What is co-dependency?

Sometimes psychological phrases seem to enter the mainstream and, in recent years, one such phrase has been ‘co-dependency’. But what does it really mean?

One way of understanding co-dependency is as ‘relationship addiction’, particularly if it is a relationship that keeps the partners stuck in behaviours that are limiting or destructive.

Co-dependency can refer to partners, adult children, siblings or whole families. In this article I’m focusing on partners.

Frequently there is an addicted, troubled or dependent partner and a supposedly stronger partner who’s role can be a kind of helper, caretaker or who tries to fix the person who has the ‘problem’.

Co-dependency began as a description of how some people seem to be drawn to relationships with alcoholics or drug addicts and stay in these relationships even if they are treated badly or the addict shows no serious signs of change. On the face of it the  ‘healthy’ partner is trying to help the addict but the reality is that, at a deeper level, they find it almost impossible to walk away from the tie.

The ‘healthy’ partner is also getting some form of psychological benefit, often at an unconscious level,  from being in a relationship with someone who is much more obviously disturbed or distressed.

Frequently it turns out that the ‘healthy’ partner had a parent or other family member who was an alcoholic or addict and that, in some way, their relationship pattern is mirroring important aspects of their parents’ relationship or dynamics in their family of origin.

While it began as a description of relationships involving people addicted to alcohol or other drugs, co-dependency can be used in a broader way to describe someone who stays with a ‘problem’ partner but nurses underlying resentment towards that partner.

The ‘healthy’ or ‘helping’ partner may seem caring and nice, but often underneath this there is a deep fear of not being in control, which can lead the ‘healthy’ partner to being manipulative. There is also often a need to be admired or approved of.

US psychologist Pia Melody was one of the first people to write about co-dependency. She argues that both partners in a co-dependent relationship have deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that began in chilidhood.

The addict deals with these unbearable feelings through his or her addiction or troubled behaviour. The ‘healthy’ partner deals with shame and inadequacy by their addiction to the relationship and to trying to fix the partner.

For Mellody, the antidote to co-dependency is for the individual to come to terms with the wounds of childhood. In her book Facing Co-depdence she says: “Experience your feelings about the less-than-nurturing events of your past. Because if you don’t, the issues from your history will be held in minimisation, denial and delusion and truly be behind you as demons.”

Why fighting a problem can create a problem

 

 

2356337414_0aaa79313d_oMost of you will have seen that famous film scene, where a character is trapped up to the waist in quicksand but sinks even deeper the more he struggles. The best option in such circumstances is to relax because then your body, which is less dense than quicksand, will float.

In therapy, too, the more a client fights their “problem” the harder it can be to change.

Psychologist Steven Hayes has written powerfully about this process, in his paper Hello darkness: Discovering our values by confronting our fears. In what seems like a counterintuitive approach, Hayes points out that genuine change or healing only comes from moving towards our fears or what is troubling us.

It is about changing our relationship to what is troubling us. Instead of trying to eradicate uncomfortable thoughts or feelings we can learn to allow them to be present. By consciously choosing to allow them to be present they somehow become less powerful.

In this way we don’t fall into the trap of “experiential avoidance”, which is when we avoid what we are experiencing in the present moment because it is uncomfortable.

Hayes cites sadness as an example: “Instead of getting rid of sadness, patients learn to detect how sadness feels in their body, how it tugs at their behaviour, how it ebbs and flows, and begin to feel at a deep level that they can carry sorrow with them while still living the life they want. “

In therapy the therapist or counselling can help the client begin to change their relationship with what is troubling them. The client can explore what may be underlying difficult feelings or behaviour, and give these underlying causes attention also.

Usually we adopt a problem-solving approach in our lives, so if our car breaks down we get it fixed. In a way this is the approach of cognitive behavioural therapy, which attempts to change ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings into ‘positive’ ones. But when it comes to deeper emotional and psychological troubles we need a different, more subtle response.

It is only by genuinely accepting where we are right now, almost relaxing into it as in the quicksand, that we can create the conditions for change to take place.

