Codependency is often described as a dysfunctional relationship that exists between two persons one or both of which may be in addiction such as alcoholism. The other person tolerates and facilitates that behaviour by remaining within the relationship despite the emotional, mental and even physical abuse that they suffer. Both participants in the relationship believe that they cannot live without the other. Both condemn themselves to a partnership that is built on anything but true love.
In reality Codependency is much more. A relationship that is held together out of fear or loss is a form of codependency. One person may lean on another person emotionally and be unable to validate themselves without the person. This is compounded if the other person also has emotional or psychological issues which compliment those of her partner.
Two damaged people bought together do not necessarily provide a solution or salvation. One of two things may happen; one of the individuals may grow emotionally and awaken to the fact that they are in an unhealthy codependent relationship that does not allow them to flourish. Otherwise the relationship may endure but simply out of a fear of being “alone”. The opportunity to find true love and to live a free and fulfilling life is compromised. This is not love but a form of bondage that ends in regret.
A Painful Truth
Some years ago I realized I am in a codependent relationship with my partner. I thought couples just had their disagreements and got over them. During my drinking these disagreements were fairly often but then I was very selfish and obstinate and only saw my side. Despite getting sober and working the steps I found I could not break this cycle of codependency. The relationship remains dysfunctional.
I found that despite the decades I spent being on my own I was now a virtual prisoner to my need to belong. I now find myself questioning the authenticity and honesty of the relationship but uncertain on how to act. Is it fair to be in a relationship where deep within our own heart we know that whatever true affection and love existed has long been replaced with a mutual need for stability, security and familiarity? Is not being in the world alone more important than being in a true and nourishing relationship?
There is nothing wrong with stability, security and familiarity. All of these are important in a healthy relationship. However a codependent relationship is categorized by an imbalance between two people. There are power struggles and each attempt to assert their control over the other. Disagreements occur and concessions are made by one side or another in order to maintain the peace. The result is resentment and anxiety. Open and honest communication breaks down. Couples become distant harboring private resentment for the failings they perceive in their partner. They blame each other for the unhappiness in their lives but they are unwilling to do anything. Despite all the ill feeling and pain both know that they cannot function alone. Freedom and happiness is traded in for stability, security and familiarity.
Emotional maturity was not a part of my sobriety in the beginning. I am still growing up. In other words I had not matured as an emotional person during my decades of alcoholism. I still had all the emotional maturity of a traumatized teenager and a lost young man trying to make sense of the world. Much to my surprise I realized not long ago that everything decent I had ever done was to get approval and love from others. To be accepted. Every spiteful or indecent act I had ever committed was to get back at them or others for perceived wrongs. This included getting drunk.
Codependency in my case did not just happen later in life. I grew up with an alcoholic Father who himself had all the emotional maturity of a deprived child. Without another role model to learn from and no outside support becoming an accepting and active participant in the abuse was assured. A child will adapt quickly and learn to survive. As a child I begged my Father to be reasonable, sane and sober. I would put him to bed in the dead of night when he stumbled in to whatever doss house we lived in and pull off his boots. In the morning I woke him up and pressed him to go to work as he swore at me through a hangover. I hated him but he was still my Father and as such I needed him.
Natural emotions such as empathy and joy were dulled and replaced with fear, then anger and finally apathy. With apathy and time people start to identify with the negative influences in their lives and also begin to act them out. Emotional abuse, violence and cruelty become a part of who we are. I remember the cruelty I afflicted on my siblings as a child and on hapless victims in the school yard. I suffered at home and others had to suffer. Bullies beat me so I had to bully those that were weaker than me. The bullied often become the bullies. This still wears down on me heavily at times.
Growing up without a Mother and in the care of an abusive alcoholic Father had left me angry and vulnerable as a kid. We were thrown in to the State Care system as the Child Welfare people intervened. My sullen disposition attracted the wolves at school and being small in stature I was an easy target for bullying. I fought regularly and was in trouble often. I shoplifted and was smoking and drinking by age 11. The world looked like a hostile place to me and I was out in the cold. Desperate to find a place I could call home, I ran away and joined the Army as soon as I finished High School.
I took that anger in to the Army and they molded it and beat my vulnerability out of me. My weaknesses were removed and they built me up in to something useful. I cut all contact with my Father and never spoke to him again. The Army gave me a roof over my head, three meals a day, medical and dental, training and told me what I had to do and when to do it. It was simple and structured. For a long time I felt empowered and protected. I also felt like a bad ass. I was extremely fit, tanned and trained. Being part of something bigger than oneself does that. So does extra muscle mass and being trained in unarmed combat and Infantry skills. But it was shallow; there was a gaping hole there. I knew I didn’t belong in that world and rebelled. I found alcohol.
After an ignoble and unceremonious discharge from the Army a few years later I was back out on the street and completely alone. The Army had probably saved me from destitution and a hopeless future but I had barely matured in to an adult. I was dependent on the system to support me. I felt like an important part of me was torn away when I stepped outside the gates for the last time and the cord was cut. They had taught me to be a Soldier but not a functional and mature adult fit for normal life. I had entered barely 18 and at 23 I was on the street while many of my High School Friends were graduated from University and already in professional careers earning close to 6 figure salaries. I had no transferable qualifications other than in heavy drinking.
