How the Co-dependency Movement
Is Ruining Marriages

by Willard F. Harley, Jr.



Those of us in the business of trying to save marriages struggle daily with cultural beliefs and practices that make our job difficult. The sudden surge of divorces in the 1970's, that has made America the country with the highest divorce rate, has a great deal to do with changes in our basic beliefs. More to the point, it has to do with a major shift toward self-centeredness. Beliefs that encourage self-centeredness destroy marriage.

One of these is the belief that co-dependent behavior is self-defeating and that we should rid ourselves of it. It's a wolf in sheep's clothing and a marriage wrecker. I'll try to explain why I feel so strongly about this issue.

First, let me define what co-dependency is. I'll use a quotes from an article by Edmund J. Bourne. (The internet link to the original article is no longer available. But the quotes I use are so typical of co-dependency thinking that I still find it useful. And there are very few in the movement who would refute the gist of his position).

According to Bourne,

"Co-dependency can be defined as the tendency to put others needs before your own. You accommodate to others to such a degree that you tend to discount or ignore your own feelings, desires and basic needs. Your self-esteem depends largely on how well you please, take care of and/or solve problems for someone else (or many others)."

I look at that definition and think of Mother Teresa, how co-dependent she must have been. Not that I'm a Mother Teresa, but I certainly feel that I aspire to those objectives. If I find my self-esteem in the way I care for others, what's wrong with that? If we were all co-dependent, wouldn't this be a wonderful world?

Dr. Bourne offers us a questionnaire to complete to see if we are "dealing with co-dependency issues." Lets look at them one at a time:

1. If someone important to me expects me to do something, I should do it.

I don't hop whenever someone says hop. But if, say, God expects something of me (and he's certainly important), I believe I should do it. Okay, I'll leave God out of it. What about my wife, Joyce. Should I meet her every expectation? For starters, I can't do it. But on the other hand, I care about her. I want to do what I can to meet her needs, and avoid doing things that make her unhappy. She's not a princess and I'm not a slave, but she's important to me and I try to do what she expects of me. So if the person is as important as Joyce, I guess my answer to the first question is, "yes," with the qualifier, "try to do it."

2. I should not be irritable or unpleasant.

I know how people affect me when they're irritable or unpleasant. I want to head for the hills. So if I am concerned about how I affect other people, particularly Joyce, who has to live with me, I should protect her from my unpleasant tendencies, particularly my angry outbursts, disrespectful judgments and selfish demands. Those Love Busters can wreck our relationship in no time if I let them run amok. So my answer to this statement is "yes."

3. I shouldn't do anything to make others angry at me.

Well, let's see. What are some of the things I do that make others angry with me. I show them disrespect by interrupting them when they are talking, I point out their faults and failures, I get angry with them ... Yes, there are many things I've done that make others angry at me. When I am counseling, I can do some of them without my client feeling anger. They seem to expect me to point out their short-comings. In my years of counseling, very few clients have ever reported feeling angry with me.

But in my marriage, it's a different story. I firmly believe that when Joyce is angry with me, I had something to do with her experience. Because I don't want to do things that hurt her or upset her, I regret doing it.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe that my mistakes justify an angry outburst on Joyce's part. She needs to protect me from her abusive behavior just as I need to protect her from mine. But if she feels anger toward me, I have done something that has annoyed or offended her, and should try to avoid it if I can. Another "yes" if it applies to Joyce, and a qualified "yes" regarding most other people.

4. I should keep people I love happy.

This gets to the core of what life in general, and marriage in particular, is all about. Why am I here, anyway? I chose psychology as a career partly because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. I specialized in marriage counseling because I found so many people in miserable marriages, and I thought I could help.

When I married Joyce, I wanted to make her happy. I know, we can't "make" anyone happy. Everyone has a huge role to play in their own happiness. But at least I wanted to try to meet her emotional needs, and I expected her to meet mine. And I wanted to avoid hurting her, just as I expected her to avoid hurting me. We both believed that we had a responsibility to each other to try to make each other happy, and avoid making each other unhappy.

I'm aware of the downside of trying to make people happy. If they turn all responsibility for their happiness over to us, we end up carrying a crushing load. But most people don't do that. It's only in unhealthy relationships that one person sucks the life out of the other. I'll get into that subject after we're done with the questionnaire, but with that qualification, my answer to this statement is, "yes."

