Dear Dr. Brilliant Cliché,
My therapist told me to find a book on co-dependence so today I visited the Sober Camel, an AA book store. My last two husbands were alcoholics and my therapist is trying to prevent me from getting involved with yet another one. There were so many books on this theme that I spent the whole day flipping through them but I just did not seem to fit the mold. They talked about shame, guilt, poor self esteem and being easily manipulated. That is not me. I am a good Christian and I loved my husbands despite the fact that they were good for nothing. I did everything in my power to help them. They became my whole life. It was only when things became so bad that it was affecting our kids that I left number one. Number two left me, despite the fact that I put him through school! As soon as he got on his feet he walked away.
I have infinite love and don’t see myself as having poor self esteem. I am just being a good person. Does this make me co-dependent?
You are quite codependent in a way that is common in our culture- you put other’s needs before your own. You sacrifice yourself and show your love by doing tasks. You are a ‘giving tree,’ like in Shel Silverstein’s book of the same title. You see yourself as a hero but heroes die and giving trees get cut down. The consequence in your case is that you are role modeling codependent dysfunctional relationships for your kids. This is why children of enablers often marry substance abusers themselves.
It’s true that books are often written solely from the point of view that partners of alcoholics are victims; but as you noticed, you are not a victim. I’ve found that just as often, it’s the case that when one partner does too much, it enables the other to do too little. By your sacrifices you are only maintaining status quo; and your partner can continue to avoid his own issues.
Codependent enablers often see themselves as heroes rescuing others. But this type of rescue keeps partners weak and violates their free will. Instead of being grateful, they just get mad at you. Being rescued fosters dependence; adults often resent those they depend on.
Enabling heroes believe that love is redemptive. Ironically, the more you love someone unconditionally the more they are likely to stay the same. A broken child can sometimes be healed to a certain extent by unconditional love; but not always.
Change is difficult and really can only be achieved through personal struggle. People often don’t choose this personal struggle if someone else is enabling them. A healthy life is about balance. I recommend you try to find someone who can take care of themselves yet still chooses to be with you. This is more a balanced relationship.
The rule of thumb I teach clients is, “If you are mothering someone you can’t sleep with them, that is incest!”
Dr. Brilliant Cliché
Granny says: the Martyr Hero model has been around for a long time. It’s a fabulous diversion for people who prefer to focus on solving other’s people’s problems rather than fixing their own. My own mother was a martyr and I despised her for it. After undergoing therapy in my 20’s I realized exactly what her problem was and tried to talk with her about it. She was oblivious. She couldn’t imagine seeing the world any way other than she did. She tolerated a neglectful husband and meddled in everyone’s life on a constant basis until a month or so before she died of heart failure at age 59. At that point, she was just too tired to care anymore.
The last time I saw her, it was such a relief to not have her asking me what I wanted every five minutes and presenting me with things she’d bought me that I’d never need or want. It was the fondest memories I have of her. I didn’t cringe every time she came in the room. I didn’t know she was going to die, I just saw that she’d finally hung up the martyr shroud and it was like a burden had been lifted. Solve your own problems, Belle, and stop meddling and mothering. No one appreciates it quite as much as you.