How to Improve Your Relationships – Hint: It starts with the relationship you have with yourself

At the heart of one’s relationships, both with oneself and with others, is the very human condition. In order to peel back the layers of the onion, as it were, in order to discover why our relationships are not working out as we’d like, it’s necessary to discuss something that is an inherent part of the human condition and which some have referred to as “Codependency”.

By the way, for some fine examples in film for how codependency plays out in human relationships you can look to these movies:

Sideways (2004): This film stars Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. Two men, Miles (Giamatti) and Jack (Church) are reaching middle age with not much to show but lots of disappointments. They embark on a week-long road trip through California’s wine country (Solvang) and what I like so much about this film is that although both guys are highly codependent, each one nevertheless is able to offer awesome friendship to the other.

Magnolia (1999): This film has quite a cast and is a strange tapestry of interrelated characters in search of love, forgiveness, and meaning in the San Fernando Valley. It stars Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Felicity Huffman, Luis Guzmán, Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and many others. Dysfunction is the function here as these characters provide fine examples for how out-of-whack their lives get because of their unresolved codependency issues and denials.

American Beauty (1999): It stars Chris Cooper, Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Thora Birch, Peter Gallagher, Scott Bakula. Why I like this movie so much is for its subtle but very strong commentaries… one of these is marriage in America; when a wife (portrayed by Annette Bening) no longer loves her husband (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) it absolutely destroys him.

Melancholia (2011): Another masterpiece. This film is hard to categorize in any genre and I think of it as Slipstream and you can find a definition for slipstream on several pages here on this site. The film was directed by Lars von Trier and stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Rampling, Charlotte Gainsbourg, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, and Kiefer Sutherland. An “ELE” is about to happen — an Extinction Level Event — that will kill all humans and all life on Earth. Some of the characters are type “A” personalities (highly controlling), and others spazz out and go off the deep end. The film takes place at a party at a posh estate. Justine, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst (and one of my favorite female movie stars) — suffers from extreme melancholia and yet of all the people at this gathering, she is the only one who keeps herself together and maintains her composure — taking the end of the world well in stride. Amazing!

Codependency is a mostly misunderstood term and concept because it is so difficult to define in one sentence or one paragraph alone. The book, Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), Third Edition, begins in chapter one (“Beginning Our Journey”) by listing some complaints people have stated about their life situations and relationships:

“If he/she would just change, everything would be all all right.”
“I can’t control this pain, these people, and what’s happening.”
“It’s all my fault.”
“Why do I keep getting into the same bad relationships?”
“I feel so empty and lost.”
“Who am I?” or, “I don’t know who I am!”
“What’s wrong with me?”

Even the nationwide twelve step program dedicated to Codependency has some difficulty in providing a definition for this troublesome human trait.

Being codependent means being dysfunctional in one’s relationship with oneself, and exhibiting dysfunctional behavior in one’s relationships with others. Codependency is passed down from generation to generation; it is a human malaise, if you will. And, it doesn’t matter how smart a human being is. If the parents are codependent, then the offspring shall be as well. That’s just how it works. The first step is recognizing that one has codependency issues — and fully accepting that this is true. Then, one has to own (take full responsibility) for one’s codependencies. The time for blaming one’s parents will end, once the Codependent enters and practices Codependency Recovery. There have been some amazing books written on Codependency, and a couple of them opened my eyes to this malaise and thanks to these books, I exited codependency denial  — which is where I was stuck all my adult life up to the age of fifty-two.

A lot of folks believe (wrongly) that a person who is codependent is always overly-dependent on another person and is therefore weak, because it means they cannot take care of themselves. But this is just one side of the codependency coin, so to speak. A codependent is just as likely to be an enabler, that is, someone who truly believes that others cannot take care of themselves properly and therefore it is up to them to play the role of rescuer… doing things for others, and over-stepping the boundaries of others, because the people they care about obviously don’t know how to take care of themselves. The codependent enabler is absolutely convinced that everyone else is weak unable to properly care for themselves — because the enabler is himself/herself a codependent!

There are always two sides to every coin, and this is also the case with Codependency. In a codependent relationship, there is the enabler and there is the dependent and in some relationships, the roles may flip-flop back and forth, depending on the people and the situations. The enabler needs the dependent (whom they view as weak and in need of caregiving), while the dependent needs the enabler (whom they view stronger or more stable or smarter than themselves). It takes two to tango (or tangle, ha ha!) and each person gets something out of the codependent relationship.

The truth is that ALL human beings on planet Earth are codependent to one degree or another. For those with very severe codependency issues, the saving grace is that they will, at some point in their lives, come to recognize that they have a “problem”. This is Step 1 of any 12-Step program. Next, they need to want to make a change. Otherwise, they are heading down a path that will only continue their unhappiness, dissatisfaction or misery. The movie Sideways (starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh) is a very entertaining flick that revolves around the theme of codependency without actually naming it. Two frustrated males, Miles and Jack, take off for the weekend into California’s Central Valley wine country (Solvang area) to try and sort out their challenging life situations. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is having a hard time letting go of his ex-wife, even though she has already remarried. Plus, Miles is a writer who has been struggling to get his manuscript published and he gets the word during their weekend getaway that the publisher passed on his manuscript. Jack is a perennial womanizer and gets himself into really hot water with a woman he hooks up with in Solvang, because she finds out that Jack is about to get married and so all the sweet nothings he’s been whispering in her ear are just, well, sweet nothings. Amazingly, as messed up and codependent as each of these guys are, they are still able to support each other in extremely positive ways. This is absolutely magical in today’s world! Particularly in the case of males who are typically really bad at giving each other proactive moral support.

