How Fear of Codependency Can Backfire
Beth was days away from her storybook wedding. Her excitement about beginning life with the man of her dreams radiated through her giddy smile. All her friends were doing it. And finally it was her turn. What could be wrong with this picture?
Only Beth knew of the knot she secretly harbored in her gut. She was so confused by the wound-up ball of fear. Its persistence was unsettling. Beth wondered how excitement and giddiness, worry and fear, could coexist in one being. This was not a time for worry, but she couldn’t wish it away.
Rattling around in Beth’s head were the disturbing words of advice from her well-intentioned mother. It was those words that had manifested, and without invitation, taken up residence in her tummy. They lay heavy and tumultuous, threatening to ruin her big day…and her marriage!
Beth’s mother had repeatedly warned her: “do not give up your “self” for your husband or your marriage. If you even show signs of needing him too much, he’ll suck the “you” right out of you. It’s your life Beth, a ring shouldn’t change that.” With that, she handed her daughter a neatly wrapped stack of books on codependency that she hoped would change her life. She hoped that Beth’s marriage would be different than her own had.
Ouch! That was some tough advice to begin a marriage with. Beth adored her fiancé and was ecstatic about doing life together, hand-in-hand. They had learned pretty early on that their gifts were quite different. They had felt that they completed each other. That together they made one amazing person. Beth loved helping her soon-to-be hubby with his organizational deficiencies. She was grateful for his encouragement (and tutoring) to finish college. Their partnership felt safe. Her mother’s red alerts were troubling her soul.
After years of living in a disconnected relationship with Beth’s mom, her dad had run off with another woman. His reason: “honey, your mother and I have grown apart”. In reality, they had spent 20-some years living in two different worlds, parallel lives. Of course they had grown apart. And the love, romance and connection of their youth had been gone for many years.
Beth’s mother gave the only advice she knew to protect her daughter from the same fate. Do not become dependent on her soon-to-be husband. But Mom’s advice would not protect Beth from a bad marriage.
Her advice, if heeded, would result in a very lonely and disconnected relationship, just like her mother’s had been.
We were created for relationship with others. In fact, we need others. We will only find our best self with others.
We will become our best self in a secure, loving relationship with our spouse.
Marriage is not about competition or a race to see who can become their best self first. It’s not about having to do it on our own. It’s about supporting, encouraging and helping each other to be all they can be. It is filling in the gaps of your beloved. That’s what marriage is about.
“Completing each other” is a wonderful thing about marriage. It’s one person putting the butter in the brownie mix while the other adds the chocolate. Without both, you wouldn’t have a brownie.
Relationship advice often suggests something quite the opposite. Many will caution against spending too much time with your partner, or rearranging your life to satisfy your partner’s needs. Big warnings are given about the danger of enmeshment or codependency, that our personal growth will be stunted when we become overly concerned about others’ needs. Many consider it dangerous to be filling in the gaps of your partner.
The concept of co-dependence came out of Alcoholics Anonymous, where it was believed that the problem was not solely the addict, but also the family and friends who constitute a network for the alcoholic.
I am NOT here to discredit that thinking as part of the addictions world and the need to look at codependency as part of their recovery journey. That said, I do believe that the concept of codependency has far too often induced unhealthy fear and caution into relationships.
Outside of the addictions world, unhealthy dependency, or co-dependency, is about extraordinary clinginess, where one person doesn’t feel self-sufficient. When we enter into a relationship with negative feelings about our self-worth or we carry unhealed trauma into it, we can be needy in unhealthy ways.
But hear this, healthy dependency is not the cause of relationship disconnection and marriage failure.
Going into a relationship fearful of the co-dependency label will assure you of one thing…
Missing out on a secure, loving, fulfilling, healthy relationship where you and your partner will become your best selves in the arms of each other.
A very wise man once said “there is no fear in love.”
Abandon fear, embrace love…and find your best self along the way!
I’m Michael W. Regier, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and EFT Supervisor in Visalia & San Luis Obispo, California. I help couples create secure love relationships. Along with my wife Paula I authored the book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love. And we have developed an online learning course based on the science of attachment and healthy relationship.