Addictions are often pretty obvious. They manifest in public, humiliating ways. There’s the classic idea of the alcoholic, the Phil Mitchell from Eastenders type, stumbling around, incoherent, hurling abuse or slumped in a corner. Or the drug addict, ill-looking, emaciated and shifty a la Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting.
But there are other addictions that are much harder to spot. They’re insidious and go under the radar. They often ride shotgun alongside more well-known addictions. They’re not recognised as a problem until they’ve bedded in and become an entrenched way of life.
Let me give you a real-life example. Someone I knew who struggled with relationships. She didn’t know where the boundaries between her and other people should lie. What was her responsibility in a relationship and what wasn’t. She perpetually focused on what others wanted and needed and spent most of her life trying to take care of them. She lacked a sense of self. She wasn’t sure of her own opinions, where she stood on things. She felt she was missing the necessary emotional scaffolding for life. So she clung to other people; to their opinions, their sense of direction, their instincts. She borrowed the internal compasses of others in the absence of her own.
As a result, her romantic relationships were full of drama – push, pull, “I love you”…“I hate you”… “let’s get married…let’s break up”. Because once she got into a relationship, she couldn’t help but merge with that person. She then lost the power to make choices about whether the relationship was healthy or not.
Most of us know at least one person who often acts against their own best interests when it comes to intimate relationships. The friend who perpetually dates womanisers. The family member who jumps from relationship to relationship (often with overlaps between), seemingly never single. The colleague who’s constantly searching for a relationship and when in one seems to morph into the other person.
Underlying all of this is a condition called co-dependency. It’s classed as an addiction in its own right, with a 12 step recovery fellowship to boot (Co-dependents Anonymous). And it’s something that we all need to be aware of.
But is it really an addiction?
You may be reading this thinking “what you’re talking about is not addiction, it doesn’t sound that bad”.
It’s a fair point – it’s often hard to spot where a bit of dysfunction ends and addiction begins. But what we’re talking about are situations where those unhealthy attachments have got so extreme and the person so consumed by their relationships that their thinking and behaviour becomes obsessive.
The brilliant writer Melody Beattie describes someone who is co-dependent as:
‘one who has let another person’s behaviour affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behaviour’.
It’s that excessive focus on someone else’s life, behaviour and decisions and reliance on the other person for your own wellbeing that’s so destructive. You feel that if they’re not OK, you’re not OK and that it’s your responsibility to fix their pain. You take on more than your fair share of guilt for situations and you neglect yourself.
Spouses or partners of those with addiction problems can often become co-dependent. Being married to an addict can literally make you ill. Living with someone who’s unpredictable, who lets you down continually leaves a person on edge, nervous, constantly on the look-out for danger. Ultimately it creates a desire to control the addict and to stop their unmanageability. So you may find yourself hiding the car keys or throwing all the alcohol in the house away over and over again to no effect. The ‘end stage’ is that you end up losing all independence and being totally fixated or focused on the other person.
Why do we need to know about co-dependency?
Well, firstly it’s rife. It causes a lot of pain. And it’s not limited to romantic relationships. Its tentacles often reach into our relationships with family members, friends, colleagues and clients.
Look around your place of work and you’re bound to see a few people with dodgy boundaries (another hallmark of co-dependency), be it those who have excessively close relationships with clients or who perpetually get over-involved in other people’s lives.
Those of us in client-facing professions like law are at particular risk of it. Lawyers have a tendency to spend too much time on clients’ needs at the expense of our own wellbeing and that of our families. We think we’re being ‘available’, ‘accessible’, a ‘confidante’ or a ‘trusted advisor’, fuelled by the target-driven culture. But sometimes we’re also reacting to a propensity within ourselves to try to ‘fix’ other people’s lives. And when our clients don’t follow our instructions or respond to this in the way we want them to we end up angry (passively or directly) and frustrated.
A lot of these dynamics come out to play in my practice area of family law. Clients going through personal issues like divorce notoriously get over-attached to their solicitors. And why wouldn’t they? They’re usually hurting, feeling let down, ‘at sea’ emotionally speaking and they want to know that they’ve got a lawyer who’s going to care enough about them to ‘fight their corner’ or at least stand as a buffer against their ex/their ex’s lawyer. So they attach to their lawyer, feeding a need that might previously have been fulfilled by their partner. The lawyer then starts to find themselves being called upon by the client to provide guidance in all areas of their life, not just the legal, and at all times of day and sometimes night.
As alluded to above, this is a two-way street and we lawyers have our own part to play in this unconscious ‘dance’. If we always succumb to the pull of such clients’ needs, we unwittingly perpetuate that dependency. By trying to give the client everything they want, riding in like the cavalry to rescue the situation, we may be enabling the client’s dependent attachment on us.
The other issue is money. Many lawyers feel a little bit guilty about how much they charge, particularly with more vulnerable and dependent clients. And that makes us more inclined to do work without charging and to be more and more readily available to the client. While this is understandable and human, it runs the risk of becoming unhealthy and ultimately may not benefit the client. Because all cases end. And if you’ve fostered a dependency with a client then their ‘landing’ at the end of the matter is inevitably going to be a bumpy one.
How can we steer away from co-dependent behaviour?
The first step is recognising if you have a tendency towards it.
I believe that we are all on a spectrum in our relationships ranging somewhere from healthy secure behaviour to serious co-dependency. If you start to realise that you are swimming a little too close to the deep end then it’s important to start to educate yourself about co-dependency. There’s some fantastic books out there. Just reading about it can bring a measure of relief as well as the knowledge that there’s a name for it and ways of taming it.
And that’s the next step: change. It’s something best worked on consistently over time, either with a trusted friend or sponsor or with a therapist.
Recovery is possible and with trusted people by your side you can think about and work towards your vision for how you want to behave in relationships in the future. Each step that you then take along that path will take you away from the co-dependent ties that bind.
Good books and resources about co-dependency
Codependent No More – Melody Beattie, 1992, Hazelden
How to Break Your Addiction to a Person – Howard M. Halpern PHD, 1982, Bantam Books
Codependents Anonymous – http://coda.org
- P36 Codependent No More
 P36 Codependent No More