It’s All Mom’s Fault, or Is It?

We have focused many posts on the adult children of emotionally barren families.  As we go forward there will be posts on resilience and recovery for them.  But before we begin that, it’s important to complete the information on family structure.

As mentioned originally, this work began with work on families of alcoholics. Studies showed that an alcoholic was more likely to achieve and maintain sobriety when his wife went into treatment as well.  Originally this was intended to help her understand her addicted husband and to behave in ways that would enhance his probability of recovery.  In this context, the spouse of the addict (assumed to be the wife) was labeled the’ enabler’.  As the enabler, it was assumed that the partner helped the addict to remain hooked by taking over his responsibilities, providing income, refusing to set boundaries and generally feeding the addiction.  Finally, specialists realized that there is more to this partnership than an addict and a partner who helps him stay hooked on his drug of choice.

It became clear the spouse had issues of her own. There were good reasons why she was in a relationship with someone who brought so little emotional support to her and their family.  Work on the partner of an addict became intense and evolved into a field of study and treatment all in itself.  Eventually this role became named the co-dependent partner.

The word has been bandied about extensively in self help circles but at its’ simplest co-dependency means (according to Web MD) that the relationship means more to the individual than they do.  In simple terms, the codependent looks at her partner before getting out of bed and says “Good morning.  How are we today?” Everything is focused on him, even though she may become angry and hurt at his behavior and his choices.

Because her world, her very life rotates around her partner and his needs, children play a distant role. In all of our discussions, we have looked at the outcome for children raised in a home with emotionally absent parents.  What causes a partner to focus on a partner to the exclusion of all else?

For simplicity’s sake I have refered to the co-dependent as ‘she’.  This is the more common situation, but male codependents are not uncommon. The family dynamics are slightly different because of society’s expectations of the nurturing role of the genders, but for our purposes those differences will be ignored.

To understand codependency, simply remember that the partner is more important to the codependent than herself.  So she’s more concerned about how her husband feels than how she feels.  She’s more concerned with his stress than her own. She’s more worried about his success than hers. Whatever is going on, the partner will put all her energy into solving ‘his’ problem.  And since he doesn’t take any responsibility for the family’s emotional well-being,  she will always take on that as well…except that it comes way down her list of priorities.

Many children born of this union take great exception to mom’s choices and focus.  Often they seem to understand and accept that dad is emotionally unavailable, but Mom is supposed to be there.  Society says she is the emotional anchor of the family and if she’s not there, who’s running things? For children raised in these families, often much of their work centers on getting over their anger at their mother. And understanding that she is as influenced by her childhood as they are.

The irony of this behavior is that it is learned in the co-dependent’s family of origin.  Remember we come from hearty stock who settled the continent.  People survived by working from dawn to dark. It was necessary. Throw in addiction or wanderlust or any of many issues from our past and codependence begins.

Next post, we will look at the roles and how they behave in the role of codependence. Remember, use this for your information and education. It is not intended for diagnostic purposes.

About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
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65 Responses to It’s All Mom’s Fault, or Is It?

  1. forestfae says:

    Hi Louise, I have read with attention every word you wrote in this post, as some of it so echoed my own family setup. My mother is a alcoholic, as was my grandad. She is currently going through a divorce from my stepdad after beeing with him for 28 years. He fits the profile of a classic enabler to a tee, it amazes me that he had the strenght after so many years to a.) move out of the house for the first time ever, b.) filing for divorce.

    He has lost so much of himself throughout the years staying with her, at first he was rather apprehensive about me finding out that he has left her, but my heartfelt response to him was to go out and LIVE, grab life with both hands. He really deserves a bit of enjoyment and happiness poor man.

    Thank you for yet another very insightfull post, Louise.

    Take care

    • It is amazing that he had this kind of strength after all those years. You are a wise woman to understand how much he has lost in this marriage. And to encourage him to live – although if he is true to the role, that will be incredibly difficult without some sort of outside help. Thanks for sharing.

      • forestfae says:

        It really is amazing yes, and for the first few weeks I thought he made give up and go back to her as he himself has said to me on occasion that without him she will drink herself to death within a year.

        Yes he has lost a lot, self respect, dignity, his sense of self. It will be a long journey before he is able to live anything resembling a normal life, as he have been as trapped as she is for more than twenty years.

        I try and encourage him to go out to the movies, and meet friends for coffee etc, all the little things he could never do but so wanted before, as he was trapped by her destructive behaviour and too scared to leave her alone for any lenght of time as she has blackouts in which she falls her head open, or crack her ribs etc.

        • Addiction is a harsh taskmaster and doesn’t make a pretty picture. How are you in all of this? Sounds like you care for your stepdad. Will this be a personal loss as well or will you remain close?

