codependencyCo-dependency is a situation in which two or more people or groups, through their social interaction, exhibit and sustain among each other behaviours that are mutually- and self-reinforcing and arguably unhealthy. Generally speaking one party suffers from some kind of pathology, and the co-dependent, through indulging, denying, encouraging or ignoring this pathology, makes it worse and enables it to continue, and draws him- or herself perversely into anti-social behaviour, often even drawing strength from the power they have over the ill person as a result.

The US NMHA site on the subject limits the definition to family situation involving addiction, abuse or severe physical or mental illness, diagnoses the ‘illness’ as chronic and perhaps even progressive, and is filled with psychobabble, suggesting for example that healthy people who didn’t suffer some kind of childhood trauma almost never become co-dependent. Most other resources on the subject, including self-help books, life-long 12-step ‘recovery’ programs, and various schools of psychology, reinforce this concept, which critics say “pathologizes the natural tendency to care for others, and mandates action which is not necessarily in line with prosocial values…Those desiring help who find the mentality of [12-step programs] irrelevant or offensive are deemed ‘in denial’ or ‘into their disease’.” You won’t be surprised, I suspect, that I’m on the side of the critics.

Let’s start with definitions, which for me means going back to word origins. The word literally means “hanging on with”. You can almost picture two people suspended from a rope on either side of a tree branch over a precipice — if one lets go, both will fall. But if they both just mutually hang on, and don’t do anything else, their situation will not improve and will ultimately get worse.

I like this definition because it’s free of moral judgement, blame, and the assigning of labels of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’. It merely acknowledges that both parties are in a difficult and possibly very unhealthy situation.

The answer for our tree-hangers is pretty obvious: get help from someone else. Not help to ‘visualize the situation in a more positive light’, or to extract the ‘innocent’ party alone — help to extract both parties from their predicament simultaneously. Co-dependency, I think, is not so much a ‘disease’ as a problem, and a consequence, of isolation. We get wound up in others in ways that can get us into trouble when there’s no one else around to give us perspective, to spell us and give us a break, and to help us (and the person caught with us) climb back up. I think the isolated modern nuclear family is the real ’cause’ of most co-dependency. When we lived in open communities, engendered and simultaneously carried on many deep emotional relationships, we were much less likely to get caught in the trap of depending on some one else for our survival, or our sense of self-worth. It takes a village to escape the trap.

In our modern world, too, co-dependency is not limited to families. Entire nations have become co-dependent. The US, for example, has economic co-dependency relationships with at least three countries: China, Saudi Arabia, and Colombia. Each of these countries is “hanging on with” the US for markets and/or weaponry, and when the US dollar collapses all three countries will fall quickly with the US. China is trying to end its isolated dependency on US purchasing through the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, but there is a danger that it may be forced to choose between co-dependency with the US or co-dependency with the SCO (co-dependents tend to be very jealous of others threatening their hegemony of attention). Canada, likewise, is co-dependent on the US, its partner for 70% of its trade and owner of 70% of its resources. Its right-wing minority government is in classic co-dependent denial, urging even more economic and political integration with the US. Canadian conservatives have been isolated from the progressive Canadian mainstream for generations, so they were ripe for co-dependency with their US counterparts.

There is also a co-dependency between the Bush Administration and the die-hard neoconservatives in the US. Nothing else but a sense of complete and pathological isolation from the rest of the world could account for Bush’s pandering to religious and political extremists who clearly do not share many of his values, or for the neocons’ forgiveness of Bush’s staggeringly incompetent administration and their willingness to believe even his most preposterous Orwellian lies and encroachments on their civil freedoms.

Perhaps most importantly, most of the citizens of the civilized world are co-dependent with the wealth and power elite that is driving our unsustainable civilization over a cliff. We are desperate to believe the deceptions of our co-dependent — that global warming is a myth, that technology will solve the end of oil and all our other problems, that there is no other way to live. To admit to ourselves that we are hanging there by a rope over a deadly precipice, and the people who got us there are hanging onto the other end, depending on our willingness to keep buying, borrowing, praying and believing that Rapture or Hydrogen Cells or Space Travel or Cryogenics or some other deus ex machina will save us all, is just too much for us to accept. As the 12-step groups will tell you, the first step is admitting you have a problem. The second step is reaching out for help, but not to experts with panaceas and lies and promises (and their hands on the other end of the rope). We need to pull ourselves up, hand over hand, until we can reach the outstretched hands, hands that we can’t quite yet see, of people who know and offer a better way to live, and then walk away from our co-dependency. The corporatists on the other end of the rope are unlikely to follow, even if they see us starting to break free. That is their problem.

For all these unhealthy relationships, there is only one way out: Ending the isolation, from the rest of the world, from alternative ideas on how to make the world a better place, and ultimately, from the truth.

For now, it is still easier, and more comforting, to believe that magical rescue is on the way, or that this is all a dream, or that we still have time to do something later. Only once we realize we have no other choice, will we start the terrifying climb out of our co-dependency. In the end, after all, we dowhat we must.

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1 Response to Co-Dependency

  1. I’ve never liked the concept of “codependency.” It’s too much like excusing abandonment and making people out to be disposable, at the same time blaming those who care, telling them they’re part of the problem. It appears to be a PC way of judging others by their relationships, which are no one’s business but their own. Staying in a difficult relationship often comes down to measuring one’s love against what one can cope with, and that’s different for each person. It’s hard enough without sticking the caring person with a label that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy of personal doom.

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