Maria: “Suzanne says I am really codependent. What do you think?” Gene: “Let me gaze deeply into your brown eyes for a while and I will find the answer.”—so went typical banter between myself and my ex-wife early in our relationship. Now I know! We were both codependent. Our story demonstrates the damage this way of living can cause but it also shows that one can use pain to become a wounded healer for themselves and others –“accepting hardship as the pathway to peace” is the way the serenity prayer says it.
Wikipedi pulls its definition of a codependent relationship from an article written by Skip Johnson:
[A] dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. Among the core characteristics of codependency, the most common theme is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and identity.
Maria was born into a family where un-speakable abuse regularly occurred. Maria’s years in the “Projects” made it easy to use drugs and un-healthy relationships to mask her pain. She married an older guy from the same “hood” and background. He added severe military-born PTSD on top of the mix. By the time we met as “30 somethings”, she had stopped drug use and found her relief in a distorted practice of Christianity. She had recently divorced to escape the twisted abuse towards her and their three teens.
We spent hours together sharing our faith with people. Our four plus years of friendship turned into a burning love affair. Her kids told their Dad we were talking marriage. Coming out of state, he invaded her apartment in the middle of the night. He “occupied” her apartment, awaiting the time when the kids were all away. He burst into her shower on a Saturday night. She expected to be raped and killed. Their oldest son’s unexpected return caused him to abort his attack. Maria used his guilt and her son to get to church the next day. Maria sent her son home after church and escaped to my place. We eloped. Once again he subjected their three teenage kids to really twisted threats, cleaned out Maria’s apartment, vandalized it and returned back to his family with the teenagers and all of Maria’s things crammed in a U-haul.
We were married for 11 years during which Maria had several mental breakdowns. Paranoia attacks would whisper to her I planned to harm her in some bizarre way. She would convince family or friends she was in immediate danger and get them to fly her away. About the third break down, she threatened suicide instead of fleeing. I had her committed. Progress! She responded to meds but refused to continue them or counseling when we relocated for me to start seminary and her college. Several breakdowns followed—some with disastrous repercussions to the ministries we were serving. After more therapy we both understood her abuse had created PTSD but with med “tune-ups,” we were living a semi-stable productive married life in ministry.
In the journey, counsel had told me, “even if you are not as ill as your wife now but keep living this chaos, you will become just as un-stable.” I heard that. I felt I understood why Jesus once asked a crippled man, “Do you want to be healed?” Sometimes there is a tortured comfort in avoiding the exorcism of our demons. I drew a line in the sand by telling Maria that she now had the tools to live a stable life and if she chose not to use them but chose chaos or running, she might as well keep running because there would be no place to run back to.
And so it was our marriage ended! Ironically the final explosion involved her son’s physical threats towards me. The incident happened as I was leaving for an out of state work assignment. Maria was furious when the police jailed the son. She and the son packed our house as soon as he got out of jail and she ran again. Right or wrong, I have never seen or talked to her since.
The concept of co-dependence was pioneered decades ago by those working with Alcoholics Anonymous as they came to understand that one family member’s dependence on alcohol would soon lead other family members to become dependent on the alcoholic’s behaviors-thus codependent. Pioneering work distilled likely consequences to personality profiles with commonly accepted role titles. [Wegscheider, Sharon. Another Chance, Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family Science and Behavior Books, 1981.] Family would enable the alcoholic by “covering” for him when he missed work, got sick etc. (enabler). Friends would be kept at a distance lest they discover family secrets. Family would also take on the alcoholic’s responsibilities in various areas like income, household chores, etc (hero and/or enabler), loving the praise their martyrdom brought. Some distracted the family from the dependent by acting out (scapegoat)—even Geico recognizes how foolish that can get! Others might withdraw into isolation within the family (lost). Still another family member might make peace with humor (mascot) or calm demeanor when the alcoholic acted out.
Certainly Maria had learned her role in her birth family. Her sanguine ability to make people laugh, “read people” or to calm a crazy situation when she was not being crazy were truly uncanny—and in her codependent role as the mascot. Her early marriage to a narcissistic addict was very predictable for a codependent. She was his perfect dance partner that let him lead. Finally the dance ended when life got crazy dangerous and she came to resent her role too much (which commonly happens with codependents).
I offered to be her next dance partner. My form of co-dependence made me a great caretaker and one used to making decisions—which worked well for her. I loved her, made excuses for her, did more of her work than she did (enabler—big time). But as a committed Christian, I took my responsibility to grow through introspection and wisdom seriously. I also wanted “to fix it” as any good codependent should. Initially, I did not listen to counsel that advised me that Maria’s level of hurt had surely caused problems that needed long term care and almost guaranteed the impossibility of healthy relationship in the journey. However, the sober warning that if I chose to keep living in this chaos, I would become even more codependent to it gave me pause. Another counselor warned that my brand of codependency was “a Savior complex.” He had joked, “Surely as a seminarian, you know the fate of Saviors—they get crucified in the end.” I listened closely to his counsel on cognitive tools to stop chaotic situations and his factual counsel to educate me as to who I was then and how it would be helpful to change. I have changed.
Please hear! God wired us the way we are on purpose! But we will not have a smooth life journey if we let ourselves run as “untamed donkeys” as the Old Testament admission says. Our undisciplined nature and unbridled traits can be our undoing if we allow them. Codependents by definition have a caring nature! When properly framed, that becomes a good thing! When left to run wild it wrecks our lives. We end up in toxic marriages that destroy both parties. We end up being abused by those that have zeroed in on our ability to take abuse. We transmit these patterns to our kids. We “help” another because secretly we look to them to help us and are bitterly disappointed when they do not. If we are not careful we simply enable them to stay dependent—on us and their other habits and substances.
Victory can come! For example, Deb and I have now been married 15 years in a marriage that we both describe as healthy and fulfilling—steak and potatoes a recent internet quiz labeled it. When we recognize that we can be who we are wired to be within healthy boundaries, the traits that have hurt ourselves and others can be redirected to bless those we intersect. Counsel, self-reflection and determination represent the road less traveled but it “carries” (as we say down South) us to a destination of recovery, health and happiness. I can see your recovery flowing to you as I gaze into your eyes!!!