Convert your emotional needs into wants to have a healthy relationship.
A few weeks ago, at an increasingly rare appearance at a wedding ceremony (I usually play a more useful role after weddings than during them), I heard something startling. It was one of those secular weddings where lots of speeches were being made and one of the speakers, an obviously venerated gentleman, was exhorting the couple to “seek the happiness that only co-dependency” could bring. I sincerely hope that the speaker was committing a malapropism, for the last thing he or anyone else would want to wish for a young couple is a life of ‘co-dependence’. I wouldn’t have had a problem with ‘mutual dependence’ or ‘inter-dependence’ for these are what relationships are all about. But co-dependence is entirely out of place for it refers to an unhealthy relationship pattern.
The term was initially used to refer to those who were in relationships with people struggling with alcohol and other drug dependence. The understanding at the time was that the ‘addict’ was, in some subtle manner, manipulating the partner into aiding and abetting — even endorsing — the habit. The co-dependant partner was considered to be low on self-worth and extremely dependent on the affirmation of the addicted partner, thereby permitting the development of an extremely unhealthy relationship pattern that sustained the addiction. It was further thought that co-dependant people naturally sought out those who were addicts.
In later years, partners of domestic abusers, narcissists, or those who were pathologically controlling were also brought under the rubric of co-dependants. There was in fact, a time when co-dependants were considered to be ill themselves and required treatment. As a result, a self-help movement along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, called Co-dependants Anonymous or CoDA came into existence in the second half of the 1980s and continues to be sought after even today. In recent times, however, the concept is a much debated one among mental health professionals, and there is no real consensus yet.
While I have no doubt there are certain people, especially those who have certain personality disorders, who tend to engage in what could be described as co-dependant behavioural patterns, it’s not as if all partners of addicts or abusers enable the addiction or abuse.
Many do challenge the behaviour and suffer great trauma and indignity in the process. Often, the addict or abuser, reacts badly to such a challenge and, in an effort at rationalisation, blames them for ‘compelling’ a relapse of the addictive or abusive behaviour. Frustrated by this relentless pattern, many partners walk away but sadly, and this is certainly true of our country, many partners of addicts, narcissists and abusers may not have the luxury of doing so for reasons that are more economic than psychological.
However, if one has the economic wherewithal to walk away from an abusive relationship — after exhausting all treatment alternatives and has a supportive social network that wills one to do so — but still doesn’t exercise this option, then I guess we do have a problem on our hands and it is conceivable that such a person may be suffering from a psychological disorder that may require some professional intervention.
However, in our country, where we tend to rhapsodise about sacrificing one’s own needs for the sake of the family, often this holds many people in unhealthy relationships for longer than necessary since it’s considered inhuman to ‘abandon’ a sick person.
But let’s not limit our focus only to the extremes of, for want of a better word, co-dependency (a clunky and cumbersome term at best). Many of us do tend to be ‘emotionally needy’ in our relationships, by which I mean we are tentative, too anxious to please, too quick to apologise, rarely feel we are gratifying our partner, and generally feel worried that we may be dumped. You don’t have to be Freud to figure out that low self-esteem is in some way involved in all of this, but this neediness can set into motion an unhealthy acceptance of sub-optimal relationships, more so when one’s partner turns out to be a closet narcissist or overtly domineering.
I believe that potential co-dependence, and I exclude those with serious psychological problems, is better prevented than cured. When you enter into or stay on in a relationship because you feel you ‘need’ to be in one, you get into a one-down position even before you start. If, on the other hand, you don’t feel the ‘need’ to be in a relationship (because you’re confident that you can manage perfectly well without a partner), but ‘want’ to be in one, because you’d like to enjoy discovering a partner; don’t feel the need to abolish loneliness, but do want to engage in companionship; don’t feel the need to raise a family, but want to share the love you have with a spouse and children, then I guess you’re good to go.
Unlike marketing professionals who want to convert your ‘wants’ into ‘needs’, your relationships would be better served by converting your emotional ‘needs’ into ‘wants’. Then, and only then, can healthy dependence enter your relationship.