passerine: Picture of Sparrow from Dykes to Watch For (Default)
[personal profile] passerine
I've had some of these thoughts in the back of my mind for some time now, based on everything from some of my own past relationships to the work I do with domestic violence programs for the state. What brought them forward was some of the reading and discussion in my Human Behavior class this semester.

The summary: What one of the readings called "the language of codependency" is, in my view, anti-feminist in the extreme as well as imprecise and easy to misapply. This language is on my list of Things To Avoid As A Clinician.

The long version follows:


Part 1: One Term, Too Many Definitions

The first problem with the concept of codependency is the multitude of definitions that seem to have sprung up. So far, I've encountered:

- The original definition of the term. A co-dependent, who was originally called a "co-alcoholic", is the spouse of an alcoholic who "enables" the alcoholic's continued drinking by smoothing things over behind the scenes and "covering up for" the alcoholic. In actual practice, if not in intent, this particular form of the definition was applied almost exclusively to the wives of alcoholic husbands.

- The extension of the basic concept, to include the wife of any man with a "problem" and the kids who grew up in any sort of "dysfunctional family". To my way of thinking, this is uselessly overgeneralizing because of the lack of definition of "problem" or "dysfunctional". (For that matter, what the hell is a "functional" family?)

- "Codependent" as an alternate term for "love addict". The idea here is that a codependent is someone (usually a woman) who is so desperate to be in a relationship that she will tolerate just about any bad behavior from her partner, as long as he doesn't actually leave her, or even that she "wants to be abused". This definition ignores a number of realities that operate in the lives of many women.

- There's also the variant that says that anyone who points out that her SO is behaving unacceptably and requests the behavior to change is exhibiting "codependent traits" by making the request. In other words, "codependent" is a fancy way of saying "nagging wife". This one seems to be a favorite of emotional abusers, because it means that they can get away with pretty much anything that isn't illegal or physically violent and it'll be fine because if the victim objects, that's just her codependency showing. (I have friends who have been through this. It's one of those things that really bugs me.)

- I've also seen "codependent" used as a descriptor for "does not know how to communicate assertively, or theoretically knows how yet fails to do so." This doesn't have anything to do with dysfunctional families or "love addiction" - it's a communication style problem.

- A "codependent" person "lacks interpersonal boundaries." This almost seems reasonable until you try to pick it apart. Because really, deep down, just about all of us have interpersonal boundaries and lines that we will not permit people to cross. We may not be conscious of them, we may not want to admit them to particular people or to ourselves, but they EXIST. So by saying that someone "lacks interpersonal boundaries" aren't you just saying "this person does not have the boundaries I would have, and therefore is dysfunctional" for the most part? I mean, unless you're talking actual, diagnosed Reactive Attachment Disorder (and the overdiagnosis of "attachment issues" is another rant for another time), then you'd probably be surprised about the degree of functional boundaries that these allegedly "codependent" and "boundary-less" people have. What may be the case is that the person has difficulty expressing what those boundaries are, and that's something to work on of course, but probably not with the "language of codependency" as the core of the work.

- Related to the above, I know some polyamorous people who have been told that they MUST be codependent to accept that their primary partner sleeps with someone else. Um, no. So very much NO.

- There's also the version that is the descriptor of partners who have lives that are more intertwined than an observer thinks is appropriate. I think that's also a variant on the "lacks interpersonal boundaries" theme. Of course, some people (mis)apply this concept in such a way as to imply that all interdependence is codependence, that if you can't simply walk out the door tomorrow with few to no regrets, you are codependent! (This is probably the only definition that I see applied relatively equally regardless of gender.)

- Codependent people are apparently either "super responsible or super irresponsible." Right then. So the exact opposite symptoms get you the same pop-psychology "diagnosis". Mmm-hmm, I see.

- The list goes on, but I think you probably get the idea.


Part 2: Problems With The Original Definition

So for the moment, let's go back to the original definition of the "co-alcoholic wife". She "enables" her husband's drinking by engaging in such activities as smoothing over conflicts that started while he was drunk, attending to his physical needs, calling in sick for him when he has a hangover, finding reasons other than "Dad drank it" that the kids don't have money for what they want to do (or finding the money somehow), etc. Allegedly, she does this because she has a deep-seated need for him to be sick so that she can feel capable.

