Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Re-thinking Co-dependence

"Co-dependence" is a word that is tossed about frequently in the recovery community, as well as in arenas focused on developing and maintaining healthy relationships. A loaded and largely pejorative concept, co-dependence is characterized by poor boundaries, enabling behaviors and feeling (misplaced) responsibility for others' feelings, decisions snd lives. While people of nearly any age, or gender, can be labelled as co-dependent, it is a tag that, historically, has been slapped largely on women. Cultural review suggests that the initial focus on substance abuse recovery for male alcoholics via the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous generated the idea of supporting and educating the wives of these men, with the hopes that informed, knowledgeable wives would provide essential support to alcoholics in recovery. Even today, most AA meetings are male-dominated, although over the years, we've seen a boom in groups created specifically for women, adolescents, people of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks. The initial purpose of including spouses in the 12-step programs was to provide them with much needed support, but also a forum for them to explore their roles in the dynamics that facilitated their partners' drinking snd changes they could make to support their husbands' quest for sobriety. Along the way, though, the concept of co-dependency has grown to a scope and reach I'd suspect was never part of the plan when Dr. Bob and Bill W. first welcomed a group of drunks to the initial AA meetings. It seems to be applied so broadly that the seriousness of the unhealthy behavior, thoughts and choices made by true co-dependent people, not to mention the often grueling recovery co-dependent folks have to undertake to free themselves from this soul damaging condition, is watered down and misinterpreted. Additionally, using the term to label unhelpful, ill-guided or ineffective ways of relating casts a negative light on people who don't really fit the parameters of true co-dependency.
The reality is that co-dependency, like most patterns of behavior, is complex, individual and generated by a variety of different origins. Lumping all caretaking behaviors, or any fluid boundaries, under the label is harmful and confusing. Many of the behaviors and attitudes called "co-dependent" are actually well-learned lessons that folks absorb from their environments. Young girls, studies show, are still more encouraged to share, let others "go first" and compromise their own wishes for the good of the group, than young boys are. To burden women with the label of co-dependency when they are simply enacting generations' worth of messages about what makes a "good woman" seems unfair, at best, and destructive, at worst. Feminist theorists have long argued for a view of human psychology that better encompasses female experience, learning and voice. We can help our clients grow and change without blaming them for being good learners. Perhaps the genesis of co-dependent behaviors is less compelling than the benefits of changing them: healthier relationships, boundaries that are firm but flexible; self-responsibility and self-love; expectations of equal treatment with others. But until we change what we teach about gender roles, self-sacrifice and nurturing -- and who we expect to do the nurturing -- the phenomenon of co-dependency, and the path to recovery, will likely continue to be struggles for clients in our therapy rooms.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Would You Rather Be Right--Or Happy?"

Am I the only one who would answer, "I'd rather be BOTH!" I'm pretty sure I'm in vast company. I've heard therapists, self-help books and TV talking heads suggest that, in relationships, we can choose to stick to our guns on a point of contention with our partner, or we can choose to accede to our partner's wishes and views and "be happy." But in my practice and in real life, I've found that many people find this choice excruciating. It's not the simple no-brainer it appears to be initially. People often feel intensely tied and loyal to their needs, viewpoints and desires; asking them to choose between strongly held positions and their longing for happiness can feel like a lose-lose proposition. I struggle with framing the choice as an "either-or": "If you choose to be right, you can't be happy. And vice versa." In actuality, what we are hoping for is our clients to see that winning an argument or proving their point can't preclude the satisfaction ("happiness") of knowing they are caring for the needs of the relationship FIRST, before their individual needs. I try to help clients understand that meeting the relationship's needs is DIFFERENT from "giving in." In this case, Jane isn't letting Joe "get his way." By focusing on what's best for the relationship, clients are taking their eyes off of what each partner WANTS--it's what the partnership NEEDS that matters. Sometimes, that's the same as what one partner wants. But often, the relationship is like a separate entity all together. I envision, and educate clients, that the marriage is the "third client" in the room: what it needs to thrive and grow must be addressed, or it will wither away. People caught in conflict, bent on winning the latest match in their relationship's Grand Slam tournament of arguments, can sometimes buy into doing the right thing for the benefit of the partnership. We don't think twice about making effective decisions about our children, even when we are angry at our spouse. We can look at relationship challenges the same way. After all, when the partnership wins, BOTH sides win, too. And really, is the fight about stopping for directions really about directions, anyway? Most conflicts are generated by deeper symbols and values than what two people are quibbling about on the surface. If we approach our conflicts with an eye on a resolution that aids the relationship, we may find ourselves getting to a place of peace with our partners more quickly and with fewer lasting wounds. That is, except for when my wife asks me, for the thousandth time, WHERE she put her car keys. If I could just get her to put her keys in the little dish on the counter, like I've told her...