The term co-dependence is pretty familiar to many people today. It is a term that arose out of the treatment of alcoholics and refers to how one person, generally a spouse, would benefit in some way by having their alcoholic partner remain an alcoholic. And the alcoholic partner would, of course, benefit by having the spouse benefit from their alcoholism. The more technical definition of co-dependence is simply mutual need, which is certainly not a negative situation, it is simply part of reality…we all have mutual needs and often rely upon one another to meet those needs; it is the dependence of two people upon each other in maintaining harmful or self destructive behaviors which makes co-dependence a problem.
In much of my writings about behaviors, I emphasize the positive intention underlying dysfunctional behaviors suggesting that all behavior no matter how dysfunctional strives to meet a need; that the need is valid although it may be immature or even somewhat distorted due to any number of traumas in a person’s past. Nevertheless, the premise remains that all behaviors arise out of a positive intention to meet unsatisfied needs. This is also true for what is traditionally referred to as co-dependent behavior. To understand what that underlying need is requires some understanding of developmental stages. Without going into much elaboration, we all have extremely important belonging and connection needs. We need to feel as though we are connected to another person, or persons; we need to feel that we belong in our world. One way this can be brought about is to create a situation in which we are needed by another person. Thus, in the traditional alcoholic dyad of husband and wife, the wife may need to be needed and can be needed if she goes along with her husband’s need for drinking. He needs her to support his alcoholism and she needs him…to need her, which he does as she supports the alcoholism.
Similar examples can be found in various relationships where one partner depends on the other partner to make him or her feel good, worthy, valuable, important, sexy, successful…Co-dependant relationships can commonly be found in families wherein one parent, often the mother, needs to be the loving, caring person watching over her child even when the child is in his or her late teens and almost a young adult. The child then comes to oppose and resist what they perceive as over protection which only causes the parent to increase their “loving and caring” behavior which is in fact controlling behavior based on a need of theirs to be what they consider loving and caring. In such a scenario neither really get what they want, or need. The child needs autonomy and independence and the parent needs to be genuinely loving and caring. Therapeutic intervention would consist of helping each person come to recognize the positive intention underlying this dynamic and present methods by which they could each meet their needs of authentic autonomy and genuine loving, caring behaviors.
One problem we tend to have, as a society, in dealing with co-dependence is our strong belief in independence. The term co-dependence often comes with an attached negative label. Very few individuals or couples when told they are co-dependent would say thank you, we’re glad to hear that. Yet, a good, productive, healthy relationship is actually very co-dependent. That is, each person in the relationship is dependent upon the other for any number of things including the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing as well as the higher needs of belonging and connection. Nobody is truly independent as we are incredibly dependent on others for just about all of our basic and higher needs. As you sit and read this essay, can you think of any one thing in your immediate environment that is independent? The computer on which you may be reading this essay is a compilation of parts each one dependent on a source from which it was derived. The computer itself, as an operational machine is dependent on a power source which is itself dependent on various elements. And let’s not examine the incredible dependency of software on which the modern functioning computer relies. You as a person are also very dependent on numerous elements including clothes manufacturers, who are dependent on their sources; car manufacturers and their sources of component parts, not to mention the workers who assemble the cars, and the power grid required to run the factory. You are dependent on local markets and their network of suppliers…and truckers…and gasoline. And, all the people employed by these markets…the clothing stores, the food stores, the hardware stores the car dealers, the gas stations, etc., etc., etc…are all dependent on you…and me. And, let’s not forget that at a more basic survival level we are indelibly dependent upon the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil in which are food grows all of which are dependent upon us to keep those resources clean. We are a nation of co-dependence, not independence. Modern quantum physicists will agree that independence is an illusion as the entire universe is a dependent phenomenon.
Above all else, we are dependent on our natural environment for all of the material which make up the products that surround us ultimately are based in the natural world. And the natural world, with reference to human use of it, is dependent upon human behavior to ensure it’s sustainability into the future. We would do well, as a nation, to write a Declaration of Codependence. So, let’s not automatically consider co-dependence a bad thing. Co-dependence only becomes a problem when it reinforces and maintains behaviors which are unhealthy and self destructive.
Keeping in mind that unhealthy and self destructive behaviors arise from positive intentions and a striving to meet valid needs, any co-dependent behaviors which fall into the category of unhealthy and self-destructive ought be examined in the light of what needs are striving to be satisfied and how best can those needs be met in healthy and productive ways. Even such healthy and productive behaviors can still be considered co-dependent, but in a positive light, simply by the recognition that we are creatures of dependence…and healthy, productive dependence can meet our needs of connection, belonging and even sustainability.