In Part One, we introduced the concept of codependency — a dynamic in which two people are dependent on each other in unhealthy ways. Here, we examine four common codependent relationships, see how they can become established, and explore what one can do to disentangle from the clutches of codependency.
The Addict’s Wife
I’m 35, and I’ve been married for ten years to an alcoholic. We have six children. For the first three years of marriage, I pleaded with him to change… and I was confident I would succeed.
As the eldest of ten, I knew how to keep things together. Even at work, I was always the one responsible for the efforts of all the employees. I often gave suggestions for better productivity to my boss, who quickly promoted me to manager. So I was optimistic about my marriage — I could fix this, just like I fixed everything else.
But I soon realized this wasn’t working with my husband.
He’s frequently drunk, more preoccupied with bars than with his family. All the housework, finances, cooking, and child rearing falls on me. I barely have time to sleep, get dressed, or even eat.
My husband, meanwhile, bounces back and forth between promises of change and excuses that he can’t. I give him second, third, and fourth chances. I stay up late, reheat his dinners, and call his boss to say he’s sick when he’s too hungover to work. (If he loses his job, how will we pay our bills?) I make excuses at family gatherings when he doesn’t show up.
I used to be extremely sympathetic. I kept a calm demeanor, invited guests for Shabbos, and swallowed my anger and sadness. But my resentment is becoming overwhelming, as my entire life revolves around taking care of my husband. I’m angry at him for never being there, for making me work so hard, for giving me nothing when I do so much for him. It kills me when my children see my husband’s passed-out body in the kitchen.
At the same time, I’m upset at myself for not having enough self-respect to stand up to my husband, frustrated that I need to be his mother, and the worst part is the toll on my children. But I feel guilty when I don’t do what’s asked of me. I am scared to pull back because he needs me. I feel that endlessly taking care of other people and expecting nothing in return is sometimes what it takes to be a good wife and mother.
Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski has been counseling alcoholics and their codependent family members for the past 30 years. Formerly staff psychologist at Substance Abuse Services at Elizabeth General Medical Center (now Trinitas Hospital), he currently serves on the professional advisory board of JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically dependent persons, and Significant others). He’s been published in lay and professional periodicals, and lectures on addictions and shalom bayis in the Jewish community. He trains rabbanim, askanim, and chassan/kallah teachers on shalom bayis counseling at TCCI (Twerski Coaching and Counseling Institute).
A classic codependent, this wife expects her actions to fix her husband’s addiction. She quickly abandoned the life that was her own: her needs, responsibilities, and even her dignity. She fell into the trap of protecting him, catering to his intoxication.
But instead of stopping him, she’s enabling his destructive pattern.
Understandably, she’s become consumed with constant anger and guilt. That’s because the mission to “improve someone” always fails, and life on this track becomes unbearable.
The codependent is frustrated by his failure to control the addict, but addresses this by intensifying efforts to achieve the impossible. Marriages, other family connections, friendships, all become the object of manipulation in order to affect the addiction. But these efforts never work. What codependents need to understand is that it’s impossible to “fix” others. The result of attempting the impossible is unmanageability.
Like her husband, the codependent has her own unhealthy needs that cause her to enable him. She feels she has no choice, but she can choose not to control, and not to be a victim.
What does “victim” mean? Often, the emotional state of the codependent becomes dependent on the “blood alcohol level” of the alcoholic. A famous Al-Anon joke: The wife wakes up, looks over at her husband, and says, “Good morning, honey, how am I?”
It’s a self-destructive stance, but the individual stuck in this situation cannot perceive it.
So, how to treat this scenario? In Al-Anon, a 12-step-based support fellowship for family members of alcoholics, one must recognize the “Three C’s of codependency”: “I didn’t Cause it, I can’t Control it, and I won’t Cure it.” In recovery from codependency, one stops the useless efforts to Control or Cure. One may love the addict, but hate the behavior, and in doing so, “detach with love.” In a supportive fellowship of others who’ve experienced this firsthand, one can learn to develop a life that isn’t dependent on the addict for emotional well-being.
