Thursday, October 15, 2009

Kicking the Co-dependence Habit

Marriage should never mean becoming two halves of a whole. Being a healthy couple requires two fully developed individuals to unite to complement each other, not complete each other.

It is the distinction between the inter-dependence of working together smoothly as a team and co-dependence, where you are psychologically crippled.

In inter-dependence, you rely on each other for support in everyday life but not to fill in missing parts of your character. It is never too late to discover the difference and correct an imbalance.

Andrew and I have been a couple since our early 20s when we were barely formed as independent adults. When the baby arrived we fell into traditional roles. I played the Earth Mother at home on a little farm we were house-sitting while Andrew got stuck into his first teaching job. The whole time I was pegging out nappies on the line while carrying my baby in a sling, I was straining inside to return to the newspaper office as a cadet reporter, where I had just began my career as an intrepid Lois Lane.

It was the classic inner conflict of the ambitious young woman in her 20s, wanting maternal and relationship fulfillment while also longing to forge a professional identity and make her mark on the world. I was a self-styled feminist, always banging on about my need for independence but not realising I was merely expressing the forces of a developmental stage; I was trying to grow up.

And here we are in our early 50s, three decades later, and we are still struggling to grow up! Not just because we are eternally infantile Baby Boomers but maybe because habits get fixed in a long-term marriage and require awareness and deliberate effort to change.

Yes I certainly did return to my interrupted career when my toddler was happily launched into pre-school and I did go all-out to become a responsible adult and was promoted to Women’s Editor at the tender age of 29. Well it seems tender now, looking back!

We both worked hard through our 30s. We moved interstate, from one end of Australia to the other, had another baby, got top jobs and both earned good money while juggling the demands of parenthood, as you do in your turbulent 30s. You think the stresses will never ease off and while striving and struggling like you’re climbing a mountain, you yearn to reach a plateau to draw breath.

When the plateau came in my 40s, with our son having left home for Uni and our high achiever daughter still excelling her way through high school, I decided dramatically to opt out of the proverbial rat race and throw myself into studying psychology; seeking answers about human nature and the meaning of life. Little did I realise that by giving up a full-time income, I was not only losing social status but tipping the precarious balance of power in my marriage.

For an entire decade, Andrew became the main provider, with me scraping up a minor income as a counsellor and freelancer and no matter the depth of knowledge I gained in all my intensive studies, I was still playing second fiddle in the financial arena.

I made my contribution by making savvy decisions about investing in property and project managing the building of two houses but somehow the bigger picture didn’t rate against making a reliable weekly income. Meantime Andrew grew more and more stressed under the weight of the lop-sided financial burden.

‘Co-dependency’ is a system operating between two people whom have a dynamic of ‘co-dependence’ where one person is dependent and the other person enables the dependency by taking excessive responsibility and playing the role of the ‘co-dependent’. However, I discovered when I teased it all out, that it is possible for one partner to be dependent in certain areas while the other partner is dependent in other areas.

To my shock, I had become dependent on my husband in three keys areas; finances, technology and transport. Not only did I rely on him to bring home the bacon, I had appointed him my personal IT guy and screamed loudly for help every time I had a computer problem and I relied on him, with my defective sense of direction and tendency to day dream while driving on motorways, to chauffeur me around.

In exchange I had become solely responsible for the three survival needs of food, shelter and clothing. I did all the grocery shopping and all the cooking, despite my pleas for him to muster some culinary interest and whenever we entertained, I morphed into the unpaid caterer and waiter. To my disappointment and frustration, having friends over for dinner or a barbie was no longer an enjoyable double act as attentive host and charming hostess.

I took on the role of Homemaker Extraordinaire, in charge of furnishings and d├ęcor and most of the housework (Credit where it’s due, Andrew is a whiz with the floors and embraces ironing his own shirts as a form of meditation!)

And finally, with Andrew’s aversion to shopping and minimalist approach to garments, I have even ended up shopping for his clothes! How embarrassing!

Okay, so you spotted the typical gender division of labour. Did you also spot the unhealthy parent-child roles? Yikes! Yes I felt like mummy in all of this feeding, tending to the home and dressing him.

Yes, sadly for romance, co-dependence is not sexy. (Although I must clarify, we have always been fully adult and hot to trot in the bedroom!)

Co-dependence in marriage is in fact a continuation of the dynamic between the parent and child who has not properly experienced the ‘Separation’ or ‘Individuation’ stage of development, when the young adult breaks free from the parental hook-up and forms healthy boundaries. This is especially true in the case of teenage sons growing up with single mums.

Another symptom of co-dependence, is ‘enmeshment’ where one partner has such porous boundaries they absorb their partner’s emotions and moods and take her/him personally instead of seeing their partner as an imperfect individual.

The enmeshed partner even takes on the other’s opinions and mannerisms and doesn’t experience him or herself as a clearly-defined individual asserting their own views, feelings, needs and wants. The submissive, non-assertive partner often feels controlled, dominated and downtrodden but fails to take responsibility for speaking up.

So now I am in midlife and asking why has it taken so long to figure this out? It seems that growing up is a lifetime process. I am seeking empowerment in money-making, handling computer problems and finding my way around.

I want to become a whole person, a complete woman, responsible for every facet of life. Andrew is going back to basics to master food, shelter and clothing and together, as capable individuals, we will make of strong, equal partnership. That’s the plan. Very sexy.


  1. Love this blog... I have just gotten engaged to my partner of 2 years and we work and live together after moving countries!! Its been interesting to say the least, it amazes me how easy it is to emesh especially when you have the financial things lumped together...
    Keep the blogs coming! :-)

  2. I don't think 2 halves becoming a whole equals Co dependence. I believe I see the world from one perspective and my spouse from another perspective. Together we get the full 360 entrees by myself I see 180. Co dependence is baseed of relationships where one or both people have addictions. When applied to a healthy (non addictive) relationship Co dependence becomes destructive