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.”

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Are parents responsible for how their children turn out?

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.

Kahlil Gibran

“I blame the parents”, is a common judgment, often muttered under the breath when in the presence of a badly behaved child or young person.

This kind of judgement highlights why being a parent can bring up a lot of anxieties, when it comes to what sort of person the child develops into.

And it can be a heavy burden, if a parent believes that he or she is responsible for “negative” character traits or behaviours, or for a child’s seemingly unhappy disposition.

But sometimes I believe that parents can take too much responsibility and can even beat themselves up for not being good enough.

Donald Winnicott, a pioneering paediatrician and psychotherapist, came up with the idea of the “good-enough” parent. This referred to the parent who provides a good-enough environment in which the child feels loved but is also given healthy boundaries.

It’s important to recognise that this does not mean parents can’t make mistakes. Making mistakes is inevitable – perfection is not possible. The idea of being good enough gives us permission to be imperfect and to be compassionate towards ourselves as parents.

I remember one mother, who was distressed when she saw her daughter behave in an insecure and “needy” way, convinced she had passed this onto her. Even if there was some truth in this, it would have been passed on in an unconscious way. We cannot help but pass on messages to our children through our own behaviour.

But judging ourselves harshly as parents is not the answer, I believe, as long as we have done our best given our own conditioning.

In any case the kind of person a child develops into will depend on different factors. Good-enough parenting is one factor, while inherited characteristics will be another. As the child gets older, peer pressure will play an increasing role as will the values in the society or culture the child grows up in.

But I believe there is also something else at play, which is harder to describe or measure. I’m thinking of the mysterious force which makes each person the unique individual they are.

Sure, we can look at children and make sense of their characters by referring to how they have uncle John’s creativity or mum’s dancing ability. But in his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman talks about the guiding force that all humans are born with. He uses the analogy of the acorn becoming an oak, arguing that every person arrives in the world with a possible calling or destiny.

Hillman argues that modern psychology has become reductionist, attributing a child’s obsessions or “pathologies” to poor parenting or genetics.

A different response would be to welcome the uniqueness of each child, even the parts that cause us pain or discomfort as parents. Perhaps we could then trust that the child will find its way in the world, following its own calling or destiny.

Is it ‘selfish’ to have needs?

Clients will often seem puzzled when I ask them what their needs are in life. Some will even deny they have needs at all or regard it as somehow selfish to acknowledge them.

Those who find it difficult to recognise their needs are sometimes those who spend much of their lives focusing on others, on trying to keep everyone else happy.

But I would say that having difficulty in recognising our needs and getting them met in an appropriate way applies to many of us – not just people who have been brought up to deny their own needs.

This is an important issue because we all have legitimate needs and just because we ignore them they do not disappear. In fact, when we ignore them or are unaware of them these needs will still be directing our behaviour at an unconscious level.

Beyond the very basic needs of food, shelter, safety, warmth and so on, our needs include:

 

  • Physical touch and affection
  • Sex
  • Time for relaxation
  • Understanding
  • Respect
  • Belonging
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Fun and play
  • A spiritual life/sense of meaning
  • Friendship/companionship
  • Love

I think the reason many of us find it hard to identify and express our needs is because this was dangerous for us as children. We may have got the message, implicitly or explicitly, that our needs and wants were a bother to our parents.

For women there is also society’s message that they should be giving to others and be putting others’ needs (children, family) before their own.

 What happens when we fail to recognise or communicate our needs?

As stated above, if we ignore our needs they do not just disappear but will come out in unforeseen and often unhealthy ways.

For example, the person who doesn’t feel they have the right to ask for some down time when they get home from work may end up snapping at his or her partner or children.

Psychologist Pia Mellody describes how a child whose needs were not met appropriately can grow up into a “too dependent’ adult or an “anti-dependent” adult.

The too-dependent adult expects other people to take care of their needs and wants and does not take responsibility themselves. The anti-dependent, however, is unconsciously afraid to ask others to help meet her needs because that would make her feel vulnerable. She thus finds it difficult to be in a truly intimate relationship.

In her book Facing Codependence, Mellody says: “Not tending to one’s needs and wants appropriately is often connected to a feeling of low self-esteem (shame).”

The solution to this is gradually becoming aware of one’s needs and wants and finding ways to communicate them to others. As part of this process the individual will need to tackle the toxic guilt or shame that may arise when he begins to value his needs.

 

 

Living with the challenges of a family member with dementia

 

Dementia is becoming an increasing challenge, not only for many older people, but also for their close family and friends.

