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Out of Whack: A Fresh Look at Codependence
Experts define codependency as a pattern of behavior in which you find yourself dependent on approval from someone else for your self-worth and identity. One key sign of this is when you derive your sense of purpose or self around making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner’s needs (also known as enabling). And when your partner — or loved one — is an addict, this can become dysfunctional for both people.
The concept of codependence became popular in 12-step programs, and really caught hold in 1986 with the publication of the book Codependent No More (Turtleback Books, 2006) by Melody Beattie, which sold millions of copies.
While this concept can be a beneficial way for someone close to an addict to look at themselves and understand their relationship, some experts also think that it goes too far in that it makes the loved one of the addict feel there is something wrong with them. Codependency is often defined as a disease unto itself.
“I have another way to explain the same behavior,” says Kimberly Kirby, PhD, a researcher at the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia and a professor in the psychology department at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. ‘The term has never been based on science. It is meant to describe a pattern of behavior when someone loves a person with a substance abuse problem.”
Kirby prefers to see the kind of behavior that is often labeled codependent or enabling as a natural unfolding of being in a difficult situation, as is the case in a loved one of a person with an addiction. “These people are often trying to save their loved one from the negative aspects of their substance abuse,” says Kirby. “And in doing so they turn out to be regular people trying to act appropriately but getting out of whack because of the drug-use situation.”
She tells the story of a woman she worked with whose teenage daughter was using drugs. “The mom ended up taking her daughter to the inner city — a very dangerous area — to help her daughter buy the drugs, because she thought she could keep her safe,” says Kirby. “The behavior is illogical.” But, as Kirby goes on to say, it doesn’t mean that the mother herself is “sick,” as the term codependent would lead you to believe. Her behavior isn’t illogical when she is thinking of the health and safety of her daughter. It is a normal reaction to unusual circumstances that develops into something that looks crazy.
What to Do?
Kirby’s approach, based on Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT), teaches family and friends strategies for helping their loved ones to change and for feeling better themselves.
“From a 12-step perspective, the person you love is ill and you are ill, too,” says Kirby. “But we tell people that they need to learn to take care of themselves. I make it clear to family members that with the situation they are in, their actions are understandable. And I also tell people they aren’t powerless — that they can, indeed, influence their loved on to get help.”
Some things are the same with all approaches, however. Kirby teaches family members that they need to make sure their loved one experiences the negative consequences of their drug use. For instance, don’t hold dinner if a loved one comes home late, drunk.
“I had one woman whose daughter was using marijuana. The girl would come home with the ‘munchies,’ make herself food and leave the kitchen a mess. In the morning she would come down and totally forget leaving the mess. I told the mother not to clean it up for her so she would see.”
Many of the aspects of the codependent label work the same as Kirby’s approach. One of her major goals is to help family members and loved ones learn how to take better care of themselves, to protect themselves from the bad behavior of the addict, even to suggest treatment entry, all without feeling that they are part of the problem. The difference in approaching the term codependent just has to do with semantics — and looking at how you interact with an addicted loved one a little differently.