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Freedom From Codependency
A Christian Response
Other books by Philip St. Romain
Find out more about the online audio conferences on Codependency by Dr. St. Romain.
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One Liguori Drive
Copyright © 1991,
All rights reserved. No
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Years ago, when I first attended an Al-Anon
meeting, the chairperson introduced herself as a grateful
codependent. She meant that her codependency taught her that she was
powerless over other people and led her to the program of Al-Anon
with its life-saving message. In a similar vein, I would like to
express gratitude to the many addicts I have lived with and worked
with through the years as both a family member, a roommate, and a
counselor. I have learned more about the meaning of Christian love
through my relationships with addicts than I have from anything
What Is Codependency?
During the past fifteen years, hundreds of thousands of individuals and their families have undergone therapy for chemical dependency. For these people, terms such as codependency, ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), relapse, and recovery have become household words. The language of addiction and recovery is already shaping the way they are coming to grips with issues of identity, relationships, and spiritual growth.
For many ministers and lay people in the Church, the concept of codependency is the most valuable contribution of the recovery movement to contemporary life. People who are not alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive overeaters, or gamblers (the addictions most recognized by the public) often view the addiction/recovery model of mental and spiritual health as an irrelevancy unconnected to their own lives. "I'm glad there is help for those other people" expresses their attitude.
The concept of codependency, however, has immensely broadened our understanding of the nature and pervasiveness of addiction in our culture. The term codependency was first used to describe the dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving evidenced by spouses and children of chemically dependent people, but within the past ten years the concept has taken on a much wider application. We have come to see that spouses of alcoholics are not the only ones who allow people and circumstances outside their control to determine their experiences of happiness and pain. This is what codependents do, and it is a very painful predicament.
A Case Study
No one who drinks alcohol sets out to become an alcoholic. By the same token, no one enters a relationship with another human being intending to become a codependent.
This was certainly true for Jane. When she and Tom married, they were both healthy young people. They had college degrees, satisfying jobs, close relationships with friends and family members, enjoyable hobbies, and an interest in their church community. They also had each other, and their relationship as a couple was primary to them. They also enjoyed their jobs, friends, family, hobbies, and church, so they were able to keep a balance in their relationship. They did not smother each other with their love. After two years of marriage their first child was bom and Tom and Jane appeared to be on their way to realizing the great American dream.
About that time Tom also got a significant promotion in his job. He accepted the position of supervisor over a large region of his company. This promotion brought a considerable pay raise that enabled him and Jane to purchase a new home for their growing family and allowed Jane to remain at home with Stacey, their baby girl. The unpleasant side of the promotion was that it called for Tom to travel out of town for several nights a month. Since their relationship was strong, however, Jane and Tom believed they could handle it.
During his travels away from home, Tom attended many business luncheons and dinners. Inevitably, alcohol was served before and during these meals. Considering himself a social drinker -- he seldom drank to excess, even in college -- he saw no reason to refuse a drink or two during these meetings. Besides, he told himself, with everyone else drinking, it would have been impolite to abstain. Since Tom seemed his usual self upon his retum from each of these trips, there was no problem.
Tom did not know that his grandfather had been an alcoholic. His dad never drank and had never spoken of Grandpa's alcoholism. Grandpa had managed to stay sober during the years when Tom knew him, and the family never discussed his previous drinking years. Yet, like his grandfather, Tom had a biochemistry capable of developing alcoholism. In truth, he liked the way he felt when he drank, and he found himself drinking more and more at his business meals. He also saw no reason to avoid drinking at home, since he was an adult and could afford it. These two factors-- enjoying the feeling alcohol gives and the ability to use more and more of the drug (tolerance) -- are necessary if alcoholism is to develop. Like a biochemistry predisposed to alcoholism, these two factors are inherited.
At first Jane saw nothing wrong with Tom's drinking at home. Unlike Tom, she did know something about alcoholism. Her father was an alcoholic, and she had grown up witnessing firsthand his drunkenness and quarrels with her mother. Like Tom's grandfather, Jane's father had quit drinking, but not until Jane was a teenager. Frequently angry and cranky, he boasted about quitting on his own, telling his family they should be grateful that at least he wasn't drinking anymore. Jane knew what heavy drinking was like, and Tom was no heavy drinker -- at least not at first.
