Codependency and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

codependency and acceptance and commitment therapyThis morning I’m writing about our tendency to take too much responsibility for other people’s lives.

The concept of codependence has been around since the ’80s.  Originally it was associated with the partners of alcoholics.  I think it has a much wider application.

In myself and other parents, I have noticed a tendency to personalize our adult childrens’ choices.  These don’t have to have anything to do with addiction. Often our disquiet about them is basically selfish.  Would my kids live on my doorstep or call more often if I had not made X or Y mistake?  In reality, X or Y  happened because we didn’t understand something about ourselves, our kids or the situation.  But we believe we “should” have known whatever it was that would have enabled us to make better decisions. It’s all about us and about our past, not our children and their future.

We all need to feel safe, to believe that we have some power over our lives, and to feel loved.   These needs can create inflexible self-concepts – always responsible, in control, loveable and loving.  We can’t bear to let go of these views of ourselves, so we deny behavior that doesn’t back them up, or ruminate about the behavior in an attempt to make believe it never happened.

What would it be like to let go of this stuff and live in the present?

Codependency With Partners

I also see a lot of partner codependency in my practice – the elevation of one’s partner to judge and jury deciding the value of one’s life.  –  If he or she doesn’t love me, I am worthless and will never be able to find and create a relationship with depth.

Many people are like this in early relationships as teenagers.   However, this thinking can also afflict adults who can see that their love object is a poor fit, irresponsible and even unlikeable.  They are half in and half out of the relationship for years, unable to make a real connection with other potential partners with whom a less fraught, truly loving relationship might be possible.   This is the underside of the value Western culture has placed on romance since the Middle Ages.  Often the person is painfully reliving the patterns of the past, the interactions with the semi-available parent who could never be pleased or made happy or healed.

Codependency: How ERP, ACT and CBT Can Help

How does Acceptance and Commitment Therapy help these forms of codependence?

Meditation helps us recognize the problem.  Then we must act.

All change is a form of exposure (as in Exposure and Response Prevention, another form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy which complements ACT).    ERP is effective but challenging.  We treat people who are afraid of contamination by having them touch the “dirty” doorknob, then make and eat a sandwich without washing their hands.  They have to sit with the anxiety.  There is no way of knowing for sure that they will not get sick.  In the same way, we can’t be certain in advance that focusing on our adult children’s actual needs and not our own will make us happier, or that taking the risk of trusting a non-abusive partner will lead anywhere except loneliness. Change involves risk.

Many years ago I borrowed from the library a book about relationships by a rabbi. (I didn’t write down what it was called and now can no longer remember.)  It discussed the patriach Jacob, who was unable to accept that his son Joseph, who became a great minister of Pharaoh in Egypt after being sold into slavery by his brothers, had a “story” of his own, independent of what would have made Jacob happy and comfortable.   I always remembered this because it seemed to me to say a lot about loving and its pain.  It’s not love to see others as (even much loved) accessories in our own story.  It is just as true that we are only a part of theirs.

From the opposite perspective, it’s also important to remember that we have not just a right but also a responsibility to create meaningful  “stories” of our own.  When we are enchained  by a partner’s varying level of affection for us, or our perspective on the right choices for our adult children, we are avoiding the harder road of creating meaning for ourselves in the moment.  It’s not easy to act as though we have value when the “demons on the boat” (an ACT metaphor for self-critical rumination) tell us we don’t.

We all have our stories.  None of them is THE story.  Let’s create our own stories and let other people own theirs.