Thursday, April 18, 2013

Codependency & The Feminist Fairytale

I was sitting glumly on the curb across the street from Has Beans coffee shop when a friend came up to talk to me. I said I was sad about our mutual friend asking me to go away from her (I don't remember why). My feelings had been hurt. His response? "Oh yeah, I am codependent like that sometimes too." This was how I learned that being codependent means being selfish or needy, feeling hurt when I shouldn't feel that way.

A few years later, when I learned about universal human needs, I rejected the notion of codependency, believing it was a negative way of naming interdependence, which means humans naturally meet needs through relationships. Codependency is just a word that comes out of our individualistic culture, I thought. It's just a pathological rejection of collectivism.

Time passed, and I read a new definition of codependency, something along the lines of "a codependent is someone who, when unsatisfied in a relationship, tries to give more of themselves to the other person to fix things, instead of asking for consideration and care." This resonated. I could see myself doing this at times. I would go into the classic cycle of emptiness, giving to fill the emptiness, and resentment, followed by an explosion of demanding for my needs to be met. OK, I thought, I'll speak up for my needs sooner in relationships, instead of waiting so long. And I have tried to do this more and more in the past few years.

But that word codependency still lurked around my life, popping up here and there. A psych teacher I had recommended the book Codependent No More, which I eventually happened upon in the used section of Lyon's Books, and purchased on a whim. I have recently blogged about this book, about how I have found it to be vague and lecturing. It's subtitle, though, is How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. That's a totally different definition than all the others I'd heard! Am I controlling? Do I not know how to care for myself? My boyfriend thinks so. He even used that book's subtitle in an argument with me. I'm uncomfortable with this definition though. It is very distant, conceptually, from the language of human needs. I hear it as I'm a bad person. And I don't like that, in fact I really dislike it.

This semester, I'm taking Psychology of Women and Gender through Butte College. My teacher, Katy Luallen (highly recommend her), assigned us All That is Bitter & Sweet by Ashley Judd. In this book, Ashley shares her discovery of codependency, and going into treatment for it. She learned that codependency includes "anyone who tries to control the behavior of others (or themselves) as a coping mechanism to medicate loneliness, that hole in the soul left behind in the aftermath of abuse--which does not have to be radical, dramatic, big-time abuse." (Later she defines childhood abuse as "anything less than nurturance.") I resonated with this a lot. I have that hole in my soul from receiving less than nurturance as a child--being passed from one relative or guardian to another, each with their personal cocktail of neuroses.

I like this definition because it gets at the cause, not just the symptom. The hole in the soul. That is the source of the difficulties. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to heal that hole in the soul. My psych teacher says that if a child doesn't attach to their parents, the only way to cure them of "Attachment Disorder" is to have a relationship similar to parent/child as an adult for an extended period of time, with lots of mirroring and care.

This is the fairy tale relationship that I, and I'm sure many others like me, dream of: the happily ever after, where our beloved shows up perfectly for us in every moment, and never wavers in their devotion. Like a parent "should" be to a child. In class, someone commented that most people in our culture exhibit symptoms of codependency as Judd names them:

1. difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem
2. difficulty setting functional boundaries
3. difficulty owning and expressing their own reality
4. difficulty taking care of their adult needs and wants
5. difficulty experiencing their reality moderately

No wonder, then, that the codependent's ideal is iterated over and over again in our Disney movies and after-school cartoons. We are a culture of codependents. We all, or almost all, share these symptoms.

One cultural "backlash" to this situation, that actually reinforces this ideal, is to tell people, especially women, that we can be perfectly happy without a partner. Girl power! the message goes. If he don't treat you right, leave him, say the million memes on Facebook. It's better to be single than to be with someone who isn't perfect. I have read these messages, printed on backgrounds of flowers and mountains or girls with sarcastic expressions on their faces. I have read these messages, and felt ashamed of myself for choosing to be in an imperfect relationship. Maybe I should just be single, and learn to be OK with it.

I recently received support from my empathy buddy on this topic, and I had a wonderful moment of clarity. While these messages stimulate guilt in me for not being "strong" enough to wait for the fairy tale Prince Charming, and be on my own until then, the idea of a single happily-ever-after is also a fairy tale. I call it the Feminist Fairy tale. It's a reactionary response to codependency, an overcompensation. This idea that women could rid ourselves of ever having to feel loneliness, could be completely satisfied through friends and a job, without partnership or intimacy--maybe some people have experienced this, I have even experienced this for periods of time, but it isn't something that lasts. The loneliness always comes back. I believe partnership is a universal drive, whether it's slightly pathological (seeking a parent/child type of love) or not.

I'm letting go of both fairy tales. I'll probably never find Prince Charming, although I accept the part of me that wants that. Nor will I probably ever fill that hole in my soul, once and for all, so that I can be totally happy without any kind of intimate connection and bonding. It feels good to just acknowledge that, accept it. Maybe that's why people get up in front of AA or CODA (Codependents Anonymous) and say, I'm an alcoholic. I'm a codependent. I am imperfect. I don't fit into these molds, these fairy tales, that society has given me. And that's OK. I love and accept myself anyway. I am doing the best I can with what I have.

Please share in the comments below how this blog affected you. Are you inspired, confused, in disagreement? I am curious regardless! I look forward to reading your responses.


  1. That very true i think about the co-dependency we have in are society its we either wait for the perfect guy or girl to fill the void we have or we fill it ourselves or we find friends and family to help that. I think its a mixture of all of the above but, the last relationship i had i could see it wasn't perfect but it was someone that care about me, and that i felt should have been enough but it wasn't. I think though it makes me realize that i enjoy being single and the freedom that gives me, but at the same time lonely. It's very hard thing to find a perfect mixture of being happy and yet independent and yet with someone at the same time. It seems pretty tough to think about and would rather let things happen the way they will happen with how my relationships will happen.

  2. WOW, Awesome read and it has brought a lot of points to the forefront of my mind. I have never truly learned how to be single. I am happy as a single but not complete. I, as you know, was married nearly 23 years when I lost my love to alcohol. I am sure I was co-dependent. The thing is, I would rather have that bad situation, than to be single. I am not good as an individual. I crave the intimacy, friendship and co-existence with that one special person that I love above and beyone anyone else in this world. The way I have explained it to my parents, when they just can't quite get a grip on my sadness, is that I am not lonely because I have my family and friends any time I need them, but, I feel so alone. Even to the point of hearing myself breathe at night, I feel so alone and don't like that feeling at all. I can't wait to spend some time thinking about your blog, re-reading it and seeing where it takes me in my life. I love you my beautiful niece. You are a good hearted woman and a sweet and sincere person. I love you baby girl!

  3. Right on the button. You should reprint this little masterpiece.