5. It's usually my fault if someone I care about is upset with me.

This goes back to statement #3, that has to do with how I affect people. From a philosophical level, I think we can all agree that if someone is upset with us, we had at least something to do with their reaction. Whether or not we could have avoided it depends on all sorts of things, but even if we couldn't avoid it, it's still partially our fault. The word "usually" helps me answer this one with a "yes."

6. I obtain self-esteem out of helping others solve their problems.

What is self-esteem, anyway? It's feeling good about ourselves, feeling that we're okay. Getting back to my earlier question about the meaning of life, what do I have to feel good about? That I exist? No. I don't give myself any credit for my existence. I feel good about the choices I make and what I can do -- primarily for others. If I can't do anything for someone else, I'm certain I'd have no reason to have self-esteem.

Self-esteem is not something that I need in order to be productive. It's being productive that gives me self-esteem. It's what comes after we do something, not before. And what we do for self-esteem can't be just anything. It must be what we value. Of the things I do, what do I value the most? I'm afraid I fail the co-dependency test again. I value most what I do for others. So that means that the more I help others solve their problems, the better I feel about myself. I'm afraid this statements gets a "yes."

7. I tend to overextend myself in taking care of others.

Definitely, "yes."

8. If necessary, I put my own values or needs aside in order to preserve my relationship with my significant other.

We're talking about Joyce. This is a trick question because one of my values is to preserve my relationship with her at all costs. It is impossible to put that value aside, and still try to preserve my relationship with her. But I will assume that this statement refers to other values, and again I answer "yes."

9. I have a hard time receiving things from others.

I'd rather give than receive, if that's what the question is getting at. But I don't mind it when Joyce meets my needs. In fact, I expect her to meet my needs. So for the very first time, I will answer one of these statements with a "no."

10. Fear of someone else's anger has a lot of influence on what I say or do."

I'm one of those odd ducks that don't experience fear very often, so my answer to this one is also, "no." But I should add that people's anger does influence me, especially when it's Joyce's anger. But it is not fear that I experience, rather sadness that I did something to disappoint her.

After completing all these questions, I'm told by Dr. Bourne that if I answered three or more of these statements with a "yes," I am likely to be dealing with co-dependency issues. What does eight "yes" responses mean? I must be a basket case!

As I read on in his article, I discover that:

"The consequences of maintaining a co-dependent approach to life is a lot of resentment, frustration and unmet personal needs. When these feelings and needs remain unconscious, they often resurface as anxiety -- especially chronic, generalized anxiety. The long-term effects of co-dependency are enduring stress, fatigue, burnout and eventually serious physical illness."

Is it too late? Have I been co-dependent too long to avoid these terrible consequences? Reading these predictions would put most people into a panic, but, remember, I don't experience fear or anxiety very often.

Wait just a minute! If I'm co-dependent, why don't I experience fear very often. Why is anxiety one of my least-felt emotions. After all, since I am so very co-dependent, you'd think that I would be a bundle of jangled nerves. But I'm not. I'm none of those things that Dr. Bourne says co-dependent people are.

I'm clearly co-dependent (most of those who know me well would attest to that), but I have no anxiety problems whatsoever. And no problems with depression, either. In fact, I am inexplicably happy. And neither my wife nor I have any chemical dependency issues, either. We are in love with each other, and have a great marriage.

Pity the poor person who has an anxiety disorder. Or more to the point, pity that person's spouse. The solution to "chronic, generalized anxiety" is to

  1. not do what others's expect,

  2. be as irritable and unpleasant as you wish,

  3. make people angry with you,

  4. don't try to make the people you love happy,

  5. don't blame yourself when someone you care for is upset with you,

  6. gain self-esteem from what you do for yourself, rather than what you do for others,

  7. don't ever care about others so much that you overextend yourself,

  8. maintain your values and needs even if it means ruining your marriage,

  9. take from others whenever you can, and

  10. don't let someone else's anger deter you from your objectives.

A formula for sociopathic behavior if I've ever seen one. You go in with anxiety and come out a terrorist!

If you want to know the truth, co-dependent beliefs and behavior do not lead to anxiety. They lead to healthy, happy marriages. Joyce and I am living proof.

You may be thinking, But how can that be? We've all been taught not to be co-dependent. It's blasphemy to challenge such a well-established belief system. Dr. Harley, now that I know how you feel about co-dependency, I'm not sure I can accept any of your concepts. You have really disappointed me.

Give me a chance to redeem myself. I, of all people, understand how the concepts of co-dependency started. I had a one-year internship in a treatment center for chemical dependency, and I owned and operated ten such centers myself. Co-dependency was something all of us addressed in marriages where one or both spouses were addicted to drugs or alcohol.