One also learns about setting and living within boundaries. The codependent learns to take care of her own life. Every parent, including those of difficult children, must find places in their life to actually live for themselves, not others. Everyone is entitled to enjoyment; no one is here to be a slave.
This former Mrs. Fix-it can still fulfill her duties as a wife, but she can’t ignore her own needs to care for her husband. When the wife decides to engage in recovery, she stops doing the things that make it easier for him to drink — like reheating his dinner when he stops at a bar after work.
Every bond/relationship has negative features. Everyone struggles from time to time in navigating a relationship. But in codependency, there’s intensity instead of balance, an element of bouncing back and forth inconsistently. They’re too close or too distant, or a yo-yo of both.
This plays out most dramatically with addiction. There is a process of getting too close to, yet distancing from the addict. The push-pull is draining and ineffective. I once asked a spouse to describe life in her house. She began virtually plucking the petals off a daisy: “I love him, I hate him, I love him, I hate him.”
Another Al-Anon quote: “The alcoholic plays the fiddle, and the wife dances to the tune.” In recovery, you stop dancing to his tune. Therapy is recommended, and getting support from Al-Anon and CoDA can help transform the way you function.
The Over-involved Therapist
Sharona, a newly minted social worker, was enthusiastic about her job at a local mental health clinic. Her first client, Haya, had anorexic tendencies and depression and was ready to bare her soul. Sharona knew she was going to change Haya’s life.
During their first sessions, Haya poured her heart out, discussing her parents’ divorce, the late-night suicidal thoughts, her loneliness. Sharona listened intently, trying to appropriately express equal amounts of compassion, empathy, and shock. This poor girl, Sharona often thought as Haya cried, her voice shaking with sobs. Sharona was soothing, encouraging, and kind as she validated Haya’s feelings and demonstrated a genuine interest in helping her heal.
Haya felt so lucky to have gotten the best therapist — no one had ever cared about her so much. As Sharona put all her energy into their sessions, Haya began showing improvement. The social worker rejoiced in these small victories, proud to have made a difference.
As time went on, they continued the counseling, with both Sharona and Haya enjoying the sessions very much — too much, in fact, for them to end. Sessions would extend longer so they could chat about other things. And then Sharona began confiding in Haya about her own thoughts and fears and dreams.
Marcy Davidovics, LCSW, is in private practice in Queens and Manhattan and has been the social work director at Yeshiva of Central Queens for the past 14 years. She has one of the largest supervision programs, training frum MSW students in field work and practice. She has advanced training in many areas including marriage therapy, family systems, CBT, and divorce mediation.
Sharona has good intentions; she wants to give therapy her all. Haya feels validated and safe, and likely relieved to be listened to so well. We don’t know much about Haya’s history, but she states that “no one had ever cared about her so much.”
Now that Haya’s therapeutic needs are being met, as evidenced by reduced symptoms, the next step is discussing termination. Yet Sharona is having transference issues toward her client, wanting to rescue Haya, which connects her in an unhealthy way.
Sharona allows the therapy to become too informal by engaging in nontherapeutic talk and exceeding session time. This distorts boundaries. Self-disclosing Sharona’s own feelings, which has no therapeutic benefit to Haya, compromises the mutuality between therapist and client.
The therapist is the one responsible for setting boundaries. When a therapist shares personal information with the client, it can lead the client to become too emotionally dependent on the therapist, or render the client unable to self-determine the continuing course of treatment.
This type of codependent relationship can occur between parent and child, seminary madrichah and her chanichot, boss and employee. If a boss places unreasonable demands on an employee, and the worker says “yes” even though it impinges on her family or her functioning at home, the worker may have a huge need to please and in doing so, loses her sense of self. This may be Sharona’s issue as well.
