Addicted to the addict: The anatomy of codependence

The first in a seven-part SOUL’S CODE series about Codependence


Are you, or have you ever been, a codependent person?

co-de-pend-ent [koh-di-pen-duhnt] – adjective

1. of or pertaining to a relationship in which one person is physically or psychologically addicted, as to alcohol or gambling, and the other person is psychologically dependent on the first in an unhealthy way.

BY DAVID RICKEY and PAUL KAIHLA That’s the standard dictionary, or in this case Wikipedia, definition. Take out the argot about addiction, and codependency can be summed up with this plain phrase: a mutually-parasitic bonding.

In biology class, the teacher called this a symbiotic relationship. In nature they exist between organisms like the the shark and the remora “sticking fish,” the bumble bee and a flower — or for a more exotic example, how about a fig tree and the Amazon fruit bat? Neither would exist (at least not in the same form) without the other.

A premise of 12-Step programs, the term “codependency” broke out during the 1970s after Alcoholics Anonymous became a viral movement.

In a codependent relationship, the person playing the role of the host often appears to those on the outside as a purely giving, caring and even saintly soul. In truth, the host often acts from a place of low self-esteem, and feels personally responsible for others. They are compelled to help, at their own expense.

Another characteristic is the host’s addiction to drama, which is usually unconscious. When you’re codependent, you get a rush from the imagined power of the pivotal role you’re playing in the other’s plight or scenario.

Codependence can be accompanied by clinical depression, as the codependent person succumbs to feelings of frustration or sadness over his or her inability to improve the other person’s life. Some say codependency is being ‘addicted to the addict’.

You may have to be over the age of 45 to get this reference :) Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a stunning theatrical illustration of codependent “love.”

In the 1966 movie version, Richard Burton yells at Elizabeth Taylor (in the photo above), his wife in both reel (and real) life: “I cannot stand it!”

Her retort:

You can stand it — You married me for it.

To get our next screen citation, you have to be at least 30 years of age :)

Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth Shue also portrayed a codependent relationship in the 1995 movie, Leaving Las Vegas. Cage plays an alcoholic who literally drinks himself to death; Shue plays a pretty prostitute who loves him too much.

It points to the potential pathology of classic codependency: the caregiver feels the recipient’s pain, but the latter does not feel the caregiver’s pain.

Another way of saying it is that the giver is almost an object in the codependent’s psychic landscape. The host comes with the territory. They’re a local utility, kind of like the cable service. The codependent lacks the capacity to experience the giver as a whole person, and has a sense of entitlement about the service they expect the giver to provide.

The shadow side of codependence is that the host who is the apparent “giver” is ultimately dependent because her or she is vying to control the recipient and is dependent himself on being needed by the receiver.

The “giving,” or sacrifice, or martyrdom is the currency the host uses to stay connected to a lover or spouse because they cannot bear separation, or being on their own. They often don’t know who they are when not connected to their “receiver.” The central issue is ‘over-involvement’ in saving someone else’s ass. But the solution isn’t ‘under-involvement’ or self-centeredness.

NEXT: The Parent Trap — Setting the stage for codepence

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One Response to “Addicted to the addict: The anatomy of codependence”

  1. Nice work, gentlemen. There may be some hope for you after all :)