There’s an old joke : How do you know if you’re codependent? When you die someone else’s life flashes before you.
Codependency is no joke nonetheless. When Nancy Sykes sang As long as he needs me in the musical Oliver! shortly before being murdered by her partner, she spoke for the millions of codependent people around the world who are in abusive relationships but cannot break free.
Codependency is an important issue for staying ageless because of the emotional stress it causes.
Codependent adults usually had an emotionally deprived childhood. A child who does not have his/her emotional needs met and who was surrounded by significant adults saying things such as, “Who do you think you are?” if the child asks for something is likely to develop codependency. A traumatic event before the age of six months is thought to cause the worst form of this crippling condition, programming the child’s subconscious to associate love and pain. A normal loving relationship between respectful adults doesn’t feel right to codependents (it is often discounted as boring, and the partner fails to command respect in the codependent).
The codependent is frequently exposed to angry outbursts from their partner. They react by dissociating – switching off emotionally – something they learnt to do as children when physical escape was impossible. Healthy people know when someone is angry it is the angry person that has to deal with their emotions. Codependents find anger terrifying, since they assume the anger is their fault – a message they picked up from their parents, who may have actually stated this was the case on numerous occasions when the real reason was work or marriage-related stress. But codependents are, none the less, addicted to expressions of distress and anger in others.
The codependent therefore believes everything is their fault and that they are responsible for the emotions of their significant others. This leads to toxic shame, the default setting for codependent adults.
Toxic shame causes someone to second-guess everything they feel and believe. Disagreements with others will lead to panic and severe feelings of guilt. They seek out people with problems because they do not believe they deserve healthy people, and through helping someone they find identity and self-worth. Compliments are shrugged off and rapidly discounted, and they apologise all the time. Many codependents are driven, high achievers – doing well in school was the only way to gain their parents’ approval when they were young. Their emotional lives are therefore often chaotic. They have problems setting boundaries, since their parents failed to respect the child’s boundaries. The parents of adult codependents may continue to do this throughout their lives –for example, entering a bedroom or bathroom without knocking, going through their things, telling them they are self-obsessed if they express feelings and so on.
Self-care is a big problem with codependent people, who feel it is self-indulgent. They will have been given the message when young that they did not deserve time out. Codependents feel an urge to spend any free time getting chores or odd jobs done.
Sam is a typical case. He booked a holiday for him, his two children and his new partner, a volatile young woman called Alicia. The children wanted to camp but Sam felt it would be better to book the hexagonal building on the camp site known as the folie, away from the other families. He told himself this was for more comfort. During the holiday, on cue, Alicia turned on Sam and began to abuse him in front of his children when she saw he had forgotten to pack her cigarettes. Idiot, asshole, can’t trust you to do anything, you make me want to vomit….her screaming went on for hours.
The cigarettes were an excuse of course: Alicia was repeating a pattern of severe holiday rows she had experienced in her childhood. Her mother had ruined all the family holidays. Alicia developed borderline personality disorder as a result and proceeded to do the same to her own loved-ones.
Sam’s background was being raised by narcissistic parents. Sam developed codependency. As Alicia screamed at him, he realised he had booked the folie because he knew Alicia would have several violent outbursts during the holiday and wanted to avoid the shame of being right next to other campers who would have overheard everything.
Alicia finally took the car and drove off at speed, leaving Sam with his two frightened children and no transport. In doing this she was reproducing the behaviour of her father who would regularly storm out of the house and drive off dangerously, disappearing for days. Her father had once abandoned the entire family without transport in the middle of the countryside leaving them to find their way home – ten hours away – by taxi and train with all the luggage.
Sam simply waited for Alicia to return, feeling a crushing sense of grief, rage, embarrassment she had humiliated him in front of his children, and shame. These negative emotions are also highly addictive. That night she returned. The screaming fit had ended, and she veered once again to idolising him, as borderlines always do. He apologised to her even though he wasn’t sure what for. This seemed to satisfy Alicia, and she complained of chronic stomach pain, a complaint which had plagued her for their entire relationship. He showed empathy, and cared for her. Sam’s codependency told him to just forget about the abuse and rage, for the sake of peace and Alicia’s health.
What should Sam do in such a relationship?
• Separate his feelings from Alicia’s.
• Stop giving her support at such personal cost.
• Stop modelling victimhood to his children.
• Stop playing the role of enabler. His compassionate attitude ensured Alicia would repeat the behaviour over and over on every holiday they would have from then on. Instead, he should have found a way of ensuring her bad behaviour had severe consequences.
• Realise that when Alicia stated she adored him, this actually meant that she needed him. Someone who loves us does not plunge us into mental and emotional turmoil and does not seek to humiliate us.
• See the humour in the repeated drama they are both playing out, and extract himself from the relationship immediately. This is helping Alicia change her behaviour which is ruining her health.
• Rehearse over and over how he will react next time he finds himself being drawn back into the same scenario – with her, or with someone else.
Sam eventually left Alicia a few months later, when she betrayed a secret he had entrusted her with. This action by Alicia was an act of revenge – common BPD behaviour – after an argument when she had accused him of being with another woman (he was in fact at a social event at work at which he had volunteered to provide drinks). Four months separation followed. Alicia had intensive therapy, and sent a mutual friend around to beg for another chance, saying she could not live without Sam.
Sam had not found anyone else with whom he had experienced such a bond. In fact he had not found anyone else at all in those four months. He agreed to see her, but not to live with her, and said if there is one more abusive incident when we are on holiday, our relationship will be over for good. Sam felt good about himself for saying this. For four further months Sam and Alicia were ecstatically happy. Alicia was a very funny, intelligent and attentive girlfriend, not to mention beautiful. She utterly captivated him. He was delighted he had agreed to give her another chance. He called this compassion, and understanding for her abusive background. He took her to Paris for a romantic weekend to celebrate their reunion.
On the second day, when he expressed exasperation over a work issue, she flew into a rage at him for ruining their weekend away with his ‘stupid problems’. To Sam’s astonishment, the exact same scenario ensued as on the camping holiday. He felt his bloodstream fill with adrenaline and toxic stress hormones. She left the hotel in a fury, and this time he did not wait for her to return. He paid the hotel bill and travelled home alone. Six months silence ensued, and Sam began to read books about codependency and setting personal boundaries.
This Christmas Sam’s children are going to their mother’s. He has not found another partner. Alicia will send him gifts, and then call him. The old loneliness from Sam’s childhood will return, and he will take her call.
Codependency is an addiction every bit as powerful as heroine. It is ruinous to our health, to the length of our telomeres, and therefore to our lifespan.