I have found that in the moments when I am able to feel difficult feelings without trying to escape from them through distractions or addictions I feel a lot better about myself afterwards.

I think framing this response as a choice can be helpful, as in, “I am choosing to experience this sadness/emptiness/anxiety right now, in order to feel stronger, more whole and have higher self-esteem.”

By framing it as a choice we can feel more empowered and not simply a victim of our difficult feelings.

Photo courtesy of Cecilia Espinoza, Creative Commons, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sasamaster/ 

 

 

 

Why you should never see a therapist who is ‘too nice’.

Most people who become counsellors and therapists want to help people. That may seem obvious. But sometimes, if we try to be too helpful, it can actually get in the way of effective therapy.

At some point we will probably do or say something that annoys or hurts the feelings of the client. This ‘mistake’, this not being the ‘helpful’ or ‘caring’ therapist may be uncomfortable for us. But there will probably be learning in there about the client’s earlier relationships.

To clarify, I am not talking here about genuine misconduct by a therapist, such as intentionally harming a client or not respecting boundaries. I am thinking more about the ‘honest’ mistakes many of us make. This could be not seeming to understand what the client is saying, forgetting something that the client regards as important or finding oneself suddenly very sleepy and trying to suppress a yawn during a session. It could even be arriving late for a session or double booking a client.

At one time or another I have made all these mistakes. Because most of us therapists feel we should be helpful and caring, it can be tempting to be too ‘nice’ and apologise immediately for our not nice behaviour. But the nice response is not always the best therapeutic response. While we need to question ourselves about such mistakes and examine whether we may be acting out something from our own past, it can often be  helpful to look at the mistake as potential information about the client and the client-therapist relationship.

For example, if I am slightly late for our session and apologise immediately that makes it harder for the client to feel angry with me. And, because many of us struggle with owning our anger, it is important that the therapist is not over nice, otherwise the client senses that the therapist is uncomfortable with the client’s anger.

If I make a mistake and behave in a way that is unusual for me, I ask myself, why have I done this with this client and not another and why now? Often the answer relates to an earlier relationship of the client’s and to the developing relationship between therapist and client.

So, if the client feels let down and that he is not important to me when I am slightly late for our session, what does this experience remind him of in his earlier life? It may be that he didn’t feel he was important enough for his mother or father, that they seemed more interested in other things than him. That little boy was not able to express his feelings to mum or dad, but the adult client can be given the space to express his hurt or anger and for those feelings to be validated and accepted.

Often the mistake will occur at a stage in the therapy when the relationship between client and therapist is strong enough for the client to bring to the relationship some of these more difficult feelings, such as anger or hurt.

Psychoanalyst Patrick Casement talks about this in his book Learning from our Mistakes, when he argues that often the mistakes therapists make with their clients “have an uncanny parallel to key environmental failures in the patient’s past history”.

The key thing to remember is that unconscious processes are often at work in these ‘mistakes’. In some sense, the client needs the therapist to repeat the earlier wounding so that there is the potential for a different resolution.

Casement says: “Patients may revisit key experiences of early failure by their parents, or other caregivers, through their use of similar failures by the analyst…how much this…is fortuitous and how much it may be unconsciously determined, we may never quite know.”

 

 

 

 

The danger of wanting to ‘fix’ our partner

2573762303_365ac020f8A common experience for the relationship therapist is when a couple arrives but only one of the partners is seen as having a problem.

This is known as the ‘fix-my-partner’ couple.

The ‘problem’ might be that the partner is depressed, has a sexual difficulty, gets angry or has had an affair.

The other partner will give the message that they have only come to support their mate with this issue, not because there is anything they could possibly need to look at in their own behaviour!

It immediately creates a one up/one down dynamic within the couple’s relationship, in which one partner seems to be more powerful than the other. The ‘victim’ partner may have come because they are compliant, feel guilty or agree that they are the one with the problem.

But they may also have a vague sense that it’s not quite as simple as that but they can’t quite say why.

A repair shop not couple therapy

Couple therapist and author Robert Taibbi says that he feels more like a repair shop than  a couple therapist in these situations. In his book Doing Couple Therapy he compares them to family therapy sessions where the parents literally drop off their 8-year-old ‘problem child’ and wait in the car outside.