After seven years of marriage, Tom's drinking had steadily increased, and he began to give up healthy involvements. He seldom went to church, visited with family members, or played golf. Tom and Jane now had three young children, and Tom frequently complained about the noise and normal clutter children create in a home. His life consisted of going off on business trips, working long hours when he was in town, drinking alcohol, and watching television. Except for sex, he showed little interest in Jane. After seven years of marriage, Tom had become a chronic alcoholic.
Because Tom's alcoholism developed slowly, Jane did not recognize it for what it was. She rationalized that the longer periods he spent away from home were part of his job. She explained his increased drinking as just his way of relaxing after long hours at work. It bothered her that he had little time for family, friends, hobbies, and church; but she figured that it was all a passing phase in their life together. One day, she reasoned, Tom's work would let up and they could go back to being the happy couple they once were. She was lonely, but her days were so filled with the needs of their three small children that she could avoid facing this loneliness.
When Tom finally started getting drunk at home, Jane knew he had a problem; but she didn't know what to do. Her dad had stopped on his own; maybe Tom would too. She asked him to stop many times, but each time this only started an argument that led to more drinking. There were even times when Tom blamed her for his drinking -- telling her she had gotten fat and wasn't attractive anymore. It was true, she admitted, that she had put on a few pounds. And no, she didn't feel like having sex.
Realizing that Tom was pulling away from her and everything they had once held dear, Jane tried hard to make him happy and avoid making him mad. She cooked his favorite meals, kept the house clean, rented videotapes for the' kids to watch so they would be quiet when he was home, and even submitted to more frequent sex with him. She also assumed responsibilities that had once been his -- like paying the bills, mowing the lawn, and putting out the garbage. Eventually, her life became focused on keeping Tom happy so he wouldn't drink.
Her efforts didn't work,
however. Although at times Tom did show appreciation for all Jane did
for him, more often he found something to complain about. And he
didn't stop drinking. In fact, his drinking increased. Jane became
even more determined than ever to bring him back.
"Fine!" Jane responded. "Tom's really doing well at work, and the kids are making good grades at school."
Jane was unaware that Paula, who attended Al-Anon meetings, knew about Tom's drinking problem. Like many people in her situation, Jane deluded herself that she had succeeded in hiding their family "secret" from the rest of the world. Paula decided to ease into the topic by asking why Jane had dropped out of the bowling league they both had been part of for years.
"There's just too much going on at home," Jane responded. "Tom and the kids seem to need me more than ever."
"I haven't seen you at church lately, either," Paula noted.
Jane began to feel guilty, but she responded defensively. "Well, we just don't like that new pastor. All he ever talks about is money!"
"I think Father Jones is doing a good job," Paula replied. "Are you sure everything's okay with you? You seem distracted, preoccupied -- not your old self at all."
By this time Jane couldn't wait to get out of the store. She considered moving to another line, but this would be difficult with Paula standing behind her. Besides, she was already running late, and Tom would surely be angry, since she left him at home with the kids. Preoccupied with these worries, she failed to notice that she hadn't answered Paula's question.
"What's wrong, Jane?" Paula finally asked. "Is it something with you and Tom? Bill and I have been through it too, but things are much better since he went through treatment for his drinking."
"Drinking!" Jane exclaimed, feeling insulted. "Tom doesn't have a drinking problem! I mean, he drinks a little every now and then, but he still has his job, and he's home every night he's in town!"
"I didn't say Tom had a
drinking problem," Paula replied.
Paula nodded sadly, seeing in Jane the person she had been two years before.
Characteristics of Codependents
During my years of counseling with hundreds of codependents, I have often been struck by the consistency of the characteristics they presented. This consistency holds true for chemically dependent people as well; the people are unique, but their disease is not. It is the same with measles too, I suppose; the symptomatology is similar across a wide spectrum of people. This consistency of symptoms convinces me that codependency is an addictive disease process and not merely a "personality type."
The symptoms of codependency are the same as those for other addictions. The only difference is that while other addicts are focused on alcohol, drugs, work, gambling, sex, and so forth, codependents are focused on other people -- usually one person in particular. The long-term characteristics of codependency are described below.
Obviously, these characteristics of codependents describe a person who is very, very miserable. Friends and acquaintances often ask, "Why do codependents allow themselves to deteriorate so badly? Why don't they get a grip, stand up for themselves, and take better care of themselves?"
