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The late John Bradshaw has said that at the core of every addict is the dynamic of codependency. Yet, my experience is not just addicts, but partners of addicts, families of addicts, and non-addict families all must address codependency in varying degrees. Codependency is a word that can be likened to trying to nail jelly to a tree. It involves crazy-making dynamics in an attempt to control family members and others in the extreme. However, simplistic categorizations of codependency prove problematic. There are various descriptions of behavior that fit codependency which can be applied to almost anyone.
Most people who have read Melodie Beattie’s book, Codependent No More, have positively identified certain behaviors that would describe their actions at one point in time or another. So is everybody codependent? Perhaps, at times. At the core of every codependent behavior is trauma. People try to control what they cannot because they are afraid they will be hurt. This is a typical human response. Usually, this is based on past vulnerability to hurt and pain.
In this writing, I want to zero in on one particular trait of codependency: the need to control other people, circumstances, and outcomes to the extreme. The key concept that I would underscore is the word extreme. Everyone would like to control behavior and relational outcomes to be favorable. Yet, codependency comes into play when someone goes to extreme measures that would seem unhealthy to control what they cannot. Addicts try to control circumstances to the extreme when they seek out their drug of choice to numb or medicate unwanted feelings. There are unbelievable stories about addicts who do unconscionable behaviors to access their drug of choice to control how they feel. These are good examples of what Bradshaw suggests as codependency being at the core of addict behavior.
Partners of addicts also share amazing stories of trying to control the addict’s behavior to prevent the addict from acting out. Some have even shared stories about joining the behavior in an attempt to please or satisfy, hoping that engaging the addict would trigger attention to the partner and love them more. Of course, not every addict, partner, or family member would attempt to control to the same degree of intensity. For sure, all codependency behaviors are triggered by traumatic experiences. Past abuse, abandonment, and neglect in past or current relationships generate fear and anxiety.
Sometimes we respond with inappropriate over control without even conscious awareness that we are doing so. My wife and I were reminiscing about my role that I played when I was an assistant pastor at a church that had several pastors. The senior pastor got into a feud with a parishioner who had provided a fleet of cars, one car for every staff member. There were 24 of us, so that was a big fleet. I don’t remember the details of the feud but I do remember that the feud became very intense. So much so, that there was fear that the parishioner would show up in the worship service and gun down our pastor while he was preaching!
Well, we created this very codependent plan for safety. First, our senior pastor would preach with a bulletproof vest under his suit jacket. Second, (and this is the codependent highlight) one of the other male assistant pastors and I would be on the platform. The church seated 3200 people and the plan was that we would jump in front of the pastor and take the hit! (I guess take one for the Gipper for God’s sake, I suppose). Upon, humorous reflection, that was about as codependent as I was ever smitten. Thank God, the parishioner never showed up! More seriously, I could trace back to past trauma in my life that triggered such an extreme attempt to control outcomes.Trying to trace one’s traumatic past for every codependent response is not the point that I would want to make. Being codependent regarding current trauma from a partner’s devastating action, addiction, or otherwise, has its own shelf life.
I would just suggest that when trauma happens a codependent response is normal in an attempt to stop and avoid further pain.
Marilyn Murray, a colleague at PCS, has described that when triggered with frustration, grief, anger, sadness, or shame, you measure your response on a self-made Likert scale of 0 to 10 with 0 being less and 10 being more. Most reactions for adults are between 4 and 6 in human interaction. When you respond to a “5” with a reaction of 9 or 10, it would be helpful to recognize that the added 4 or 5 in your reactive response may well be not about the issue at hand but unresolved trauma from the past. This awareness can be very helpful in tracking the intensity in an attempt to control what you cannot in a given situation.
Melodie Beattie has been very helpful over the many years in helping define and understand the difficult concept of codependency. Many people have come alongside and have added meaningful insights that have helped to clarify this human dynamic. For sure, the dynamic can be very painful and even devastating to those who suffer. There is no broad brush for all but unpacking the dynamic of codependency, learning to set boundaries, and grieving the painful experience is necessary to break the desire and behavior of trying to control what I cannot in extreme measures.
1. Take notice of someone’s behavior that absolutely drives you nuts and you cannot stop from trying to help them stop.
2. Practice detachment. Visualize yourself letting go of the behavior that drives you nuts. Set a boundary/remove yourself from the experience. Extricate yourself from that behavior. Describe to someone safe what the experience of detachment was like.
3. Identify the boundaries you must keep for you to avoid using addiction to control what hurts.
4. Take time to identify a relationship where you struggle to define where you stop and another person begins. What boundaries are missing?