BY: T. Franklin Murphy | February 2013 (edited 2019)
Co-dependent relationships stunt the growth of both partners, holding both back from the enjoyments of life.
“A co-dependent unhealthy relationship is fostered when two people agree to be partner’s in each other’s dramas.” ~ Gay and Kathleen Hendricks
Bonding of two separate items—wood, metal or people—increases the strength, usually. Sometimes two independent forces work against each other, creating new vulnerabilities, magnifying weak spots and eroding composition of one or both bonding elements. Two partners, connecting through love and trust, become stronger, combining resources, protecting and supporting against the damaging winds of outside forces. Our narcissistic self-promoting culture scoffs at social needs, claiming freedom from burdensome ties is the ultimate strength. This is not so. We are social animals. Millions of years of evolution have formed minds and emotions to bond with others, not to roam the planes free of connection.
Some avoid complex relationships and forge their own way. This works for some—requiring trade-offs. They still have a parasitic relationship with society, drawing from inventions, investments, economies and laws. Too many parasites feeding without contributing and the gracious life supporting host dies. This is true for large political systems and intimate connections.
Intimate relationships require dual sacrifice, vulnerabilities (interdependence) to survive with abundance. An interdependent relationship is healthy, encouraging liveliness—not bondage. Interdependence doesn’t unnecessarily infringe on the individual, destroying independence. Neither partner abandons their precious individuality; they maintain distinct and interrelated lives. Within the healthy partnership, a third entity is created—the relationship; no longer two people but two people become three (the individuals and the relationship).
A solid bond between living partners strengthens and lifts the individuals through their weaknesses. The relationship victoriously faces difficulties that might overwhelm the individual. The strength of the commitment invites the partners willingness for give-and-take trade-offs when the benefit isn’t immediately clear; but we sacrifice knowing the connection is worth more than immediate pleasures. The long-term stability or chaos of the relationship hints whether the relationship is bonded through co-dependent or interdependent connections.
Healthy connection lifts the participants higher, achieving more than they could individuality. The connection expands and enhances their lives. Conversely, the connection is worrisome and diseased when it contracts and debilitates life. Healthy connections encourage creativity and kindness; unhealthy connections isolate and spur meanness.
Subjective evaluations of the strength of our relationship may miss the accumulating corrosion disconnecting the power. Although our relationship may be massaged in our mind to be something it is not, the blasting of self-worth is real and dampening. The co-dependence snags willpower to grow on the unmovable nails of fear—terror of change, horror of abandonment.
What is a Co-Dependent Relationship?
A co-dependent relationship, as described by Gay and Kathleen Hicks, is an entanglement rather than a relationship (1992). An entanglement limits freedom. Each part impaired instead of enlarged. Imagine two power cords twisted and ensnared; the two cords chaotically wrapped with multiple knots and catches are shorter than the length of either individual cord fully extended. Now picture two power cords straitened and connected end to end, extending the length; the length of these two cords exceeds the length of either independent cord.
"The same dramas, the same destructive habits, the same hurtful interactions all become part of the co-dependent entanglement."
Co-dependence is this unconscious agreement limiting each other’s potential. In the Hendricks’ words again, the basic contract is: “If I don’t insist you change your bad habits, you won’t leave me or make me challenge my bad habits.” (1992).
The unconscious agreement written out in words shocks; but we hide these implicit agreements, beneath the nagging need to change, we hope for the security of sameness. When haunted by past partners who carelessly wounded and abandoned, we seek stability in the present—growth frightens, rocking the boat terrifies. The novel experience of being loved is not received with excitement but with fear.
In a co-dependent relationship partners limit potential to create security. The fear of losing the relationship smothers the present moment benefits of the relationship. Instead of addressing the fears, they blame external elements that triggered the emotions. When one partner attempts to transcend the insanity, the other partner desperately pulls them back into the comfortable drama, undermining positive change. Around and around they go; holding hands, running together, pulling in opposite directions, expending energy chained to harmful cycles, never moving forward—entangled.
The same dramas, the same destructive habits, the same hurtful interactions all become part of the co-dependent entanglement. To escape the dreadful sameness, we must create boundaries enforced with ultimatums; but when fear of aloneness is the master, ultimatums are empty. The fear of loss outshines the desire to improve. Without boundaries (enforceable lines defining what is and isn’t acceptable), our hopes of change can’t be fulfilled. The individuals can escape the confining chains of co-dependent interactions; but not without the finality of boundaries; only then can we prevail over the inertia of sameness.
In the end, the security of the entanglement, limiting growth, denying novelty, and embracing of destructive habits usually wins the battle, “You keep your bad habit, I keep mine, and we live unhappily together forever.”
We can do better, not by dismissing the greatest source of meaning and joy (and pain and loss); but by learning to manage the internal drives for connection the fluctuating emotions by developing healthy dependence, embracing the vulnerability of trust, and expanding our lives through intimacy.
The path is clear; but the journey excruciating. Extinguishing unproductive learning that interferes with basic functioning of a flourishing life requires expert guidance, incorporating new learning; but this is possible. New discoveries in brain science and psychotherapy have emerged over the last decade that give new hope. We can bond with healthy connections even when the past has dictated devastating fears, driving a wedge between the sufferer and the object they hope will save them from the internalized terror.
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Hendricks, G; Hendricks, K. (1992) Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. Bataam Publishing.