Mutually Assured Destruction: Codependency
When considering a relationship there’s an adage in Alcoholics Anonymous that states: “Well, in your first year of sobriety, buy a plant, at the end of that year, buy a pet, and IF… at the end of that second year, they are both still alive, that would be when I would recommend starting a relationship.”
What is that about? Why should someone who struggles with addiction wait until they are sober for two years before getting into a relationship? This advice is meant to help avoid a pattern of codependency that can often arise in new relationships. However, codependency is not restricted to addicts, we can all fall into this deadly trap. Codependency is a relationship pattern that results in the emotional fusion of the partners. Both people become obsessed with each other and feel as though they cannot be separate, even for a moment. Additionally, the two partners tend to become cemented in rigid, polarizing roles.
This is problematic because, throughout our lives, we grow and change. Our capabilities for action and our needs shift. If our relationships are static they will no longer be able to meet our needs and help us to feel loved. Additionally, there are times when we need to be separate from our partner, if the thought of this is debilitating we are handicapping ourselves. Codependent relationships, at their best are unsatisfying and stifling while, at their worst, abusive. During a codependent relationship communication breaks down as the partners resign to playing almost cartoon-like roles.
This can take a variety of forms. Perhaps the most common is the Hero/Victim relationship. The Hero in the relationship tries to manage both of the member’s lives and refuses to be vulnerable themselves. The Victim on the other hand, remains subordinate to the Hero and refuses to step up and accept the responsibilities of daily life. Both partners get something from this arrangement, the Hero gets to feel powerful and in control, while the Victim feels cared for and protected. After awhile the Hero will begin to build resentment, “why doesn’t my lover care about me!” and the Victim will feel infantilized, “Don’t they know I can take care of myself!?”
A more sinister and extreme version of this pattern is the Saint/Sinner relationship. The Saint convinces the Sinner that they are unlovable or crazy and that they are lucky to have them in their lives. The Sinner feels like the Saint is the only one that will every love them and devotes themselves completely. Similar to the Hero/Victim relationship the Saint gets to feel powerful and often righteous while the Sinner feels blessed and connected. Saint/Sinner relationship can often devolve into an emotionally abusive situation. Many people in the Sinner role deeply believe that they are unlovable and will not leave their Saint, no matter what atrocities happen in relationship.
Another pattern of codependency is the Narcissist/Cheerleader. A hallmark of narcissism is the beliefs that one own needs supersede the needs of anyone else. People with this personality type tend to attract Cheerleaders, or caretakers, those who tend to sacrifice their own needs in favor of the needs of others. In this relationship the Narcissist gets to feel supported and understood while the Cheerleader feels like they are part of something greater than themselves. This extremely polarity of needs often results in either partner acting out, the Narcissist repeatedly crosses boundaries while the Cheerleader begins to feel violated.
So what do we do if we find ourselves in a codependent relationship? If your relationship is emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive the best thing to do is to get out immediately and seek help from a professional therapist or a shelter.
If it is not then you can change the pattern by first increasing your awareness of your own needs and then working to communicate them with your partner. I recommend creating a relationship contract in which you write down what you would like from a partner, what behaviors would help to get those needs met, and then what happens if it all breaks down, crisis protocol (giving each other space, pledging to connect at least once a week, a safe word to say if a fight is becoming too heated).
Addicts tend to fall into codependent relationships because they often have very low self worth as a result of their addiction or a past trauma. They will often fall into the Victim, Sinner, or Cheerleader roles. It is important to recognize that codependency is not the only relationship option, it is possible, with proper boundaries and communication, to have a relationship that enlivens both members and inspires each of them to be the best possible versions of themselves. Love is out there, you just have to go our and get it. Remember, no matter your past or your present, you are deserving of love.