Dear fantasizing-about-Springtime readers,
Johnny Carson once quipped, “It was so cold today that politicians kept their hands in their own pockets.” And on another occasion: “It was so cold in New York City today that flashers only flashed pictures of themselves.”
Anyway, old stale jokes aside, it’s been COLD! One of those Southwest “wanna get away” flights to the Sun seems really appealing right now.
It’s probably something we’re all prone to do but certain words get widely used without being completely understood. Like the word “narcissist” for example. Most people know it has something to do with grandiosity but would be hard-pressed to give a more precise definition. So, it’s used as a sophisticated-sounding term of derision. Saying, “That guy’s a putrid narcissist,” just feels more gratifying than saying, “That fellow is quite irritating.”
In the political realm, “fascist” is one of those words. Most people use it without knowing exactly what it means. If someone calls a political opponent a fascist, he may indeed be thinking about Mussolini similarities. Or fascist may simply be what he calls people who disagree with his politics.
Well, back in the psychological realm, there’s the word “co-dependency.” A lot of people throw it around but fewer can define it. It’s become a widely-used psychological short-hand as in:
- She’s so co-dependent.
- He should go see somebody about his co-dependency. or
- I’ve gotten really co-dependent on him.
Books—shelves of books—have been written on this subject. I bring this up not to delve deeply into it but to show how the concept of co-dependency is useful in explaining the linkage between manipulators (drama people) and those they manipulate (drama participants).
Full disclosure: I don’t much care for the word, largely because of its overuse. Co-dependency is one of those terms that’s used so often, so frequently, and so widely that it’s come to mean just about anything. And when a word means everything, it means nothing. So, I’m usually searching for an alternate way to more precisely express what I’m saying. But in its non-diluted formulation, it was quite useful.
The concept of co-dependency originated where the fields of substance abuse and family systems theory intersect. Dad gets drunk most nights and wreaks havoc in the household. So, he’s the “dependent”—dependent on alcohol, that is. Mom and the kids learn that dad only drinks when he’s upset or agitated. If they can just keep dad happy and placated, he’s less likely to drink. So, they become his “co-dependents.”
In the drama, Dad only plays the good (sober) guy role when the family performs its obligatory placating role. The unspoken arrangement becomes: “We’ll alter us to have peace with you.” The family counters Dad’s dysfunctionality by adopting their own dysfunctional methods. Mom and the kids are diminished in some ways by the alterations required to manage Dad.
When a relationship can only be maintained by altering yourself in a negative direction, that’s called co-dependency.
We see this in the public realm where followers of a corrupt leader become corrupted themselves. And I hear personal relationship examples of this all the time in my office.
Several years ago, I saw a couple who came in for marital counseling. Actually, she wanted them to come and he acquiesced—reluctantly. He was there with a metaphorical gun to his head.
Here’s what I consistently observed. When I would greet them in the waiting room, they were jovial and light-hearted. He was engaging and I found him very pleasant and easy to like. Her, too. But once, we started discussing marital issues, he morphed into a stone pillar. And I could see the frustration all over her face. Trying to get him to open up was like chiseling through a stainless steel wall with a plastic spoon. And I would point this out—the discrepancy between his waiting room self and his counseling room self. He would just look at me as if he were playing a dead guy on Law and Order. But when the sessions ended, his resurrected jovial self would return.
Eventually, our marital sessions ended because “he didn’t need it” but I saw her for a few additional sessions. She said, “We get along fine if I don’t bring up difficult subjects. But if there’s something we disagree about that needs to be worked through, he completely shuts down. So, we never resolve anything. I just don’t know how long I can keep living like this.”
She came back a couple of years later to update me. They had divorced and shortly thereafter, he moved in with a girlfriend—apparently someone who didn’t require resolution conversations, at least not yet.
In that session, she said this:
Maybe I should’ve never brought anything up. If I’d just left well-enough alone and not expressed any displeasure whatsoever, we’d probably still be married. My choice was to keep everything to myself and be superficially married or discuss things like married couples do and be divorced. I didn’t like either option.
The drama person (in this case, the silent husband) gets along only with those who perform their obligatory drama roles (in this case, the willing-to-pretend-like-everything’s-OK wife). During their married life, he “depended” on conflict avoidance for relational success and she had stay married by becoming his “co-dependent.”
In my humble and accurate opinion, that’s the best definition of co-dependency.