          • forestfae says:

            No, it does not 😦

            I’m o.k now, I wasn’t two months ago. I experienced lots of guilt about what will be the inevatable outcome of my mom living on her own. Distance does add perspective though as I’m in the UK and she’s in Africa of course.

            My husband asked if I would like to go home and assess the situation for myself, and I gave it some real thought but decided against it in the end as the previous time that I went there for a visit 2.5 years ago ripped pieces out of my heart all over again like when I used to live near her. One can only face a drunken parent so many times, and stand for the verbal abuse, and clean up after them after they wet themselfes in a drunken stupor.

            I confronted her on the phone two months ago and told her that she needs to check herself into a rehab and admit that she is addicted to alcohol. She was screaming mad at me and the string of abuse gave me nightmares for a few weeks after. She is in total denial about her condition, and wouldnt even admit to it when my stepdad gave her the ultimatum of either going into rehab or him moving out.

            Yes I do care about him, he is a very soft target and always has been for her. A very mild mannered man.

  2. Maureen Fisher says:

    This is a very insightful post, Louise. I’m an adult child and can attest to the fact that I was strongly affected by my family’s addiction and emotional dysfunction. I have worked hard to break the cycle. Truth be told, it’s like peeling an onion–there’s always another layer–but I’m getting closer.

    I volunteer as a counselor’s aide at a local addiction center. My area of focus is on family and friends of addicts and alcoholics. Addiction is a family disease, often spanning many generations. There appears to be both a genetic predisposition and an emotional predisposition for the addiction itself. I agree that many co-dependants are attracted to the addict/alcoholic for emotional reasons, for example, the emotional distance feels familiar, the co-dependant needs to feel indispensable. Believe it or not, victimhood and martyrdom can be delicious as they attract sympathy and attention.

    • Maureen, I totally agree with you. we tend to live what we learned in childhood. So when we grow up with emotionally absent parents (regardless of why they weren’t there for us) we re-create normal in our adult lives. As you mentioned, it takes a lot of work for us to recover from these childhood losses. So often I see people who go from the extreme of their childhood to the opposite of that but then feel unfulfilled and empty. It is hard work and takes a long time but there is recovery – as you’ve shown. thnaks for stopping by

  3. Such an informative post, Louise. Your examples make grasping the topic easy. I feel so fortunate to have parents who put their personal needs first, closely followed by the others, closely followed by us kids’. 😉 It amazes me how insecurities can manifest themselves in countless different ways… and how deeply hereditary attitudes and behaviors can be.

  4. I’m very lucky. I had a very special mother who was there for all of us. My dad was a womanizer, drinker, and abusive to me because I stood up to him. And even he had some good qualities. lol

  5. Jennette Marie Powell says:

    What I find interesting is what the codependent does when the addict is no longer in her life (i.e. a death). Often, they’re so mired in the role, they either find another addict to nurture, or don’t last long. Thanks for another informative post!

    • Absolutely right Jennette. this behavior isn’t about the addict, it’s about the codependent’s choice on how to live – usually guided from the role they adopted in childhood. that’s why it’s so hard to change.

  6. Jill James says:

    My mom was a social alcoholic. But her addiction was love. I know, sounds like a corny song, but she put whichever man was in her life way ahead of us kids. Sometimes I feel like I hold back a little piece of me in my relationship with my husband just because I don’t want to be her.

    • Relationship addiction is common and very destructive to families. this is an Interesting realization, Jill. I think that would be a natural outcome from watching your mother. are you able to identify what you hold back? or is it just a sense that something is locked down?

  7. Coleen Patrick says:

    When I was growing up I remember my dad was the one I’d go to for school questions and my mom was the one who handled the “emotional” stuff. Later, when they divorced, I remember it being difficult for me to see them separate from that team of “needs.”

    • Those cultural standards about roles are still so prevalent. I’m not sure how to change them, but they’re there. and yes, it is difficult to separate our needs from their new roles and places in our lives.

  8. asraidevin says:

    Thank you for that simple definition of co-dependency. I’ve never really understood it or how to deal with it.

    • Asrai, I’m so glad I could add something to your understanding of life. that’s cool. I’m going to talk about it a bit over the next few posts, so hopefully you will learn a bit more about dealing with it.

  9. Hi Louise.

    This was the case in my family, only because my mother was raised in a religion that taught that women should be barefoot and pregant, and she was raised in the fifties so women were expected to cater to their husbands and that meant not dwelling on the problem but keeping the man of the house happy.

    I don’t resent my mother or have any anger issues at all towards either of my parents. After all, they were just passing on to their children what they themselves had been taught and what they believed to be true. That’s all any parent can do. You can’t teach what you don’t know.

    It’s sad to look back and see the dynamics but I guess I turned out okay so no complaints.