These questions will be answered in the next section, Codependency as Addiction. For now, however, I will say that no person ever intends to become a codependent -- just as no one intends to become an alcoholic or drug addict. Considering the example of Tom and Jane, we can easily see the insidious nature of addictions. Neither intended to become an addict. Codependency progressed slowly. The progressive loss of inner freedom makes one increasingly vulnerable to the addictive processes at work in the mind. In short, it's not the codependent's fault that this has happened.
Codependency as Addiction
The history of recovery groups in this country has much to teach us about codependency. Typically, spouses of alcoholics viewed the behavior of the alcoholic as the source of all their marital problems. For decades counselors and clergy have heard, "If he (she) stops drinking, I'll be okay." Then in the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous, which has helped millions of people recover from alcoholism, was founded. The alcoholic did stop drinking and did begin to experience a much more enjoyable life. Most curiously, however, the alcoholic's spouse often did not become okay as a result. Quite frequently the spouse remained resentful, external-referenced, and anxious about relapse. "What if it doesn't last?" became the new focus of anxiety.
In other words, the
alcoholic's spouse did not become well simply because the alcoholic
got better. These spouses discovered that living with addiction had
changed them. They were not the people they had been before their
lives began to deteriorate. Furthermore, they did not even know what
was wrong or what to do to help themselves. They continued to nag and
caretake though there was no longer a need to do so. In time, enough
spouses and family members recognized that they needed precisely the
kind of help for themselves that alcoholics were finding in AA. They
began meeting with others in the same predicament to talk about how
they had been affected, and they began using the Twelve Steps of AA
to recover their lost selfhood. Al-Anon, the fellowship that grew out
of these meetings, endures as one of the most positive influences for
mental and spiritual health in the world today.
If the addictive system is to be disempowered, the first step is giving up the fix. The alcoholic must stop drinking; the gambler must stop gambling; the codependent must stop enabling, people- pleasing, nagging, and using other means to try to control people. This is not all there is to recovery, of course, but it is a beginning. If the fix is not given up, the addictive system will continue to function. Once the fix is given up, the stormy feelings and delusional beliefs persist, but they can be dealt with over time.
Another contribution of the addiction field is the recognition of fix-indulgence as a spiritual issue. Whatever our lives are centered on -- that is our god. Therefore, recovery calls for finding a new center -- a Higher Power -- around which to rehabilitate the mind. It is almost impossible to recover from any addiction without finding a new center. And it is here that conventional forms of psychotherapy fail people most acutely. Because they deal only with the clouds in the storm and avoid the issues of centeredness and spirituality, conventional therapies usually provide, at best, band-aid solutions for codependents in distress.
Stages of Codependency
Most of our discussion up to
this point has focused on codependency as it is manifested in its
later stages. Like other addictions, however, codependency develops
through a series of earlier stages.
Perhaps the literature on codependency has been so well received by the public because many people are in at least the early and middle stages of codependency. Who is there among us who has never been caught up in people-pleasing and approval-seeking behavior? All that is lacking for this behavior to proceed into chronic addiction is a dysfunctional environment of some kind. Many people who live with addicts or who find themselves tied to other emotionally demanding situations in the home, school, church, or workplace find themselves in exactly such an environment.
In addition to the addiction and psychiatric views of codependency, there is another approach commonly found among the churches. We shall call this the moralistic model. A counselor working from this approach sees addictions in terms of moral weakness or moral strength. Alcoholics, for example, are considered sinners. It is held that they could stop drinking if they wanted to and if they called upon God for help. According to this reasoning, alcoholics who do not stop drinking must not want to stop. Hence, they must not care for their families; therefore, they are selfish sinners -- bad people!
Unfortunately, the moralistic approach to addictions is by no means a rare phenomenon. It is the approach taken by many Fundamentalist pastors, and it also influences the attitudes of many a in the mainline Christian churches.
Counselors working out of the addiction model will certainly acknowledge that addicts violate their own ethical values. Unlike the moralistic counselors, however, addiction-model counselors maintain that the ethical deterioration of the addict is a consequence of addiction -- not the cause. The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated. In the moralistic model, addicts are judged as bad people who need to become good; in the addiction model, addicts are viewed as sick people who need to recover. There is a difference between the labels "bad" and "sick," especially when applied to the addict struggling to recover.
