Am I My Brother’s/Sister’s/Parent’s/Spouse’s/Child’s/Friend’s Keeper? Or Why I Don’t Believe in Co-Dependency

If you have a loved one who sometimes behaves in ways that other people view as a problem, you are likely, at some point, to be labeled as “enabling” or “co-dependent.” You’re especially likely, in my opinion, to receive this label if you are a person who doesn’t believe in trying to control other people’s actions, and who especially does not believe in trying to control the behavior of another person who is actually an adult of sound mind.

Six of Pentacles; Six of Cups. Uh-oh, is there enabling going on here?
Six of Pentacles; Six of Cups. Uh-oh, is there enabling going on here? No, I don’t think so. What I see here is generosity, love, and forgiveness.

According to PyschCentral.com, if ANYone in your family is dysfunctional in ANY way, you are probably co-dependent. Excuse me? Talk about guilt by association. Let’s just blame everyone who in any way has ever associated with someone who behaved in a way that society doesn’t appreciate.

Of course, it is true that some people do have a hard time saying no to a loved one or setting boundaries around another person’s behavior in order to live their own lives. I think this is actually true of almost everyone at some point. When we find ourselves at such a point in our lives, we can certainly benefit from learning to work on boundaries for our own protection so that we can live our own lives. But let’s look at the language that’s being used here: “enabling,” and “co-dependent.” Do you see how the very language of this diagnosis is centered around another person, NOT the person who is being accused of being co-dependent? 

And let’s consider the source of the label: it’s one thing if an individual comes up with this idea on their own: “oh, I wonder if I am setting appropriate boundaries with my loved one? I wonder if I should continue to put up with being treated in a certain way?” When you notice that something is a continual challenge in your life, and you choose to address the issue, that is very empowering, and notice: that’s you taking action in your own life to make a difference for yourself.

Are the Queen of Cups and the Queen of Swords really at odds with each other? No, I don't think so. The Queen of Swords will enforce those boundaries that we need. But she wouldn't allow herself to be bullied -- she can tell when words like "enable" are embedded in bullshit. And she would never turn her sword against the Queen of Cups just because the Queen of Cups is so loving. Moreover, if she saw that the Queen of Cups had turned upside down, I think the Queen of Swords would find a way to lend a hand, rather than simply flinging  psychobabble at her.
Are the Queen of Cups and the Queen of Swords really at odds with each other? No, I don’t think so. The Queen of Swords will enforce those boundaries that we need. But she wouldn’t allow herself to be bullied — she can tell when words like “enable” are embedded in bullshit. And she would never turn her sword against the Queen of Cups just because the Queen of Cups is so loving. Moreover, if she saw that the Queen of Cups had turned upside down, I think the Queen of Swords would find a way to lend a hand, rather than simply flinging psychobabble at her.

However, when a third party labels another person as enabling or co-dependent, notice that the emphasis is usually NOT on the supposedly co-dependent enabler but rather on that person’s relative/spouse/friend. What’s happening here is NOT empowering for the supposed co-dependent at all. Instead, it’s a way of using that person to try to manipulate the behavior of the person who is regarded as dysfunctional or as being “enabled.” It’s simply a way of treating the “co-dependent” as a pawn in a game of power politics: if I apply pressure on you, maybe you’ll apply pressure on this other person, and something will change. 

Frankly, I don’t appreciate it. I think it’s an appalling displacement of responsibility. No one can control the actions of another person. I can’t. You can’t. No one can. You have control over your own actions and your own choices — not those of other people. If you act like a jerk, that is your responsibility. But if someone else acts like a jerk, I just do not see how that is your fault. Not even if you do the jerk’s laundry or make dinner for him/her.

Not even if you gave birth to this jerk. Not even if you married this jerk. I mean, I suppose a third party could say, “well, if you hadn’t given birth to this person, he/she wouldn’t be here now irritating other people!” or “if you hadn’t done this jerk’s laundry, he/she would still be at home looking for clean clothes and not bothering others with his/her generally obnoxious attitude!” But that, to me, is a bit of a reach.

When you do laundry for a loved one, when you put food on the table, when you provide a roof over someone’s head, when you are kind and loving with another person, when you listen and don’t judge, when you behave in a way that is respectful of another person’s autonomy, that’s not being co-dependent or enabling. We need a different word for this behavior, and fortunately, the English language has supplied us with an ideal one: supportive. 

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