Codependency: Addicted to Love

By Bill Manville 11/13/15

Tragic Grand Opera or Neurosis?

Image: 
Addicted to Love
Shutterstock

We were talking about divorce and first marriages and this being a dinner party in 21st century America, most of us at the table were qualified to chime in.

Never having been married himself, our host smiled.

 You can hear it at any AA meeting anywhere in the world: and resentment will get you drunk.

“A bachelor,” he said, “is a man who doesn’t make the same mistake once.” And pouring me a club soda, he went on: “But you, Bill,” he said, “didn’t you do it twice?”

Thinking of how my first marriage began, I felt a bite of memory—nostalgia, sweet and bitter at the same time.

A summer weekend on Fire Island, taking the ferry back Sunday night, we got in my car. 

“Let’s stay the night at my place,” she said.

I said something about work waiting for me at home, needing to get done before a 9 am meeting with my boss at the office. I was driving 60 mph. She opened the car door and tried to throw herself out.   

I can remember the moment; the lawn we sat on afterwards, how shaken we were, the moon above and how beautiful she looked. We were both 22 years old. I asked her why she would try to jump from a speeding car. She said unhappiness made her reckless.   

“'I have this fear of being abandoned. Bill, you have to take care of me,' she said."

“Magic words,” said Marianne Peck, another guest at the dinner party; an old friend and psychotherapist (MA,MFT. Modesto, CA, 209-631-7099) who specializes in codependency treatment. “And you, Bill,” she said. “When she said that, it made you feel--?"

"Someone as beautiful as she, needing me that much? Preferring death to life without me? Thinking about it today, it sounds very much the way a junkie feels about his meth. Coming home that night from Fire Island, I could have picked her up and carried her to the moon in my arms." 

"Like a tyro gambler winning $10,000 his first day at the track," said Marianne. "And after the poetry was over, how did the marriage go in everyday terms?" 

"It was suffocating. She needed me ever with her; couldn't even go to the grocery alone."

"And you went along with being ‘needed’ so much? Bottled up your resentment? Did nothing to change the basic bargain?"

"She was so helpless without me." 

"I still remember the opening line of your first novel,” said Marianne. "'I don't know how other guys feel about their wives leaving them,' it said, 'but I helped mine pack.'  Was that autobiographical?"

"She met another guy."

"In effect, she got you both out of the mess?"

"Yes."

"She was less paralyzed by co-dependency than you. Or less addicted to it."

"Addicted? I wasn't drinking—that came much later."

"Gamblers don't necessarily drink either," she said and played back one of my favorite ideas. "Addiction is behavior that may have begun as fun but now goes on even though it adversely affects your life and happiness, your finances, relationships and health. The thrill is gone, you hate it, swear you're going to stop, but you never do.   

“Bill,” said Marianne, who knows me perhaps too well, “you were addicted to co-dependency before you were addicted to alcohol but with Wife No. 1 gone, those feelings never got resolved. No wonder No. 2 also ended in disaster. You'll never be entirely whole until you recognize your part in what happened. She may not want to forgive you, but you must forgive her."

"Forgive her!"

"Yes."       

"I suppose you want me to pray for her too?  You're not a priest; you're not even my therapist!"

"You're my friend. Where'd the anger come from?"

Where indeed?

"That's resentment talking," Marianne said, "an ice cold flame you guard in your heart. Feelings like that will keep you addicted…to alcohol, gambling, food or even to lousy relationships. We bury our feelings and stay tied to the other far longer than is healthy.”

“We know the relationship is suffocating and wrong but we stay in it anyway? That’s what we resent—knowing better but not putting our feelings into action?”

“Resentment is like drinking poison,” Marianne said, “and thinking it will hurt the other. But –“

She did not have to finish the thought. You can hear it at any AA meeting anywhere in the world: and resentment will get you drunk.

To clarify my feelings, I had a more formal talk with Dr. Etty Garber, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

“What does not square with the idea that Wife No. 1 was co-dependent on me, that whole marriage seemed to hinge on the reverse: on her taking care of me. If I sat down to read here, she would say the light was better over there...if I put on a blue tie she’d say I’d look better in the red. I felt these infringements too petty to argue with—”

Etty was smiling. This was old stuff to her.

“Whatever you were doing, she wanted to be a part of it...to override your wishes and have you live out one of hers, right?  

“It became more serious when she said I was so good at my job it was unfair for the company not to give me a raise. ‘I want you to go into your boss’ office Monday and demand a 10% hike.’”

“She knew nothing of what your boss actually thought of your work, the present-day status of the company’s finances, or that maybe there were others in the office who’d be only too happy to take over your job?”

“She knew none of that but the nagging would not stop. ’I’m only thinking of what you deserve,’ she would say over and over.”

“When someone becomes attached to that degree of codependency, it becomes an obsession. They are determined to take over, manipulate and control the other person. They become so entangled in the other person's life to the point of being emotionally and sometimes physically parasitic. They portray themselves as sacrificing themselves for the good of the other person while convincing them it is for their own good. Only with insight can they recognize what they are doing—all this controlling—is really for THEIR own good, and that they are not really helping anyone else.”

