Codependent behavior can destroy relationships and produce much unhappiness. There are recovery groups all over the world dedicated to helping people with this often crippling personal and relationship dynamic. How do we heal codependence?
I need to begin with a good definition of this term? Codependence literally means “dependence together,” or mutual dependence. Originating in the twelve-step recovery movement, it was used to describe how an individual, by either action or inaction, perpetuates a partner or spouse’s addiction or harmful behavior. The classic example is the wife who is in denial of her husband’s alcoholism. Perhaps she tries harder to love him, or she tries to control his drinking by emptying the liquor bottles down the sink. The codependent person has usually learned in childhood to make another person’s needs more important than their own, and therefore often becomes a caretaker of others to the detriment of themselves.
However, I have developed a broader definition of codependence as unconscious need or dependence upon another person. It is, in a way, a refusal to acknowledge the importance of our own emotional needs. To a degree, this definition applies to all of us.
Interdependence, on the other hand, is the awareness of our need for one another. Embracing our interdependence brings more love and consciousness into all of our relationships.
There is a vast difference between feeling our need for another (an aspect of interdependence) and expecting or demanding another to fill that need (an aspect of codependence). Interdependence implies taking responsibility for our feelings, desires and actions. When we don’t take responsibility for our feelings, a codependent interaction is the result. For example, the other day I felt annoyed with Joyce because I couldn’t find my slippers and was convinced she had put them away. In my unconscious mind, I wanted and expected Joyce (“Mommy”) to take care of my inner child. If, in that moment, I could have recognized that my need for love was far greater than my need for my slippers, it’s possible I could’ve been vulnerable with Joyce, and thus had a loving connection with her. When we touch this conscious awareness of our need for another, we touch the joy of interdependence – and we heal our codependence.
Another example of codependence is the mother who complains to her grown children that they don’t telephone her enough. (I’m not pointing fingers here!) Her complaining is an unconscious cover-up for her need for their love and attention. The result is often not what she wants: her children feel guilty or angry, and end up calling her even less. If she can be more emotionally honest and simply share her need for love and connection with her family, her honesty will give her the best possible chance of receiving what she needs.
Our codependence can often be traced to our inner child’s need for love, our fear of that need not being met, and our protective mechanism (my anger over my slippers and the mother’s complaining) to keep this vulnerable child hidden from view – and therefore protected from possible hurt or rejection. The healing comes when we find the courage to make peace with the needs of our vulnerable inner child.
It is healthy to feel our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs for others, because this represents a humble acceptance of where we stand as human beings. It is unhealthy, however, to project those needs onto someone else and expect or demand that they do something about them. This projection is manipulative and is the root of codependent behavior. It is looking outside of ourselves for the source of our happiness. We will never find it out there. The healthy position is to feel both our human need for love as well as the divine source of that love in ourselves and in others.
Joyce and I certainly have our share of codependence. When we eat at a restaurant and the waiter comes over to ask Joyce if she wants something to drink, she will automatically turn towards me to see if I want something to drink. And I will turn toward Joyce if the waiter asks me if I want something. Yes, perhaps it can be seen as being polite, but there’s an unconscious element to it as well, as if neither one of us can make a decision for ourselves.
Then there’s the clothing we wear. One beautifully sunny day, we parked at the beach to walk our dogs. I decided it was warm enough to leave my sweatshirt in the car, and tried to convince Joyce that she didn’t need to bring her sweatshirt either. She decided to bring it anyway. I actually got slightly annoyed because I had just locked the car. Now I felt I had to unlock the car to retrieve my own sweatshirt. Even though I didn’t want it, Joyce was bringing hers and that meant, for me, that I had to bring mine too!
Is that codependent or what? Before long, we started laughing at the absurdity of this codependent interaction. We were able to laugh because we became conscious of our own codependence. And because of this awareness, it was no longer codependence. Through our laughing awareness, our codependence became transformed into interdependence.
We need to acknowledge and be honest with ourselves about our codependence, our unconscious ways of relating. Yet our eventual healing and fulfillment lies in accepting our interdependence, the awareness that we are not alone on this planet. We need each other very much. Our survival as a species depends on our interdependence. We can only survive through love and cooperation … and acceptance of our need for one another as well as our need to give to one another.
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are widely regarded as among the world’s top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom and Meant To Be. Even one session with either or both of them (over the phone or in person) can shift your life or relationship. Call 831-684-2130.
Call Toll-Free 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for free newsletter from Barry and Joyce, further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at www.sharedheart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.