When an alcoholic is married to a loving and caring spouse, the spouse's love and care is sucked in like a black hole. It drains the caring spouse of everything they have, leaving him or her not only exhausted, but also having failed to meet their sick spouse's needs. In these cases, the non-alcoholic spouse must emotionally detach themselves or becomes emotionally destroyed.

When the 10 statements that we just considered are applied to care of an alcoholic, the answers are very different than the ones I gave. Consider them in the context of living with an alcoholic:

  1. If the "important" person is an alcoholic, what they expect is often totally unrealistic and should not be done. Their addiction causes them to suffer very negative consequences, and they expect their spouses to shield them from those consequences. It can't, and shouldn't be done. If I were married to an alcoholic, my answer to this statement would be "no."

  2. Anyone living with an alcoholic is going to be irritable and unpleasant. It can't be avoided, because the environment is so incredibly sick -- "no".

  3. If you deny an alcoholic's unrealistic request, he or she will become angry. So it's impossible to avoid their anger. Again, "no."

  4. You can't keep an alcoholic happy, because their emotional needs are sacrificed for whatever it takes to get their next drink. "No."

  5. An alcoholic is upset because his addiction is ruining him, not because of something his spouse did. It's not the spouse's fault that he's upset. "No."

  6. If you think you will gain self-esteem helping an alcoholic solve his problems, short of helping him overcome his addiction, you're not going to have any self-esteem. That's because he can't solve his problems as long as he's addicted. "No" is the answer.

  7. Talk about overextension! If you want to be really overextended and get nothing for your effort, try to take care of an alcoholic. "No."

  8. The spouses of alcoholics often try to make excuses for the alcoholism. It's called "enabling." It makes it possible to continue the addiction without suffering some of the consequences. In fact, many spouses become alcoholic themselves, just to preserve their relationship. They set aside their healthy values and ignore their normal needs just to be close to someone in the process of self-destruction. Left to their own devices they are then both destroyed. "No."

  9. When you are used to giving until it hurts, like you do in a relationship with an alcoholic, you forget about the fact that you need something in return. Answer this one "no."

  10. Alcoholics are often angry, and in order to avoid physical and verbal abuse, an alcoholic's spouse develops anxiety from the very real risk of physical and emotional harm. Unless you want to go down in flames, answer, "no."

Now it all makes sense in the context of an alcoholic marriage, and that's the context for which it was originally created. It made sense to me then, and it still does as long as it is limited to spouses of alcoholics. The problem arose when the alcoholic spouse was left out of the equation, and it was applied to all of us.

I attended a workshop on co-dependency a few years ago where we were told that co-dependency was wrong in any relationship. As those of us in the audience questioned the proposal, we all began to realize that we were all co-dependent, as defined by the workshop leader. Many of us complained that the very definition was so broad as to include most of humanity (excluding sociopathic people, of course). They felt that their co-dependent tendencies didn't seem to be a problem for them, so why should they try to overcome it. The workshop leader himself was at a loss to explain why they should change, except to express the warning that it leads to "stress, fatigue, burnout and eventually serious physical illness."

Since most in the room were skeptics, I doubt that any of them adopted the change to "save their sanity." But there are many people who are not so well-protected. When they see a therapist for anxiety and he gives them this list of dos and don'ts, they are in no position to be analytic. They accept it as truth, and in a futile effort to overcome anxiety, they destroy their marriage.

It is a most alarming scenario, both from a mental health standpoint, and from a marital standpoint. I have found that ridding someone of "co-dependent tendencies" does not rid them of anxiety. There are many effective methods that achieve that important objective, but this is not one of them.

But it is more than an ineffective way to treat anxiety. It also undermines one of the most important aspects of a person's life, their marriage. I have witnessed many who have been "treated" for anxiety and depression only to learn how to become impossible to live with. After driving their spouse out of their lives with their newly acquired selfish and destructive behavior, they are left feeling more anxious and depressed than ever, and divorced as well.

The care and consideration of our spouse does not leave us emotionally disabled -- unless our spouse turns out to be an addict. When it comes to addiction in marriage, my advice is to run for cover! But in marriages that do not suffer from addiction, care and consideration is not the problem, but rather the solution to problems.

In my judgment, the co-dependency movement, which began with such valuable insight, has become a monster. In over-reaching, it has subjected healthy people to the same norms as unhealthy people, and in so doing, has caused much more harm than good. Married couples should be on guard from the ruinous effects of the co-dependency movement on marriage, especially if one of them suffers from anxiety or depression.

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