    Thanks for another informative post!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Exactly how I see it Pat. our grandparents worked from dawn to dusk and taking care of dad, who provided the income to support the family came first. children raised in that time learned the lesson well. and they keep teaching it, although now there are more problems than just working all the time. good for you to know this and not fuss about it. and to choose to live your life, your way

  10. Question, Louise. If a child doesn’t learn this behaviour at home because they come from a “normal” family, can they still become co-dependent if their spouse is an alcoholic? Or do they tend to recognize the problems early on in a marriage and get out fast?

    This is a wonderful addition to your series. Thanks, Louise!

    • We’re all unique, Sheila and this is a fairly complicated question but here’s some food for thought. Alcoholism is often described as a personality disorder with addictive use of booze as a symptom. (That’s why just stopping the booze doesn’t solve the problem of addiction.) So if a person came to me in this situation, I’d wonder what in her personality attracted her to a person with this personality type? Remember ‘normal’ is in the experience of the child – and only the child. so a family who looks good may still have these issues. that being said, a woman may marry a man who becomes an alcoholic but generally she wouldn’t stand for their selfishness for long and would leave. and well she should.

  11. Louise, very good, clear explanation of a very complex topic. Love this series of posts. Keep up the good work!

  12. An interesting, informative and well-written blog. I blog about trauma, among other things. Love to hear what you think.

  13. Fabulous post as usual, Louise! I’m curious, what would the wife be called if, instead of being co-dependent to the alcoholic husband she is in complete denial and focuses solely on herself? So not only is she not emotionally available to her kids, she shuts herself off emotionally from her spouse as well. Is that something that happens often or is that rare?

    • I have not seen that scenario very often. Usually, in my limited experience the mother has a mental illness of some sort, usually a personality disorder. Perhaps narcissism or borderline personality disorder. Depending on her behavior, this could also happen if she was depressed.

      one other scenario, in our context is if the wife was a lost child and is overwhelmed by hubby’s drinking. then she would withdraw from life and hide. that may look like hanging out with her friends (so that she is lost to her family) or it could be laying in her room with the lights out. but this is not something I’ve seen so I’ll have to think about it.

  14. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t know any co-dependent people. So it’s been interesting reading your post. That sort of personality might make for a really good secondary character in a book… 🙂

  15. iamnotshe says:

    Funny thing, dad was the enabler for mom. We all knew mom was the weak one. I don’t know if a child can be an enabler: But i tried to make her feel better too: The only thing that mattered was mom, and she was miserable. No blame: Just facts. I don’t remember what Jeff did. He was pretty “orbital” or perhaps non-existent in our little screwed-up family system. That’s when i got sick … i was exhausted trying to take care of mom, so dropped out of life and probably tried hard to “retire” from life ;-). Dang, things are better!!! RIP mommy. PLEASE!!! 😉

    • That dynamic does happen. There’s not a lot of research into the impact of dad as enabler. in some ways your experience mirrors what I’ve seen in my practice – a daughter will step in to ‘take on’ Mom’s role. Sounds like your brother disappeared from the family – figuratively, at least. Isn’t it wonderful to see how much better things are in your life now? and absolutely, RIP Mommy. take care

      • iamnotshe says:

        Yep, life is so much better. I always reserve the right to whine and moan at the drop of a hat however. STILL, i have way too much good stuff to not KNOW my gratitude.

  16. Imelda Evans says:

    Louise, I’m glad to have found your blog, this is fascinating. I’m curious as to how this maps to abusive relationships. Because my research suggests that strong women from healthy families can get drawn into that co-dependant role with abusive men. Sometimes because they think they can ‘fix’ him, but do you have any feelings about whether there are hidden scars that assist them being drawn into that web? (And I will understand if you can’t answer this. I realise it is a big question, I was just interested in the possible correlation)

    • It ahs been my observation, Imelda that families are complicated systems. What looks healthy on the outside might not be so much so on the inside. Also, an individual child in a family may react as if it is unhealthy, perhaps because their individual, personal needs are not being totally met. So the ‘seeds’ of codependency can be planted even in healthy homes. When that girl becomes a woman, depending on her personality, resilience, intelligence etc etc, she may end up in an abusive relationship because of her need to ‘fix’ him.

      I didn’t go into it on the blog but there is also an element of ego and/or pride in this role: i.e. I’m smart enough or strong enough or something enough to save this man from himself. I can and I will rescue him and he will be grateful to me for the rest of his life. And then he’ll love me for the rest of his life. So sometimes women end up in this role because of their sense of personal power, which is overdeveloped. In their view they can take this man and make something of him because they are more than him. Like any threatened animal, he may lash out. Not that she makes him abusive. Rather the combination of the two of them, both sensing they can get a need fulfilled in the other, brings them together.

      does that make sense? if not, email me on the contact form and we can discuss at greater length.

      thanks for stopping by.