I’ve seen this dynamic play out numerous times as a clinical supervisor. One supervisee, who was seeing a seven-year-old girl from a dysfunctional family, had a strong desire to “take the child home to raise her.” The child, feeling the maternal care from the clinician, would cling to the clinician in the hallways. The supervisee would hug her back, eager to validate how much she was helping the child. The child was in the therapist’s thoughts constantly.
In supervision, we discussed my supervisee’s strong need to be loved by her own mother. She saw herself in the little girl, and was eager to resolve her childhood lack by giving the girl what she didn’t have. I explained the necessity to create clearer boundaries by focusing on the child, not her own needs.
Like my supervisee, Sharona’s need to connect to Haya informally may be a sign of an unresolved codependent issue. Sharona may want to continue that relationship so she feels loved, supported, and/or validated. Likewise, Haya may need to listen to Sharona to feel resolved in her own issues, especially as her parents divorced and another separation is happening between her and Sharona. Preserving this relationship can be a cover for deeper feelings of pain or loss.
Perhaps either woman lacks real friends and is desperate for a sense of connection. A therapist with appropriate boundaries would lead therapy back to Haya’s desire to stay overtime and what that represents. The therapist would become self-aware of her own void and seek friendships outside her clientele.
Another possibility: Abandonment issues are playing out — Sharona is afraid of losing the client she worked so hard with, while Haya is concerned she will not be able to remain independent. A clinician should empower her client to become self-aware and individuated enough to eventually cope on her own.
Sharona should get supervision/therapy to talk about her feelings toward Haya. She also could establish further social interaction in her life, rendering her less vulnerable to using clients for friendship. On that note: Self-care for the therapist is imperative. Davening, hobbies, family time, and mental breaks are some ways to avoid the dependent/codependent dynamic with patients.
But most importantly, setting clear goals and boundaries with clients at the beginning of the relationship decreases the possibility of a breach in the process.
The Best Friends
When I was growing up, my mom was overworked and exhausted, always multitasking — washing dishes, calling the credit card company, putting away dinner. Although she was effusive when it came to hosting guests, or feeding us, I came to expect her sighs of frustration when she didn’t want to deal with me. I was a hard child — of that I am aware. My mother says I was very argumentative.
But to the outside world, I was the ultimate good girl: sympathetic, confident, sweet, an amazing student. Inside, I was a chameleon, an expert at shifting my personalities to become what anyone wanted me to be. My unconscious mission was to have everybody like me (or love me).
In nursing school, everyone knew I’d help them study, get notes, or just be there as a listening ear. I was especially close to Debbi, another frum woman. She opened up to me about her older sister’s untimely death, the depression she fell into a year before, and other family-related issues. I’d listen to Debbi for hours, comforting her; I enjoyed being there for her. As the year progressed, Debbi opened up more, confiding in me about her drug-taking habits and her high levels of paranoia and OCD.
When we weren’t together, I felt empty, like part of me wasn’t there. I missed her needing me. She began probing into my life, asking questions, and I started sharing things I’d never told anyone. No one had ever bestowed that kind of attention on me, and it felt nice.
Debbi was an even better listener than I was… emotionally validating, inhumanly patient, very selfless. So generous, in fact, that I had to stop telling her I hadn’t had breakfast that morning because she’d run to buy me a froyo or something and not let me pay her back. Since I never had time — or was too lazy — to prepare meals for our long hospital nursing shifts, I let her. She’d also bring presents — scarves, expensive perfumes. She didn’t have a lot of money, but would be crestfallen if I refused her.
We spent all our free time together. The friendship become all-encompassing — whenever I wasn’t talking to Debbi, I was thinking about her or texting her. Then there were the phone calls, ten a day — on both sides. She’d drop whatever she was doing to answer — even at crazy hours of the night. I turned to her for every minute decision — which direction to turn on the freeway if I was lost, what present to get my brother for his birthday.
Then came the day she asked me, “Will your husband love you as much as I do?” That’s when I realized this relationship was unhealthy. Because I was scared of the same thing: Who would I be without her?
