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.