  17. Imelda Evans says:

    Yes, that does make sense. I think those ‘seeds’ of future problems are placed more often than we know in apparently functional families, and, as you say, sometimes it is a bad combination of people that bring them out. I won’t take any more of your time now, since you have already been generous, but I’ll look forward to more posts on this. What we don’t understand, we can’t address!

  18. Karen McFarland says:

    Okay Louise, this was a popular post! It’s all mom’s fault. How many times have people said that? Co-dependacy. I’m trying to think of someone I know that’s like that. I think that at some time in our lives we need to own our stuff and stop blaming things on Mom, or whoever. 🙂

    • I totally agree – Moms get a bad rap. But this post is about Mom and her behavior. LOL You’re the second person in these comments who have said they’ve never seen this behavior. and you’re the first 2 people who has said that to me. usually everyone knows a couple like this…one partner dominant and the other working overtime to appease, keep the peace and make a difference. I find it fascinating. and you’re right, this is my most popular post – totally blows my mind.

      we’ll get into claiming our own stuff. as adults, we have to stop blaming our folks – it’s like they’re the garden. some soil is great for growing certain things while it won’t grow others. but then we grow up and we have to own our stuff and deal with it. (Otherwise i wouldn’t have a career LOL). thanks for stopping by.

  19. funnymel2 says:

    I find it interesting to observe my anger at these statements of “own our stuff “. I understand that as an adult I am responiable for me but because of the abuse I endured as a child I am very resentful for the stuff I have to own!! I’ve been told my mother did the best she could with what she had and mentally I get that but there is a part of me (my heart, my soul?) that finds that statement a real cop out!! I’ve been dealing with these feelings towards my mother for years now and I just am not able to forgive the fact that “my stuff ” was created by “her stuff ” . Right or wrong they are my feelings!

    • You’re entitled to your feelings Mel and they aren’t right or wrong. but ask yourself – do they serve your highest good? are they about moving forward or staying in the past? Like you I had a bunch of stuff about my mom but it was holding me back. when i took back my energy and owned my today, then mom’s stuff didn’t matter – even though it impacted me. remember this and we can finish it when we meet next LOL

      take care

  20. Another thoughtful, thought-provoking post. Thanks, Louise!

  21. Reetta Raitanen says:

    Very insightful post, Louise. I love learning from you about the family dynamics of a dysfunctional family. The co-dependent partner situation is going on with my in-law parents. My mother in-law is a drunk and everyone in the family tiptoe around the issue. I’m getting sick and tired of it since I never know whether it’s safe to take our kids for a visit. And they’re so disappointed every time grandma is ‘sick’ and we can’t go. When they grow up a little, it’s a hard decision what to tell them about grandma’s issue.

    • What a difficult situation Reetta. It is always amazing to me when families won’t be honest about what’s going on. it’s the elephant in the living room. we scoop up the mess and feed it and give it water, but heaven forbid we should talk about it. thanks for stopping by

  22. Louise,

    Another excellent post!

    I am with Mel; my dad was the enabler. It took literally years and years for me to convince Daddy that Mommy was a serious alcoholic. Even with the abuse he just could NOT see it. He finally admitted that she was indeed in serious trouble. HE cried and said “But the only time she is nice to me is at night when she is drunk. If she quits what will we have?” enabler? you bet!

    He just did not want to see what was going on.

    I would like to add that there is a 12 step program for co-dependents. I think it is referred to as CODA. I went to these meetings along with Adult children of Alcoholics meetings early in my sobriety and found tremendous help there. I am in only ACA now. Being an Adult Child and prone to codependent behavior myself; I found more help in staying sober in ACA and CODA than I did in AA. Weird. What works works ehh?

    Thank you for the amazing work you do here.

    XO Jen

    • Oh Jen, I am so glad you stopped by and shared. It is always tragic when one parent is so sick and the other is so codependent. But it’s certainly not uncommon, is it. CODA is very good for recovery but there isn’t any meetings in Calgary,last I checked. they had a couple of journalling meetings only. It is always amazing to me what works. the important thing is that it works. and keeps working 🙂

  23. Kourtney Heintz says:

    Hi Louise. Very insightful posts on co-dependence. Thanks for sharing this info. 🙂

  24. hcfbutton says:

    hey, i don’t know how well this fits in, because i’m trying not to diagnose (self or other), but what happens when a co-dependent leaves the relationship? can it transfer to friendships as well?

  25. iamnotshe says: I think you’ve got this nomination for READER APPRECIATION … but i’m nominating you again. Please accept in your free time? 🙂

    I’ll be back to read your post. Promise, xo

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