Chris Kingman, LCSW, has been helping people identify, understand, and change their codependent relational patterns for 15 years. He’s practiced individual and group therapy for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and has served as clinical supervisor, associate director and director of therapy centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Chris has a full-time private therapy practice in Manhattan.
Unknowingly, these two friends have drifted toward excessive dependency. The evidence for this is less about the exact amount of texting, thoughtful actions, and conversations — though these are not irrelevant. The problem is primarily revealed in two examples: The writer — let’s call her Eden — states: “When we weren’t together, I felt empty… whenever I wasn’t talking to Debbi, I was thinking about her or texting her.” Excessive preoccupation — tending toward obsession — with another person generally has the effect, over time, of destabilizing (rather than strengthening) one’s sense of self; it disrupts and threatens (rather than facilitating and supporting) one’s optimism about self and life, and one’s ability to function well in other relationships, at work, and overall in life.
We see this on the opposite side as well. When Debbi asks, “Will your husband love you as much as I do?” she reveals that her attachment to Eden has become possessive, confused, and probably increasingly fear-based. It’s on the basis of these feelings that Debbi would want to compare her love with that of Eden’s future husband.
So, how did this happen? As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.
During Eden’s childhood, she was taken care of materially, but not emotionally, which was undoubtedly very painful. To cope with the pain, Eden sought esteem from the outside world by adopting the persona of “the ultimate good girl” so “everybody would like me.” Eden experienced insufficient development of an authentic and integrated sense of herself (i.e., self-awareness, ability to recognize and set healthy boundaries), leaving her vulnerable to excessively gravitate toward what feels good in the moment — in this case, interactions with Debbi.
Debbi was obviously in the midst of her own ongoing emotional trauma, with the death of her older sister, other family issues, and self-medicating with drugs. Like Eden, Debbi’s untreated/unprocessed emotional pain played a large part in her readiness to escape reality into an ongoing preoccupation with Eden. In essence Debbi and Eden took turns: (1) regressing to a state of childlike dependency starving for nurturing, mirroring, and validation from the idealized all-giving parent figure; (2) assuming the role of the powerful parent who provided unlimited care.
How could Eden and Debbi have avoided drifting into a codependent relationship?
Human beings can avoid the development of codependent relationships via ever-increasing self-awareness and effective boundary-setting. Increased self-awareness would have allowed either woman to recognize how, together, they were unconsciously acting out the dynamics of their earliest relationships.
But insight is not enough. Also required is cultivation of the ability to establish norms, expectations, and patterns of communication that result in ever-increasing personal growth, clarity, and life expansion; these are the effects that healthy relationships have on us. Instead, the young women were headed in the direction of ever-increasing desperation and self-doubt, codependently clinging to each other with a subconscious hope/need to be saved.
The Chesed Girl
For her weekly school-mandated chesed, my 16-year-old daughter Liba was matched with an overwhelmed woman who just gave birth to triplets. Liba always stays longer than the required two hours, saying Masha needs her — if she’s not there, the house will be a wreck.
Masha sometimes calls my daughter on off days to ask her to take the kids to the park, babysit (pro bono), or help cook. Liba always says yes, even when she wants to say no. When I ask why she doesn’t just say she isn’t available, her answer is always, “Because she needs me.” In the beginning, Liba loved spending time there. “Ma, she’s so happy when I come,” Liba constantly told me. Lately, though, she’s been getting home more exhausted. She’s falling behind in her schoolwork and — she reported embarrassedly — fell asleep in class today.
Last Thursday, she left a friend’s birthday party to help Masha put the kids to sleep. I went over to see what was going on. The sight was surprising: Masha resting on the couch while my daughter was upstairs putting the older kids to bed. Seeing me, Masha looked startled, but beamed. “Your daughter is an angel. She won’t let me lift a finger, let alone get up from the couch. I wouldn’t survive without her.”
Dr. Miriam Adahan is an expert in the field of Torah psychology and has written numerous books on healthy relationships. She offers classes in parenting and has a private practice in Jerusalem, Israel.