It is particualrly challenging for family members who find themselves in the role of carer or needing to support a parent or spouse with the illness.

If you find yourself in such a role you will doubtless experience a whole range of emotions. Many of these are so-called “negative” emotions – such as anger, sadness and helplessness. But, unpleasant as they may be, such emotions are completely normal in this situation.

You may also experience guilt if you find yourself feeling what you regard as “uncaring” emotions towards the loved one – such as anger.

I believe it is very important to normalise such emotions because much of the message we get from our culture is to hide such emotions, to medicate them or to judge ourselves harshly for having them. The more we can make a place for these emotions in our lives, the less toxic they become.

We need to see dementia not as not just a medical disease but also as something that has important psychological and emotional meaning, both for the person with dementia and the carer. That is why I encourage the carer, for example, to view the person with dementia’s unusual behaviour as not simply random acts caused by the deterioration of the brain, but perhaps as communicating a deeper meaning relating to that person’s life or experience.

Understanding the person with dementia’s history and early life can shed light on behaviour in the latter years. Unresolved issues from childhood may be reactivated and the carer may be drawn into this and have their own, earlier, unresolved issues touched.

The way in which the person with dementia copes with the ongoing loss and deterioration of the illness may in part be influenced by much earlier experiences in their lives.

By becoming empathic, trying to see the world through the person with dementia’s eyes, we can begin to understand some of the unusual behaviour. And in letting go a little of our expectations of a “normal” relationship we may become open to something new, something different. This could be a moment here and there of calmness and connection with the loved one, an awareness that we can temporarily let go of our everyday worship of time or a discovery within ourselves of unknown reserves of patience or love.

Letting go of our usual expectations of relationship opens the door so that, in this very difficult experience, there is the potential to find meaning. It is often through suffering that we learn, that we find meaning, even if that meaning does not become visible until long after the event.

Living with the Challenges of Dementia: a Guide for Family and Friends, by Patrick McCurry, is published by Sheldon Press on 16 July 2015. It is available for pre-order before then, at Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why acknowledging our wounding helps our relationship

While most parents do the best they can, they cannot be perfect.

All of us, I would argue, have some degree of emotional wounding from childhood and the particular wounding we bring will be triggered in our intimate relationships.

While that may sound negative, and can cause lots of problems in relationships, it is also potentially positive because when we can acknowledge our own wounds – and become more aware of our partner’s – a healing can take place in the relationship.

Unfortunately, many adults are unaware of, or have buried, their emotional wounding. So, when their wounds are activated in their relationship they blame their partner for it.

Our wounding

For some children the wounding they receive from parents, or others with power over them, is severe – emotional, physical or even sexual abuse.

For many others the wounding may have been less traumatic. It could have been a parent who was not able to meet your needs because of a busy job or other commitments. Or perhaps having a sibling who seemed to get more attention or approval from one or both parents.

Some children will have grown up with a parent who was quick to anger or was controlling in other ways.

In some cases the child may have got the message that they were valued more for their achievements – their academic grades or sports performance – than just for themselves.

How it is triggered by our partner

As adults we take these earlier wounds into our relationships with partners, where they often get activated in a painful way.

Here are some examples:

  •  coupleKaren grew up with an angry father who sometimes scared her. She picked a husband who seemed very calm, but he seems annoyed more often and she feels afraid and panicked.
  • As a child Peter felt that his mother often disapproved of his behaviour, even though he tried to be a good boy. He now finds that his partner seems often disappointed in him and feels that he can never get it right for her.
  • Sarah’s father abandoned the family when she was a girl. In her adult relationships she finds herself with men who, for different reasons, seem to let her down and whom she finds it difficult to trust.

These are just some examples – there are many more.

Acknowledging and staying open to our wounding

One of the opportunities in couple therapy is for both partners to recognise and acknowledge – often for the first time – the wounds that they may be carrying from childhood.

Therapist John Welwood, in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, says that when we find ourselves shutting down in our relationship it is often because our partner’s emotional wounds have triggered our own wounding.

So, our partner may be angry about something but because we associate that anger with rejection, we shut down when they are angry. Instead of shutting down, when our partner triggers our wounds, we can try and stay open to what we are feeling and to what is going on for our partner.

“If my partner and I can learn to speak together about the wounded places that give rise to our emotional reactions, this will also help us remain more awake when the wounds are triggered,” says Welwood.

My experience in working with couples is that when they are both able to talk about and feel the feelings of that earlier wound, something can shift in their relationship. Each is able to soften slightly, and to offer their partner (and themselves) more understanding and compassion.