Functioning and surviving in civilian life alone was an enormous challenge. People around me were phony and shallow. Their concerns and priorities were petty and made little sense. Employers seemed only to use and exploit young employees. The Jobs I took were mind numbing and low paid and I soon made enemies. There was no comradeship or mutual benefit. It was a dog eat dog world and I felt completely maladapted to it.
My anger and frustration would boil over and I quickly alienated and scared off people. Friends and acquaintances distanced themselves. I could not re-enter the Army, I had well and truly burned my bridges there. The answer was to move around a lot and get drunk as often as possible. I tried the Geographic solution and drowned it in alcohol. In order to eliminate any reliance on others and be completely independent I vanished overseas taking my problems with me as far as I could take them.
A Wife to the Grave
My relationship with booze took a new turn in civilian life. For a start I didn’t have to worry about trying to fit drinking around the Army. I learned I could arrange life to suit my drinking. As I did so I found myself becoming more dependent and less flexible with people, places and circumstances that got in the way of that relationship.
Alcohol is cunning and has a way of intruding in every aspect of life like a demented and obsessive lover. We know that the relationship is doing us harm but we remember the good times too. We cannot imagine being separated from alcohol. Our disease adopts a persona that is omnipresent and absolute in our lives. She is like a Succubus, a lover turned Demon who will not let us go. The relationship becomes entirely one sided. Alcohol will eventually take everything unless we break that hold first.
Recovery of course is breaking that dependence. The 12 Steps provided the pathway for me to do that. As my sobriety strengthened my personality began to change. Self honesty and humility allows us to review our actions in life and identify where we have been lacking. This provides the impetus to start maturing as a person. Emotional sobriety is the eventual outcome of practicing principles and working the steps.
Along the way we begin to review our relationships. Some of them present themselves as being dysfunctional or toxic and are ended. In my case my sobriety began to reveal dimensions and aspects of my relationship with my partner that I had never considered before. In our journey we take an honest view of our life and question where authenticity is lacking and where fear or resentment resides. We make amends for the harm we caused where we can.
Every major change in life comes with costs and benefits and recovery is no different. I began to realize that I had been in a relationship simply because I needed it when I was drinking and alone. The need to fulfill the need for a place to finally call home and to find someone was a way of addressing the void that had existed in me my entire life. It’s a trap many of us fall into, we think that others will complete us and we rely on them to carry us when we can’t carry ourselves. Once we get sober and sane the world becomes a different place and so do we. The illusions that we created for ourselves start to fall away and we see life in plain view.
Having emotional sobriety is realizing that only we can fill the void that resides within us with something deep and spiritual. We look at ourselves and realize we no longer need anyone. We may want them, but we no longer need them. It can come as a bit of a shock to realize that a long term relationship is built on the shifting sands of codependency. The sands are slipping away, being eroded with time. The trick of course is what to do about it. Do we let it go or start sand bagging?
I have a friend who is also sober and in a relationship that is interdependent, that is the opposite of codependent. I envy them. The couple compliment each other perfectly and neither is dependent on the other to be the person they want them to be. They support each other and understand each others needs. They are together because they want to be, not because they have to be or need to be. Both are free to express their own individual qualities in the way that best defines them.
The outcome is a trusting and mutually beneficial partnership built on mutual love and respect. Both are empowered, self sufficient and self determinant because the nature of their relationship encourages it. Communication is open and honest; laughter is a daily part of their lives. The relationship is vital like a breath of fresh ocean air.
Accept the things
I don’t have a definitive solution for my situation. My strategy is acceptance and to take the view “this too shall pass and better times shall come”. I keep my side of the street clean and live in accordance with my principles. Realizing that one’s relationship is in trouble is a good start but knowing is not doing. Being unable to do much about it without the willingness of the other person is a problem. Then things could always be much worse. Things can seem bad and cause us pain but actually it is not the thing that does us harm but our reaction to it.
Being Jedi as well as being sober has taught me that we cannot force people to be one thing or another. They will decide for themselves and so should we for our own selves. We can try to improve situations through our own choices. If we are separated or divorced we can choose to be polite and civil to our estranged partner. There is no reason to answer one person’s bad behaviour or harsh words with more of the same. Promises should be kept and obligations met even if we would rather not comply. If someone lies to us we should not use it as an excuse to be dishonest in return. Children should never be used as a bargaining chip or held for ransom; they are innocent parties.
We may be stuck in a relationship that is dysfunctional and even terminal but we can still treat the other person with care, dignity and respect. Han Solo and Princess Leia set a good example. Married at the end of one war, separated decades later at the start of another. There was no animosity or blame between them. The fortunes of war and a shared love and concern for a very troubled son reunited them for a brief time. No matter what circumstance we find ourselves in our relationships, we still have a choice to be a good person.