife or girlfriend of the alcoholic male as the consummate victim. Codependency is generally defined as a psychological condition in which a woman is controlled or manipulated by a man with a substance abuse problem.
More succinctly put, codependence is a dependence on the needs of — or control by — another. The codependent is addicted to the addict, and to the addict’s constant need for enabling. These women lose themselves, their identity and neglect their own needs in order to care take of a chemically impaired man. And it would seem to be a good fit, as addictions invariably cannot be maintained by the energy of the addict alone. He is consumed with acquiring and using his drug of choice.
It makes these women outwardly appear to be pitiable creatures, constantly living a life of sacrifice and suffering in order to try to help or fix the man they love. They are the ones who make the calls to bosses when he is too intoxicated or hung over to work. They explain to the children that Dad is just taking a nap on the floor, he is not passed out drunk. They dishonestly cover for him to family and friends. When the man they are living with becomes violent, they can also become experts in covering bruises and concocting elaborate stories about their injuries. Their lives are often so stressed that they too can turn to substances to help them cope, which of course only complicates matters further.
The approach to treating these women is relatively simple. Most of it today is still based on the assumed wisdom of Melody Beatty in her 1986 bestseller “Codependent no More” Selling over 5 million copies, the book became regarded as the bible for treating codependency. Its philosophy has spread throughout Al Anon, a massive, networked 12 step based self-help program for codependents.
Through an approach of platitudes and sloganeering the treatment industry and Al Anon push a redundant message of how the codependents problems boil down to being hyper-responsible. They are too kind, too caring and too quick to blame themselves for problems caused by others. Whatever the source of those symptoms, they all allegedly boil down to being too selfless and too charitable.
That is truly a load of crap.
I’ll exemplify this with an anecdote I have seen countless times in treatments settings.
In a family group I facilitated some years back, a woman tearfully recounted all her experiences of enabling and trying to fix her alcoholic husband. She wept openly as she talked about his violent outbursts while he was drunk. Of having to stand between him and their children when he was in a rage, sometimes being battered in the process. She talked about how he became outraged whenever she suggested he take a night off from the drinking, showering her with obscenities at the top of his lungs. All this too, happened in the presence of the children who were still sorting through the trauma in their own personal journeys.
The group responded with understandable sympathy and bestowed accolades on her for the courage to share her story.
I too offered her supportive words and encouragement to continue her work. I then asked her a question for which I don’t think she was prepared. I asked her if she had every done anything to remove the children from that abusive environment. I asked this knowing that we live in a city with multiple resources for women, and their children in this position. When she answered in the negative I asked her how she felt about allowing her children to endure all those years of psychological trauma without doing anything to help them escape it.
The transformation on her face was instant. The tears seemed to evaporate as though they were under a heat lamp. Her lips pursed and she glared at me with sudden, unmistakable contempt. Finally she spoke.
“Are you saying that what he did to my children was my fault?” She almost spat the question at me.
“No,” I said, “I am just asking why you, as assumedly the only mentally healthy adult in that home, took no measures at all to get your children away from all the abuse that you just told the group they were still trying to recover from.”
She screamed something at me and stormed out of the group, never to return.
There was some good that came out of that for the other group members but what is important here is to consider what this particular codependents behavior represented.
As I have seen with countless other codependents in my work, this person was hardly over-responsible. She was in fact, quite the opposite. The only remorse she ever expressed were things she absolutely knew were not her fault to begin with. It was a familiar song and dance routine designed to gather pats on the back, group acceptance, compliments on her supposed courage and reassuring statements that confirmed what she already knew — that nothing that ever happened in her marriage was her fault.
The one instance in which she was asked to actually examine something she could control, she lost it completely and became much more like the husband she was complaining about in group than his victim.
She used a false image of over responsibility as a cover for just how irresponsible she was as a mother. When she was called on it, the woman this man was married to was actually revealed.
I regularly experienced scenarios like this with the women we have come to call codependents. And with very few exceptions the reaction was always the same; a stage performance from people all too willing to take on burdens as long as they are not taking on burdens for things they have actually done. When it comes to that, they are as denial ridden or even more so than their alcoholic husbands who are supposedly the only real problem in their relationships.
Further exploration into those relationships have also revealed something else very consistent with what I described in that one group experience. Codependents aren’t addicted to fixing people. They are addicted to attaching themselves to people with problems so they can spend their lives pointing at something other than themselves. And frequently, if the person does not have enough problems to serve as an adequate cover for her own shortcomings, she will push him into having some.
Or, as was stated so many years ago by the inimitable Erin Pizzey:
“The terrorist is the family member whose moods reign supreme in the family, whose whims and actions determine the emotional climate of the household. In this setting, the terrorist could be described as the family tyrant, for within the family, this individual maintains the control and power over the other members’ emotions. The family well may be characterized as violent, incestuous, dysfunctional, and unhappy, but it is the terrorist or tyrant who is primarily responsible for initiating conflict, imposing histrionic outbursts upon otherwise calm situations, or (more subtly and invisibly) quietly manipulating other family members into uproar through guilt, cunning taunts, and barely perceptive provocations.”
This description from Pizzey, one that describes the absolute truth about many codependents, is not a description of over-responsibility. It is not self-sacrifice. These are not people who need to be taught to avoid self-blaming. They are individuals looking for something, anything to be the excuse for why they do not have to look at their own mistakes – which are numerous and often more destructive than chronic alcoholism. Indeed they can be the cause of excessive drinking in any home that suffers their presence. Children are not immune to or protected by their problems. More often the children are further abused by being held up as proof of HER suffering.
When questioned about it, they often just figuratively kill the messenger and move on to a new one who will give her kudos for putting her sickness display in group. I have treated alcoholics who were much more accountable than that. And I have seen many marriages that held together during active alcoholism but fell to pieces the moment he got sober and figured out he would have to quit tolerating her abuse if he wanted to stay that way.
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