Is this the best we can do to describe a capable woman married to a not-so-capable man when she is trying to give herself and her kids the best life she can? She needs to do this to "feel capable"? WTF? She is capable, and it's only the product of a very sexist paradigm that insists that if a husband is mentally unwell, his wife must be at least as sick as he is. Defining her as "codependent" or a "co-alcoholic" undermines the degree of health she has - she MUST have - to bear the level of responsibility that she does!

Let's try this another way. Suppose that instead of a drinking problem, her husband has cancer. Suppose that she calls in sick for him when he's vomiting from the chemo, smooths things over with the insurance company when there's been a mix-up, tries to give the kids as normal a life as possible despite Dad's obvious illness and the mounting medical bills, etc. Is she still codependent, or is she a caretaker? Is she "enabling" her husband's cancer? Most people would say not. Many would say she's a Big Damn Hero for all this and praise her rather than condemn.

Reframing it yet again with a mental illness not complicated by chemical dependency gets trickier. I suppose that one depends on how much of "mental illness" the observer believes is illness and how much is deliberate behavior, as well as how deep-seated the belief is that you must be crazy to be in love with a crazy person. I could go on about that, but that is so not within the scope of this post and is rather personal anyway.


Part 3: Codependency Is A Woman's Job!

Supposedly, it's "codependent" to be a caretaker, at least in some situations.

The trouble is, that whether or not we grew up in "dysfunctional families", this society insists that the role of caretaker is gendered feminine. And as is so often the case, the same behaviors that are functional or even desirable when there is no overt substance abuse or addictive behavior on the part of a husband are evidence of codependency when the husband IS some kind of addict.

(The further trouble is, whether the woman stays in the relationship with the addict as he sobers up or whether she leaves for someone else, she has now been labeled and/or labeled herself as codependent, and will carry that into whatever relationship she might be involved in.)

One of the Human Behavior readings had a particularly striking example of how and why this is so. Apparently, a particular family therapist asks each member of a couple to make a list of "What I do to keep the family functioning." Usually, the lists look something like this:

The Man: Primary income earner, drive the car on long trips, take out the trash, minor household repairs, call repair people for major house/car repairs, compliment wife, walk the dog, throw football with son, make sure daughter obeys curfew.

The Woman: Part-time income earner, grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking, dishes, laundry, taking things to and from dry cleaners, miscellaneous household errands, make sure bills are paid on time, attend parent-teacher conferences, attend kids' sports events/recitals/school plays/etc., picking up after husband and kids, change the cat litter, clean the fish tank, feed the pets, run interference between husband and kids, break up conflicts between kids, run interference between husband and parents, know where everyone has to be when, make doctor's appointments, weed the garden, clean the house, take kids clothes shopping, justify why everything costs so much, plan vacations, stay home with kids when they are sick, wear clothes husband likes, be ready to have sex at least twice a week, ...

If the man in this scenario were an alcoholic, the woman would be labeled as "over-responsible" and thus "codependent". Since he's not, this just looks like a relatively normal marriage, all things considered.


Part 4: Co-option of Co-dependent

For me, the most problematic aspect of all when dealing with the "language of codependency" is the sheer level of "damned if you do, damned if you don't." Since there are SO MANY codependent traits, it seems to me that basically any time a woman does something the man she is involved with does not like, if he's familiar with the "language of codependency" he can criticize her on those grounds. The easiest way to do this is as a retort to her objection to HIS behavior.

This is essentially a mutation of Geek Social Fallacy #2 - if friends must "accept me as I am", how much more true must that be for an SO? But as GSF#2 points out, this often leads to problems when behavior cannot be criticized, no matter how inappropriate the behavior is.

To give a semi-trivial example [disclaimer: made-up and not from my own life or the life of anyone I know] of obviously inappropriate behavior: Suppose your live-in SO always leaves the milk out in the morning after putting it in his cereal and coffee. If it stays out all day, it may well go bad, which is a waste of milk and thus of the money spent on the milk. It also means there is no readily available milk the next morning, most likely.

So, how do you handle this?

Do you sigh and put the milk away for him, every single time? That's codependent! You're doing for him what he should be doing for himself. That's right - you are enabling his bad milk behavior.

