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.