Darlene Lancer is a licensed marriage and family therapist and relationship and codependency expert. She has written Codependency for Dummies and Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.
Chesed is beautiful. But there’s a difference between healthy “caregiving” and codependent “caretaking.”
Liba is not freely giving. She’d prefer to say no, but can’t. Liba ignores her own needs, feelings, and wants in deference to Masha. Helping has become a compulsion to the point of giving up nourishing activities, social life, academics, and sleep.
Self-esteem means valuing ourselves independent of others’ approval. Yet Liba’s self-esteem is based upon being needed and making Masha happy. In general, such compulsive caretaking is usually driven by unconscious shame, unhealthy guilt, a desire to impress the world with our accomplishments, or fear — of being rejected, punished, or ostracized. Some believe they must keep sacrificing in order to seem unselfish, but this is not true giving. It’s giving from a sense of lack rather than abundance.
Codependency takes two. Neither Liba nor Masha have boundaries. They’re both in danger of becoming codependent — Masha on Liba’s help and Liba on Masha’s praise. Masha seems to feel entitled (perhaps subconsciously) to Liba’s help by ignoring the two-hour limit — the boundary of their chesed relationship. In fact, Liba is beginning to take over Masha’s role as mother, which Masha appears happy to relinquish. It’s okay for Masha to ask for help, but not to expect Liba to do everything.
Yet we can’t blame Masha completely, because Liba is always available for her. It’s Liba’s responsibility to enforce these limits and Masha’s responsibility to accept them. Codependents rob the other person of making choices; they make themselves so available that they train the person to rely exclusively on them. And once this codependent relationship becomes set, it is very hard for Liba to pull away from Masha’s constant expectations of availability.
Although many times we put others’ needs before our own, it should be a conscious, not compulsive, decision that won’t jeopardize our welfare, and not one made to enhance our self-worth. We often have to give even if it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable. The problem arises when codependents seek to control others to meet their dependency needs. Codependents can hound, stalk, nag, pressure, and sulk quite well when their dependency needs aren’t satisfied. Codependents are not “nice” all the time — they may be seething inwardly. This may be why Rabbeinu Tam says that if you do a chesed out of coercion, without any pleasure in giving, it will ultimately harm the relationship.
In short-term or emergency situations, we give limitlessly. People can walk two miles to do the mitzvah of bikur cholim, and they’ll feel enlivened, joyous. But if there’s no joy in doing the chesed, and it’s done out of emotional blackmail, one should examine the relationship. It’s not kindness to allow ourselves to be exploited or manipulated.
Self-care is the hallmark of self-esteem. Liba’s mother should make sure her daughter understands the balance between giving and self-neglect. Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be?” I have to sleep and eat properly, I can say no if I feel drained. Of course, this doesn’t give us permission to be selfish — the mishnah continues: “If I’m only for myself, what am I?”
The best way to say no without appearing harsh or uncaring is to use pareve “I” statements. For example, “I’m sorry, but I cannot handle that right now,” or, “It’s not convenient for me.”
If people reject her for not always being generous, she can protect herself by keeping her distance. A balance between chesed, giving, and gevurah, strength, means being able to say, “I’m exhausted, I need to rest.”
If the other person constantly says, “I need you anyway,” you’re not in a healthy relationship.
Love or Codependency?
Chris Kingman illuminates the difference:
It’s useful to think of love and codependency as very different ways or styles of attaching and relating to others in our personal relationships. Love, for the most part, empowers and facilitates feelings of safety and openness; love expands one’s life experiences and illuminates appealing possibilities.
Codependency, for the most part, disempowers and facilitates feelings of unsafety and guardedness, and constrains one’s life experiences and one’s sense of self. In a codependent relationship, you enable your partner’s unhealthy behaviors, and they enable yours. You minimize your needs and preferences. Instead of growing together, you deteriorate together. You feel devalued or disrespected by your partner. You feel frustrated or angry about how you’re being treated but you don’t speak up. You feel ashamed and embarrassed about what’s really going on in your relationship.
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 444.)