Because moralistic counselors view alcoholics (sex addicts, gamblers, and so on) as bad people, they naturally see codependents as good people. They say things like "I don't know how she could live with him; she must be a saint!" In counseling the codependent, they frequently reinforce the codependent's view of herself or himself as a martyr suffering through this life for the sake of a "treasure in heaven." They frequently discourage the codependent from leaving the marriage, even if it is abusive, for such moralizers are opposed to separation and divorce. Their counseling strategy often focuses on helping the codependent find ways to change the addict (or other cause he or she is focused upon). In these and many other ways, moralistic counselors actually enable codependents to progress in their illness.
Expanding the Metaphor
Almost everything we have said so far about codependency has been in the context of living with chemical dependency. This is the context in which codependency was first described and recognized as an addictive disorder in its own right.
During the past ten years, however, the concept of codependency has been extended beyond the context of chemical dependency. Many who were not living with chemically dependent people nevertheless recognized in themselves the same addictive patterns described in this chapter. Living with gamblers, work addicts, religion addicts, sex addicts, and chronically ill and needy people often leads to codependency. In addition, some romantic relationships become addictive even when there is no addiction or physical illness involved.
Despite a wide range of views on codependency, everyone agrees that it is an unhealthy centering of one's life in another person. Whether that person is an addict or not does not seem to matter. Thus, the word codependency is applied today to a wide range of approval-seeking and people-pleasing behaviors. People who seek to impress others, people who have a "messiah complex," people who have low self-esteem -- all are being called codependents. Sharon Wegsheider-Cruse, a leading writer on this topic, defines codependency as "a treatable disease characterized by preoccupation as well as groups of extreme dependencies on other persons (emotionally, socially, sometimes physically) or substances (such as alcohol, drugs, nicotine, and sugar) and on behaviors (such as workaholism, gambling, and compulsive sexual acting-out)" (The Counselor, March/April 1990). For her, codependency is practically synonymous with dependency and addictive involvement.
In the absence of a national standard on the definition and characteristics of codependency, it is likely that this word will continue to be used to describe a variety of behaviors. I use it to refer to addictive relationships of all kinds -- whether with addicts or others. Having counseled with many codependents and observed their suffering firsthand, I take this disease very seriously and know from personal experience how difficult it is to break free of it. Therefore, I will continue in this book to speak of codependency as an addiction and not merely a bad habit.
Just as many people who drink do so abusively at times but do not become alcoholics, many people demonstrate codependent behaviors at times without becoming codependents. Obviously, then, I emphatically disagree with Sharon Wegsheider-Cruse and others who maintain that the overwhelming majority of people in our culture are codependents. This is not even true for members of alcoholic families! The term codependency is trivialized and made meaningless when it is applied to everyone who, at some time or other, demonstrates approval-seeking and people-pleasing behavior. Most people can stop doing this rather easily; codependents cannot.
Nevertheless, I am glad that
the term codependency has escaped its previous exclusive association
with chemical dependency. Many codependents are suffering in other
contexts. Expanding the metaphor to include all addictive
relationships can help these suffering people recognize their
predicament and avail themselves of the various Twelve Step
fellowships (for instance, Al-Anon, Co-Dependents Anonymous, Adult
Children of Alcoholics) that can help them find their way to new
life. This is a most welcome development indeed!
Addictive Behaviors Checklist
For each of the characteristics listed below, check the behaviors which apply to you. Consider your relationship with other people, alcohol, drugs, work, sex, shopping, television, gambling, and food. (Do the questionnaire for each of these involvements).
1. When I am feeling down, I frequently turn
to this activity
1. When I caretake, I assume responsibility
for meeting the needs of others -- even those needs which they should meet
The Twelve Steps
of Alcoholics Anonymous
The Twelve Steps are reprinted and adapted with permission of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Permission to reprint and adapt the Twelve Steps does not mean that AA has reviewed or approved the content of this publication, nor that AA agrees with the views expressed herein. AA is a program of recovery from alcoholism. Use of the Twelve Steps in connection with programs and activities which are patterned after AA but which address other problems does not imply otherwise.
Note: These Twelve Steps can be used as a program of recovery from any addiction. Simply replace the word "alcohol" with the addictive behavior (example: caretaking, sexual expression, shopping) and then do the work each step requires.