August 28, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the word, codependency. On the one hand, it’s a useful term for describing a dynamic occurring between substance abusers and those in their relational orbit. On the other hand, it’s devolved into a psychobabble shorthand of sorts for describing things having little to do with its original usage. And once a word means everything, it no longer means anything.

I’d like to describe how the codependency concept originated and then talk about how it relates to the focus of this weekly letter—drama.

Alcoholics and their dependent tendencies have been studied for a very long time. With the publication of numerous highly popular self-help books in the early 1980’s (i.e. Janet Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics), a different element of alcohol dependency came into view. It was observed that people in close relationships with the alcohol-dependent person would tend to adjust their own behaviors to accommodate those of the alcoholic. For example, a child might conclude,

“When Daddy gets mad, he gets drunk, hits Mommy, and breaks things. So, I need to make sure I don’t do anything to make Daddy mad because if I do, I’ll be partly to blame for what happens.”

In this example, Daddy is the dependent and the child is the codependent. The codependent alters what they do or who they are in hopes of keeping the dependent’s worst behaviors in check.

Now, here’s the thing about codependent behaviors—they often work. If indeed Daddy’s anger doesn’t get provoked, another night of booze blues gets successfully side-stepped and the child’s codependent behaviors accomplished the desired outcome. Codependency gets reinforced when it seems to work most of the time.

And yet, codependent behaviors are ultimately self-defeating for several reasons, the chief of which is the adverse effects on the codependent’s psychological well-being. They must disregard what they know to be true and participate in the dependent person’s alteration of reality in order to avoid the negative consequences of not doing so. If that seems a little abstruse, let me illustrate with a real-life example.

Mandy (not her real name) grew up in the home of alcoholic father whose behaviors were like the ones described above. Unwittingly, she had developed a Jedi-like ability to read Dad’s behavior and adjust hers accordingly. Thus, she became a codependent before codependency was cool. But, she discovered, so did everyone else in her extended family who were participating in Dad’s alteration of reality.

Nowhere was this revisionism more evident than the family gathering where cousins, aunts, and uncles would pull Mandy aside and whisper things like:

  • “Your daddy loves you so much. You make him so proud.”
  • “I don’t know anyone who works harder for his family than your father. He’s one of the most respected men in this whole town.”
  • “Your daddy has had such a hard life. It makes me tear up to see how much he works to provide for his family.”
  • “I know your daddy used to have a problem with, well, you know, but that’s all behind him now. I just know you must be so proud of what he’s overcome.”

Mandy had grown up adopting an alternate reality (Daddy’s wonderful) to make her actual reality (Daddy’s a mean drunk) less painful. But as she got older, she became more conscious of the mental gymnastics required to make that work. But whenever she’d attend one of these Daddy-lovefests, it made her start to question her own sanity.

She knew that everything she was being told by these relatives was patently untrue and didn’t square up with her recent observations of Daddy’s drunken conduct. But what if she was wrong? She’d think, “If everybody else sees it that way, and I see it this way, maybe I’m the crazy one.” Mandy actually felt less crazy back when she was an unwitting participant in reality-alteration, but beginning to question that reality made her feel more perplexed… and isolated.

That’s what makes the pattern of codependency so hard to break. Playing along brings the warm embrace of group-inclusion but calling attention to reality may get you booted from the group. If you know the sky is blue but everyone around you insists it’s green, it’s very tempting to say, “Yes, yes, you’re right, it’s green,” just to maintain the connection.

The human need for inclusion can be at once good and bad. It can motivate us to connect with healthy others or it can blind us to realities we’d rather not see. To Mandy’s credit, she chose the former path. Moving away and forming healthy connections with healthy others had an eye-opening and growing-inducing effect. Codependency had trapped her in the Twilight Zone. Becoming independent, on the other hand, had liberated her into a zone of clarity where she could distinguish between what was real and what was not.

Dramas, which are essentially alternations of reality, are fun to watch. But when the alternation becomes the substitute for the actual, you’ll start to wonder if you’ve lost your grip on reality. Exiting the drama may cost you some relationships, but the sanity and integrity you’ll gain is more valuable than what you’ll lose.

Till next week.

6 replies
  1. Patti
    Patti says:

    Last paragraph….spot on! Exiting the drama can be scary, like having to jump out of the lifeboat. But the strength gained along with the sanity and integrity is priceless!

  2. withheld
    withheld says:

    Dear Mr. Godwin,
    Last night my husband and I were out on a walk when the subject of our family’s ‘drama producer’ came up in the conversation. We said to each other how nice it was that the drama which was in full rage level only six months ago is now mostly gone thanks to your book. I said to him, “we should write to Mr. Godwin to tell thank him”…so here it is.

    Our drama person is related to us through marriage. Since we live hundreds of miles away from this branch of the family and only saw each other a few times a year, we had not really experienced conflict with this person, so when a massive firestorm broke out last year, we were at a complete loss about the whole situation. Fortunately, our friend handed us your book about unreasonable people. The descriptions in the book of Master, Messiah, Martyr & Mute were direct hits on the situation. I think my husband practically memorized the chapter that starts around page 148.

    It took us about a month to learn how to withdraw from the drama. And then a few more months of continuing the practices to quell the eruption that this person had created. And now six months later, they no longer ‘live in our heads’.
    We assume they have moved on to their next drama participants.

    After reading your book, we developed a plan of what to say and do in situations that could arise. For example:
    No initiation of texts
    Their texts are trying to entice us into the drama.
    Phone calls-don’t answer.
    Before answering texts, talk together

    We printed out a list of the descriptions of the applicable behavior that we were seeing and what to watch for:
    • Rarely, if ever, asks you to explain the reasons for your position.
    • Seeks to be understood but rarely seeks to understand.
    • Demonstrates ability to be kind and loving toward you-until you cross them. When this occurs, they turns on you.
    • Refuses to accept blame or acknowledge fault for anything.
    • Shifts blame onto others

    When my husband had to go to a meeting with them, he was able to sit back and just watch these (above) & other behaviors/reactions/action in full display and just didn’t react. They did not know how to handle the lack of response.

    We did seek a few sessions of professional advice, which was helpful.

    In retrospect, we now see that the issues of control and manipulation were always there, but we viewed this person through the lens of just being quirky/odd/socially awkward. Since we did not see them often, it was not something we gave much thought to. But when we actually had to interact over a longer period of time because of the mutual care of relatives, it exploded.

    Your book was the key to identifying behaviors that included:
    • Audaciously lies, rearranges information, alters history, & appears to sincerely believe his own revisions.
    • Refuses to accept blame or acknowledge fault for anything.
    • Shifts blame onto others
    • Frequently accuses you of the very thing that characterize him. Pot/kettle

    Thank you again for writing the book. It made a huge difference for us and our family.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Hi, that was so nice of you to take the time to write and I’m thrilled to hear what’s happened in your situation. You’ve approached it very well and that’s made a difference. I’m really appreciative of the chance to hear what’s happened with you guys. Thanks so much!

Comments are closed.