My experience seeing couples is that things are rarely as simple as they seem at the beginning and that the issue being brought is always about the relationship dynamics between the two partners rather than a problem only one of them has.

While I will attend to the issue they are bringing – John’s depression or Jane’s lack of interest in sex – I am also interested in how they relate to each other and how this pattern may be creating or sustaining the problem.

One of the goals of the therapy, says Taibbi, is to enable the ‘one-down’ partner to voice his or her thoughts and feelings and to move out of the victim role. It is also important to encourage the ‘powerful’ partner to become curious about their role in what is going on and how their behaviour could actually be part of the problem.

Everything is relational

While seeing a couple I try to hold in my mind the concept that everything they are bringing is relational. In other words, an individual’s ‘problem’ is almost always reflecting something in the other partner.

This flows from the idea that we unconsciously seek out partners who, in certain key areas, reflect something we have disowned in ourselves. So, a depressed person may be attractive to someone who has disowned their own sadness or depression. Or a person with a sexual difficulty that prevents sexual intimacy may also be manifesting a fear of intimacy that the ‘powerful’ partner shares but is unaware of.

It is also striking how, when we get to know a little about the partners’ parents, we find out that the current dynamic is echoing something from the past. For example, Jane’s frustration with John’s depression mirrors her father’s annoyance at her mother’s sadness. Or John’s anger at her infidelities mirrors the many affairs his mother had.

 

Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon at creative commons on flickr.com

 

 

Acknowledging and honouring our losses

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

– Macbeth

A few years ago I moved from a large city to the smaller town where I now live. There were many good reasons for this move, and overall I am happy with the change.

But as well as the gains there are also losses – looser connections with old friends, a less cosmopolitan and ‘sophisticated’ mentality, poor public transport.

It is sometimes difficult for me to give a place to these losses, as I can tell myself I need to be positive about the move if I am to be happy in the new location.

But unless we are able to acknowledge and make a place for the losses in our lives, it is paradoxically harder to ‘move on’.

Nancy Newton Verrier, a pioneering writer on adoption, says that loss is not well understood in our society: “We tend to deny its importance on many levels.”

She gives the example of a couple who get married – this is a happy occasion and yet there is always also a loss involved for those individuals, notably their independence. Similarly, when a baby is born there is joy but also, for the couple, a loss of what their relationship was and an adaptation to becoming a family.

In her book the Primal Wound Verrier says: “There is no permission in our society to recognise in each of life’s transitions the polarities between gain and loss or joy and sorrow. We are expected to be happy, sing songs…but never to mourn.”

The difficulty is that, if we cannot allow ourselves to acknowledge the losses that often accompany the joys and excitement of life changes, we cannot truly give ourselves to life.

Novelist Tim Lott makes some interesting points about loss and having children in his recent Guardian column. He points out that watching one’s child grow up means feeling a continual series of losses (as well as joys), as they move from dependence on you to semi-independence, culminating in the final loss when they are old enough to move out.

He says: “I sometimes wonder if the pain of seeing them grow up is merely an echo of one’s own pain – the loss of childhood we all had to go through.”

Our discomfort around loss is understandable. Feeling our losses brings up sadness and, in some cases, anger.  But if we hide our losses (and these feelings) from ourselves we are inviting trouble.

Feelings like sadness that are repressed have a nasty habit of making themselves felt in other, less direct ways. These include depression and illness.

In therapy there is often a lot of work around grieving early losses, what therapist John Bradshaw calls “original pain feeling work”. This refers to the losses we all suffered, to greater or lesser degrees, as children. These include not being accepted for who we truly were or, in some cases, emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Acknowledging and grieving these losses is not about becoming a ‘victim’, but rather about mourning the losses the child experienced but was not able to mourn at the time. Rather than victimhood, this process can lead to empowerment because it brings us into a deeper and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.

It involves, says Bradshaw in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You, “making contact with the lonely inner child…this child is that part of us that houses our blocked emotional energy.”