Do you continually remind him to put the milk away? That's codependent too! You're asking for him to change his behavior, and once you've asked more than once or twice and he hasn't changed, you need to either accept that this behavior will continue or decide that you cannot live with someone who is so careless about refrigeration.

Do you just leave the milk out, knowing it will go bad? Codependent, and passive-aggressive!

Do you buy your own milk and insist that he buy his own milk because if he wants to drink nasty milk that has gotten sour from being out all day that's his problem? Codependent, passive-aggressive, AND nagging, all at once!

Do you make some excuse for why you buy your own milk (he wants 2% and you want skim) as a way of getting around this and making sure YOU have milk that isn't sour? Codependent again because you're accommodating his immature behavior!

Now, of course the reasonable thing would be for HIM to be an adult and put the damn milk away. But if you do anything short of leave him over this, any response you come up with can be seen as codependent. (Hell, even IF you leave, you can be described as having "fear of intimacy" thus a history of codependence anyway!) And if you have the misfortune of being attached to someone with emotionally abusive tendencies who is up on the latest and greatest in psychobabble, expect to hear "codependent" as a description of you on a regular basis.

Is it any wonder people fear commitment? When accommodating other people's quirks, or getting upset by them, is a sign that you are somehow pathological...how can you learn to live with someone else?


Epilogue: By The Way, Why Doesn't She Just Leave?

While not directly related to the "languge of codependency", this is indirectly related because "codependent personality" used to be given as a reason that women would not leave domestic violence situations. Or alcoholic partners. Or anyone that someone thinks is a bad partner - hell, there were probably people who thought I should have left [personal profile] invisionary after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (Fortunately, people are generally smart enough not to express THAT particular sentiment to my face.)

So, why doesn't she just leave, find someone better, go out on her own, etc.?

- If this is an actual domestic violence situation, the biggest reason of them all is fear for her life. Most DV victims who are murdered by the abuser are murdered during an attempt to leave or soon after they have left.

- There may be all kinds of logistical problems, especially since abusers tend to work by isolating victims. Does she have the resources, financial and otherwise, to safely leave and stay out?

- A very real concern is that the abuser may kill her pets.

- There can be custody issues of various sorts that complicate things.

- If her immigration status is tied to his, she may believe she will be deported if she leaves.

- Leaving a marriage, no matter how troubled, may be against her religious beliefs.

- She may still love him, or at least the person she thought he was.

- She may have internalized the belief that this is her fault, either from the abuser or from other sources.

- If this is a same-sex relationship, "outing" could be being used as blackmail.

- If this is one of those situations in which the abuser is female and the victim is male, he may fear retribution, including being "framed" as the abuser. (I don't think this is as common as Some People would believe, but I know of at least two such situations involving reliable witnesses that are close to me, and one where the malicious havoc wreaked on the man in question by the woman in question is something I would not have believed had I not seen it in action.)

- If the relationship does not involve domestic violence but seems "weird" or "bad" to people outside it...well, how do you KNOW? You're not IN the relationship. I've encountered this from monogamous people who think that non-coercive polyamory is pretty much impossible, for instance.

- Also, sure, the relationship might be somewhat unhappy. However, it might be a "least horrible option" situation. Holding the relationship together might not be, "We must do this at all costs!" but it might be "I don't want to deal with the loss of support structure, standard of living, etc. for myself and my kids that leaving would trigger, so I will stay at least until the kids are all out of the house." The person in the situation probably knows the most about the realities of that situation and of the alternatives.

- Also? EVERY relationship goes through bad times. If you think it doesn't or shouldn't, you are very wrong, probably delusional, and unlikely to get involved in a relationship that lasts more than a few months.

- It's important to distinguish, "Well, I wouldn't stay if X happened!" from "So you shouldn't either!" Fill in your own example here. :P


EDIT TO ADD: I was actually able to find an online copy of one of the articles used in my class. If you don't mind doing the somewhat more scholarly reading involved, you can look at it here. The article proposes "over-responsible" and "under-responsible" as alternative terminology, which I find useful. (Sort of like how I find my concept of "Depressed Logic" more useful than defining depression-induced thoughts that contradict objective reality as "irrational".)
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