“UNBELIEVABLE,” I shook my head as I listened to stories of these two women. One, a few years older than I, was a financially secure and accomplished businesswoman. Isabel (not her name) took great pains to make it seem that her husband Ralph was doing well himself. She always made sure to praise him, and lift him at every opportunity.
An architect, Ralph had not had projects the last three years and spent most of his time on the golf course, using her club membership. And yet, it was incomprehensible the way he restricted her. Age 46, she had to be home at nine p.m. so that her friends had a running joke that she was the nine o’clock alarm. Even if dessert had not yet been served, she’d stand up to be excused.
When they travel, she’d foot the bill even if he could afford to pay his share. His credit card bills, often the six-figure mark, would all be paid by Isabel.
Marina knew fully well that her boyfriend of 12 years had been two-timing her for the last five years with an officemate of his. Marina would be content with his weekly visits. She knew that Raul (not his real name) would never marry her or girlfriend number two for the simple reason that his mama did not approve of either.
And yet, she goes on seeing him on the sly, seemingly happy in this highly dysfunctional arrangement. Marina is the third woman in her family to find herself in a similar arrangement. Her grandmother and mother were mistresses.
Isabel and Marina and countless other women are in co-dependent relationships. Co-dependence, a term once used exclusively for those in a relationship with a drug dependent or alcohol abuser, now covers a much wider scope.
Co-dependence is really about unhealthy emotional dependencies whose roots can be traced to childhood. The adult in a co-dependent relationship was more often than not, once a child with underlying problem in the family—a parent addicted to alcohol or drugs, or to “clean addictions” like work, food, religion, gambling or computer games. The addiction is treated as “family secret” no one talks about and the child grows up feeling helpless, neglected and abandoned.
That child may grow up with a low sense of self and unable to trust anyone, or someone who finds great difficulty getting in touch with one’s emotions. He or she may continually seek the approval of others and become a “people pleaser” of sorts. The co-dependent individual is almost completely dependent on what other people say of them.
In their desire to anesthetize the emotional pain from childhood, these adults may become addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, work, food or relationships, so much so that even if the relationship is destructive, there is an unconscious desire to remain in it, to please the other party at all expense, sometimes to the point of martyrdom.
In choosing a partner or lifemate, they gravitate to what is familiar in childhood, even if the relationship leaves them unhappy and empty.
Are you co-dependent?
Here are the signs
To determine whether or not you are in a co-dependent relationship, according to family and child therapist Dr. Honey Carandang, you must look out for these signs:
You are obsessed with rescuing needy people. Carandang says that if you are co-dependent, you are looking for someone to save so that you will look and feel good. “Because you rescue all the time, you feel you have the right to tell that other person how to live his or her life.” She says that beneath that exterior, a giver is not really a giver.
You must always have a sense of control. The rescuer often has the unconscious need to control. Neediness is the hallmark of a co-dependent relationship. For example, when the other person is out, you become obsessed with knowing where that person is, who he is with, what he is doing, etc. “There is a difference between showing concern and care and being obsessive and controlling,” Carandang says. “If you insist that your partner has to always be there or vice versa, that your partner insists on knowing your whereabouts 24/7, it becomes suffocating and unhealthy.” There is often no awareness of the need to control on the part of the co-dependent individual. The underlying message is “I give you everything, therefore I can tell you how to run your life…” or “I need for you to need me.”
You do more than your share all the time. Carandang calls it the indiscriminate “taga-salo” where, to the point of martyrdom, you do everything for everyone. The co-dependent must realize that he or she is not the savior of the world and that life will go on even without them. “Every person has the moral obligation to take care of themselves. Compulsive care will lead to the point of burnout.”
You have a constant fear of abandonment. This is rooted in childhood where there are issues of abandonment or neglect by a parent. It is carried over into adulthood and motivates the co-dependent individual to stay in the relationship no matter the cost.
Carandang says the way to break out of a co-dependent relationship is first, be aware that something is wrong. “Awareness gives you a choice to break the inter-generational patterns, if there are any, or to break whatever unhealthy patterns exist in your family.”
She says awareness can come through reading about similar stories, or through a life-changing event, or by being enlightened by a concerned individual. Awareness gives you a choice to change a pattern. “When this takes place, the person involved can talk to a trusted friend about the situation and if need be, seek professional help to stop the cycle of co-dependency.”
It takes great courage to look inwards and face the realities of a co-dependent relationship. Painful, even, but it is a journey worth taking, if only to save succeeding generations from repeating the harmful patterns in one’s family. All it takes is just one person in the relationship to make that change. –Cathy S. Babao-Guballa, Philippine Daily Inquirer
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org