“Coming to terms with our woundedness helps us navigate the complex emotional dynamics of human relationship and gradually bring a more all-embracing love into this world,” says Welwood.

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is a term that can invite scepticism – you may think of the movie star who cites it to explain his numerous infidelities. “It’s not my fault – it’s the addiction,” he protests.

While there may be some people who use the idea of sex addiction as a way of avoiding responsibility, there are many more who feel caught in a self-destructive but seemingly compulsive behaviour. It is a behaviour that can wreck relationships, drain bank accounts and even destroy careers.

For these individuals, more often men than women, an addiction to sexual acting out of some form is a sad reality. It can take the form of internet porn, the exchange of sexually explicit photos and messages on social media (sexting), paying sex workers, endless affairs or sex with strangers.

In this context “acting out” refers to sexual behaviour that has become a way of unconsciously avoiding painful feelings. In other words, the sexual behaviour has become a defence mechanism to deal with underlying pain, in the same way that an alcoholic uses alcohol or a gambling addict gambling.

What makes it sex addiction is the individual’s experience that, even though they recognise the behaviour is damaging their lives they feel unable to stop.

Sex addiction is a growing problem.

Never has it been easier to use sex to escape difficult problems or emotions. There is an almost infinite supply of free online porn of every kind, while the internet also makes it much easier to research and contact sex workers or find others to engage in sexually explicit chat or the exchange of images.

Psychosexual therapist Paula Hall, in Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction, identifies three kinds of sex addiction.

  • Trauma-induced – this includes sexual or other forms of abuse. It also includes major losses, such as the death of a close family member.
  • Attachment-induced – this happens when the child lacks a secure attachment to parents or caregivers. When attachment is problematic the child can grow up feeling insecure and find it difficult to soothe themselves when difficult feelings come up. There may be attachment problems if the parenting of the child is too harsh, too emotionally distant, abusive or neglectful. Or if the child is separated from parents for long periods.
  • Opportunity- induced – this refers to addiction that is not necessarily rooted in early trauma or attachment problems, but caused by easy access to internet porn, cyber sex, etc. The much greater accessibility of these, thanks to the internet, has led to an increase in this kind of sex addict, says Hall.

There may be an overlap between two or more of these categories.

The key issue in all this is that the individual realises that his or her use of sex is causing major problems in their life – and they can’t seem to stop. Frequently, the problems they bring to therapy may be about anxiety or depression or about how the use of sex has damaged closed relationships.

Although sex addiction has almost certainly been around for centuries it is only in recent years that it has become more recognised. “Advances in brain research and neuropsychology have helped us understand the nature of both chemical and behavioural addictions and appreciate the links with childhood experience and trauma,” says Hall.

 

 

The importance of acknowledging your Shadow

We all have a psychological Shadow. By this I mean those parts of us which we hide, deny or repress. Sometimes we may be aware of our Shadow, but much of the time we hide it even from ourselves.

But it is vital that we try and get to know our Shadow, or at least parts of it, because otherwise it can play an extremely unhealthy role in our lives.

So, what is the Shadow and how do we know about it? The idea was developed by Carl Jung and the Shadow basically refers to those parts of ourselves that do not correspond with how we like to see ourselves.

For example, we may like to think of ourselves as honest, respectable and hardworking and criticise those who are not like this. Almost inevitably there will, therefore, be a part of us that is (or could be) dishonest, disreputable and lazy. It is not that we need to act out our dishonesty or laziness necessarily, but more that we can acknowledge that we contain those parts within ourselves.

If we cannot accept all the parts of us, including the ones we judge as “bad”, we will project these unaccepted parts onto others and judge them.

This process is an unconscious one. We are mostly unaware of what we are rejecting within ourselves, as it has usually been going on since we were children. So, if as a child we were shamed by parents when we were too exuberant, we may have put that part of us in the Shadow in order to win our parents’ approval.

As a child this is not a conscious decisions, it’s just something that happens, so as we grow up we don’t even realise that we have disowned our exuberance and that it is in our Shadow.

But we may notice that we judge harshly those who we experience as being “too” exuberant.

The way we judge others, particularly, those people who really annoy us is usually a clue to what is in our Shadow. Another way we can learn about it is through our dreams. So, for example, being pursued by a tiger in a dream could represent how we run away from our own anger or wildness.

The Shadow can never be completely known. It is, by its nature, mysterious and unconscious. But we can get to know parts of it and own those parts instead of judging them in others. The more we can do this, the more integrated and whole we become.