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Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 3:13 am | Overcast 54º


Russell Collins: When Pop Psychology Hurts More Than It Helps

The answer to our codependency may be acknowledging our vulnerability, rather than hiding or resisting it

I know Gerald will always be there when I need him. He’s got my back. But we’ve gotten into a whole lot of unhealthy and codependent patterns. We go everywhere together, and spend way too much time at home. Now I’m starting to feel like I’m too clingy ... like I need him too much. — Chloe, age 32

Well, maybe, Chloe. But I know many healthy and happy couples who spend lots of time and do most of the important things in their lives together. And yet, I hear lots of self-critical stories like Chloe’s from people who regard their relationships as somehow dysfunctional because “we need each other too much.”

Largely, under the spell of misapplied psychological notions like codependency, a lot of us have accepted as gospel a really bad idea about human nature: that being emotionally healthy means we don’t need the people around us, most especially our life partners.

We All Need Someone We Can Lean On

Codependence, the word, came out of the 12-step movement and, originally at least, referred to a sort of addiction-like attachment to a person — the addict. Naturally, in that context, losing yourself in someone else’s identity is a big problem. But as the word became more popular in the late 1980s and ‘90s, (you can see its use skyrocket here), it began to have an insidious effect. People like Chloe who are unhappy in their relationships — or have a negative assessment about someone else’s relationship — use the term to mean that two people have become lost in each other’s emotional world. They can no longer tell where one of them starts and the other one ends. This is seen as a bad thing, an indicator of unhealthy dependence in the relationship.

But isn’t “losing yourself” sort of the definition of love? Or at least one definition? The ceding of our sense of separateness to a larger unity — the couple? What’s more, current psychological theories increasingly acknowledge that depending upon each other is at the core of our social experience as humans. We need assurance that our significant others will be there when we need them. We feel most confident venturing out in the world when we know they “have our backs.”

Pioneering psychologist John Bowlby gave this kind of emotional connection a name, “effective dependence,” and saw it as the core feature of loving relationships. The idea of codependency as a sickness, in other words, can paint a misleading and discouraging picture, preventing us from focusing on the very aspects of relationship that make a deep intimacy possible.

A Blockbuster Idea

No one is more responsible for the diffusion — and perhaps confusion — around the word codependent than author Melody Beattie, who hit the jackpot with her 1987 self-help bestseller Codependent No More. Her ideas about emotional health and well-being arose from a personal struggle to recover from a cruelly difficult early childhood that included abandonment by her father and years of sexual abuse by a neighbor, alcoholism by age 12 and serious drug addiction by 18. Perhaps because of this history, her ideas are powerfully presented (and, to be fair, were obviously helpful to millions of people), but not very rigorously defined — especially as they were adopted and disseminated through other self-help channels. Beattie herself has said recently, “I think it’s a very strange, ambiguous, odd word. It doesn’t have one definition that fits all.” She also believes (correctly, in my opinion) that the concepts she presented in the ‘80s may have run their course, and be less applicable today.

But it’s slightly worse than that, I think. The idea of codependence, if you buy into it uncritically, can create just the kind of insecurity and fear it describes.

When dependency is seen as a shameful kind of weakness — as Chloe sees it — we become ashamed of our shame in a self-reinforcing cycle. So, we not only hide our weakness from the most significant people in our lives, we take defensive positions like, “You can’t hurt me, because I don’t need anybody,” or “Everything’s OK, let’s just not talk about it.” We pull away from those we love so they won’t see our fear and insecurity. They react by pulling away from us. We grow ever more alone and afraid. Then — like Chloe — we start worrying that we are becoming codependent.

In fact, the answer to codependency as Beattie defines it may be acknowledging our vulnerability, rather than hiding or resisting it. Many relationship experts see this as the first and often the most important step toward recovering a lost connection. “I feel lonely. I miss you. I want you back.” This is the painful confession that often begins the process of renewing emotional intimacy. “I’m lonely” can be risky to say. It can feel shameful and inadequate. Or it can seem critical to your partner. But here’s the truth. Most of us feel lonely in our relationships sometimes, as we lose confidence that our partner is there in the way we need him. Our partners feel lonely, too, and by not telling us, they rob us of the chance to reassure them, or do what it takes for them to feel loved. Ironically, it’s not confessing our vulnerability and dependence that is the path toward disconnection, isolation and further loneliness.

Codependency began as a very helpful notion about substance-abuse-related behavior. But like other psychological terms describing the inextricable connection between love and need in marital and family relationships (I’m thinking of words like enmeshed, fused, merged that are less widely used but similarly misapplied) it has morphed through popular usage into an all-purpose criticism of a natural and important human emotion — our deep longing to have someone we can count on to be there when we need them. In truth, this is the essence of a healthy relationship, and a (sometimes challenging) goal for couples to aim at as they try to repair a damaged relationship, or strengthen an already good one.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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