“I remember saying to her I didn’t like her constantly watching me, even if it was supposed to be ‘for my own good.’ And when I added that I could use a little ‘benign neglect’—”

“She became angry?” 

“Blew up in a storm of rage and tears, accusing me of being ungrateful for all the work, care and love she showered on me.” 

“You were threatening to take away her image of herself—not as the sad, pathetic soul she suspected she was, but as the noble woman she pictured herself to be, sacrificing herself for your good.” 

“If I understand you,” I said to Dr. Garber, “in a codependent relationship, whatever the other does is not good enough unless mediated by the CoDa’s self-insertion into the other’s life.”

“Right,” said Dr. Garber. “The CoDa thinks she is devoted to the other’s well being—she has no insight at all into what she is doing. 

“The other half of the CoDa relationship,” she went on, “is why does the first allow himself to be controlled in this way? Experience shows he is usually someone who thinks he cannot function on his own. He needs to be told by someone else what to do and how to do it. That is also a manipulative behavior as they rely on someone to be responsible for them. They often portray themselves as helpless victims. Both CoDas have the following in common: they are both needy, feel very insecure, rely on others to provide them with the emotional support they crave, lack self-esteem and feel they cannot get along without the other. How did that first marriage end?”

“With a bit of expensive wisdom,” I said. “When I meet two people deeply in love, I like to advise them to get married as soon as possible so you’re not too old when you get divorced.” 

Droll enough but all-too-easy. 

Cynicism does not explain all of life. 

I got into email touch with the eminent Professor Shawn Burn, California Polytechnic State University, author of Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling and Other Dysfunctional Giving.

Did she feel codependency could be thought of as an addiction?

"I think it’s true that some dysfunctional helpers experience feelings of excitement and euphoria when they help. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this 'helper’s high' and some dysfunctional helpers and givers undoubtedly experience it when in rescuer mode. According to some, this helper’s high has addictive qualities because it activates the same brain pleasure centers stimulated by gambling or drugs. This is interesting to think about given that some people characterize codependence as an addiction. But I think there’s a lot more to codependence than addiction.”

Changing tacks, I asked her about something I could not answer in any way that satisfied myself. “When the Titanic hit an iceberg,” I wrote her, “Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Strauss—the R.H. Macy’s Department Store people—were passengers. The Captain offered Mrs. Strauss a seat in the last lifeboat off. When she learned there was not room for her husband, she got back out. “I will go nowhere without him.” They were last seen sitting together side-by-side on their deck chairs, waiting to drown. 

“Is this love in the Grand Operatic tradition of Tristan und Isolde,” I went on, “or the choice of someone so dependent that death itself is preferable to being abandoned and alone? Was Mrs. Strauss giving herself one last great OD of dependency satisfaction? As you see I am asking you something that has both philosophical and psychological facets.”  

“Personally,” Dr. Burn replied, “I wouldn't be too quick to jump to the conclusion that Mrs. Strauss was so dependent that death was preferable to life without her husband. In my chapter on gender and culture and unhealthy helping and giving I say that, ‘traditional gender roles for women prescribe other-centeredness and self-sacrifice for others. Sometimes that makes traditional women look like they’re codependent when they're just being good women as prescribed by their culture.’ (Though as I note in Unhealthy Helping, sometimes people 'over-enact' these cultural prescriptions to the detriment of themselves and those they love.)

“Mrs. Strauss might have been acting consistently with her role of good wife as she understood it. Also, at the time of Mrs. Strauss, women's social standing and identity were tied to their husbands, so death could've been preferable to the loss of social standing (and money) she might experience upon her husband's death. In other words, if she was dependent, it may have been a socially constructed dependency (the gender roles of the time led to women's dependency on men financially and for their social status). And, of course, it's quite possible that she truly loved her husband and did not want to go on without him. Codependent relationships are often built on misguided love, but if their relationship was characterized over time by a mutual caregiving, rather than by her extreme giving and his extreme taking, then I’d say it wasn’t codependence. There’s a big difference between codependence and interdependence and between healthy and unhealthy expressions of love.”

Dear Reader, what if co-dependency may be affecting you and your loved one? Trouble is CoDa does not constitute a hard-and-fast diagnosable condition. But ask yourself if any—too many?—of these primary symptoms apply to you:

How much of your self-esteem rests on people-pleasing behaviors? The codependent may also have poor boundaries, fear being alone, and deny his or her desires and emotions. Other characteristics may include:

  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Denial of personal problems
  • Excessive focus on the needs of others
  • Discomfort with receiving attention or help from others
  • Reluctance to share true feelings for fear of displeasing others
  • Low self-esteem
  • Internalized shame and helplessness
  • Projection of competence and self-reliance.

I could go on but I think you see the pattern. More questions?  Bang up: Co-Dependents Anonymous

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Disqus comments
Disqus comments