Love Is a Choice; Recovery for Codependent Relationships
By Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirth, Paul Meier
We mentioned in the last chapter that the opposite of dependence or codependency is not independence. It is interdependence. Perhaps our illustration of a relationship wheel can further clarify.
The Relationship Wheel
At the top of the wheel is that happy circumstance, the healthy, inter-dependent marriage. Two people stand close together with enough space between them to comfortably make room for God. Growth and beneficial change have room to work there also. The scale that would weigh dependence against independence is balanced.
As we travel the circle in a clockwise direction we tip the scale toward independence. The farther we go, the more deeply we get into independent attitudes. Counterclockwise motion indicates an exaggerated dependence in the relationship. Neither will serve the marriage well.
In some groups, the motion to the left, die counterclockwise drift, is promoted as being a healthy model for the Christian marriage. The newest trend in business dynamics casts the chief executive officer in a servant position. To him above all is given the role of serving selflessly both the corporation and its employees. Let us see what this movement to the left generates.
The first stop on the counterclockwise route may be labeled simply "dependence" or "a dependent relationship" wherein one person begins to lean excessively upon the other. The dependence might be caused by random or innocent circumstance-one of the partners becomes gravely ill, perhaps, or is incapacitated. It sometimes happens simply through laziness or convenience; let George do it. Or authorities may counsel the couple that the wife must be subservient, dependent upon the husband's whim and will. Less frequently, the husband may surrender independence to his wife. Should substance abuse enter the picture, the couple almost invariably slides counterclockwise, as the addictive partner leans ever more heavily upon the spouse.
Whatever the trigger mechanism, however random or innocent the beginning, both partners stand at great risk of slipping down into the next stage, "codependency."
Reversing Codependent Tendencies
In a healthy union the couple will work back up toward the top of the circle. For example, an associate at the clinic suffered a heart attack and was laid low for several months. Ron had to depend upon his wife for many functions and activities he had taken for granted as his prerogative since their wedding day. Suddenly it was she who handled the finances. She got the car lubed. She fixed the stopped-up drain, for he could not physically assume the stand-on-your-head positions it took to work on the grease trap.
As soon as he was able (and, frankly, in some cases before he was fully able-he had always lacked patience), Ron resumed a little normal activity. He picked up some of the more quiescent chores that had been hers, thereby spreading the work load fifty-fifty, even if the fifties were not the same ones they used to be. Although his impaired health prevented them from restoring their relationship identically to what it had been before, the overall balance was restored. By deliberately moving in the clockwise direction of independence-and not just physically but in mind and spirit-Ron brought them back again to the top of the wheel.
But what if dependence develops and the couple slides the other way, downhill counterclockwise? The leaner leans harder. The leanee, the "strong" one, in unconscious ways begins to lean as well. Each needs the other for a prop, a fix. They have assumed the A-frame configuration we call codependency. Both are dangerously off balance.
An Independent Relationship
In its effort to get away from the dependence of the counter-clockwise motion, the women's liberation movement thundered off the other way. Moving clockwise from the top of the circle poses hazards just as great.
- "We've drifted apart somehow."
- "I am me and he is he and we're not we anymore."
- "We don't know each other anymore. We live in separate worlds and they just don't seem to overlap at all."
As the couple moves farther clockwise the estrangement grows. Move far enough and the estrangement becomes antagonism, alienation. Instead of adding to the richness and diversity of marriage, differences become divisive. Usually, most of the differences were there from the beginning. Such a premium, though, has been placed upon independence that the differences become excuses, rationalizations, perhaps eventually weapons with which to attack each other.
Clients who study the wheel will nod. "Yes, I see. That's us, all right. Yes." But they are often startled by what happens at the bottom of the circle, at the extreme lower end from healthy balance. Both unhealthy codependency and unhealthy independence can end up in malignant codependency. Galloping codependency.
Our poor couple, both estranged and tilted, are now at nearly cross purposes. And yet, they're intricately bound. The lines become something of a braid, twisting, enmeshed, but never touching. There is monumental antagonism. There is a powerful sense of entrapment. Most of all there is intense anger at this point. Always.
Going In Both Directions Simultaneously
The wheel illustrates most of all how codependency and independence operate simultaneously. An excellent example is workaholism, and the classic workaholic is Tom Chambers. He sells real estate, not an easy job under the best of circumstances. At the height of his workaholism he would show you any property you wanted to see at any time of day or night. If you preferred talking business over dinner, he whipped out his credit card and took you to dinner. If you had time only to catch him in the morning, he closed the deal over the breakfast table. Weekdays, weekends, he was always available for business. He paid cash for the family's second BMW.
All this time his wife, Judith, the dutiful enabler, took on a disproportionate amount of the everyday family chores that were as much his responsibility as hers, such as time spent with the children. She handled all the nickel-and-dime, time-consuming details required for the maintenance of their cars, their home, and their lifestyle.
Tom and Judith became increasingly dependent upon each other. He couldn't spend that much time and effort on work if she didn't pick up the rest of the slack in his life-everything from stopping at the dry cleaners to making sure no insurance premiums and household bills went unpaid. She even wrote his thank-you notes to his parents for gifts they sent him. And yet she was utterly dependent upon him for the money and social prestige she enjoyed. They were completely enmeshed in each other.
After a time, also, they had become almost completely independent of each other. He had no part in her domestic world anymore. She certainly had no part in his business dealings. As enmeshed as they were in some ways, their daily spheres of living overlapped hardly at all. They became estranged, emotionally unavailable to each other as all these other factors crowded into their lives. Judith especially harbored intense anger for Tom's neglect and emotional distance. Alienation and distance deteriorated into open hostility. That hostility and anger spawned fights and noisy rounds of arguments and blame.
Tom and Judith's simultaneous descent down both sides of the relationship wheel is typical of couples in which one or both members are caught up in addiction or compulsion.
Not always do couples slide clear to the bottom of the wheel. They may drift clockwise, eventually to float away from the wheel into their separate universes. The union ends. Or they may find some sort of equilibrium partway down, living lives of quiet desperation, trying to survive until death.