It is curious to me that so little is written about codependency, given that it is a malaise that afflicts everyone on the planet, to one degree or another. Maybe that’s exactly why nobody writes about it. Maybe folks view writing and talking on this subject akin to writing about air — because there’s just so damn much of it around!

So I wrote a short story entitled “Idaho Powwow”. It is about four men in their forties and fifties who have each suffered through difficult divorces or separations, and a few of them have even gone to prison because they acted out due to their unresolved codependency issues. The purpose of their quarterly get-together is to provide true support and accountability for each other. This little band of brothers is different in several ways from Twelve Step programs which, for example, forbid members from doing any “cross talk”, that is, two persons in the group suddenly engaging in their own private little conversation at the exclusion of everybody else in the group. In Soy Sauce (the name these four guys gave to their own support group), cross-talk is A-Ok, because it is necessary at times for one-on-one conversations to take place, without the interruption of others, in order to discuss an intense or burning issue. But, like a Twelve Step program, no one guy is in charge of the group. The group has its own group consciousness, and that is sufficient.

In subsequent blog entries, I’ll delve into the steps of recovery for a codependent and also explore in greater detail the different types of codependencies and what they mean.

In order to improve one’s relationships with others, one has to first establish a healthy relationship with oneself. Have you ever heard someone say,

“Oh, I just can’t stand being alone for very long. I just don’t know what to do with myself if I have too much time on my hands, alone.”

I’ll pick a fictitious name for the person who uttered these thoughts. I’ll call him “Ed”. Now, Ed’s thoughts and feelings are one of the classical traits of a strongly codependent person. Ed strongly believes that he requires constant “soothing” and reassurances from others that take the form of being in the company of other people, even if those people are not truly supportive or positive influences in his life. Why does Ed believe this? Because, perhaps among other things, Ed is extremely insecure and his insecurities stem from his abandonment issues, because a parent or maybe both parents “abandoned” him when he was little. A person with this type of codependency is willing to sacrifice his “safety” boundaries in exchange for some kind of imagined reassurances, which take the form of others spending time with him, or others giving Ed “permission” to let him do things for them. In Ed’s mind, this validates him as a person. It makes him worthy of having an existence on planet Earth, and it makes him worthy of being loved. After all, love is what we’re all after, isn’t it? But, the way that Ed goes about it constantly violates his safety boundaries because he puts himself in a position (due his unresolved codependency issues) where he is “giving himself away”. Given our human condition, it is natural that others will take advantage of Ed’s “kindness” and “favors”, leaving Ed feeling that he is constantly being taken advantage of. Ed feels frustrated and abused – and unhappy.

Another example of a severely codependent person is the case of “Emmett” (again, a fictitious name). Emmett just loves to argue for argument’s sake. Emmett is someone I affectionately refer to as an underground wild potato. Emmett rarely talks to anyone, but when he does engage in conversation, he usually “stands on his soapbox” and pontificates about politics, or on any other subject that the other person brings up. In fact, Emmett is an expert on every subject known to Man. Even if you agree with Emmett’s “argument” on a subject, he will nevertheless browbeat you to the point where you just want to get away from him and be left in peace. Emmett, too, exhibits codependent thinking and behavior and it takes the form of a browbeating. Emmett is extremely selfish and believes that his desires and his opinions are all that matter. Emmett only feels comfortable interacting with other human beings if he feels he is in total control of the discourse but for the most part, Emmett stays to himself and limits his contact with others. Underground wild potato.

To examine codependency more closely and uncover what makes a codependent “tick”, one needs to understand some things about love addiction and love avoidance, both of which are also classical examples of codependent thinking and behavior.

In Ed’s example, his codependency takes the form of love addiction. In Emmett’s case, it takes the form of love avoidance.

A love addict is a codependent person who is not only “in love” with the idea of being in love, but puts him or herself into relationships or situations with others where he or she “gives himself (or herself) away” in order to fulfill some kind of fantasy that everything is okay in the relationship, and that he (or she) is loved by the other person.

A love addict may enter into a relationship with another love addict, or the love addict may enter into a relationship with a love avoidant. Or, both parties may actually flip-flop and reverse their roles as love addict and love avoidant, depending on the stressors in their lives. Examples of love addict/love avoidant (or flip-flop) codependent relationships like this are often found in marriages, or commitment love relationships (boyfriend/girlfriend, or same sex relationships).

Two love addicts may meet and one or both of them believe they have found their “soul mate”, and that the other person completes them. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Years may go by, but if both persons do not actively seek to enter codependency recovery, the relationship is doomed. In fact, even if one or both persons do exit their codependency denial and enter into recovery, they will find that their relationship changes dramatically. Why? Because the needs that existed at the outset of the relationship no longer exist, or have changed since the beginning of the relationship.

Here is the case of two people in a marriage. Let’s call them “Johnny” and “Inbal”. They both entered the marriage as codependent love addicts. Johnny had suffered all his life with episodes of depression and at the time he met Inbal, he had been depressed (both of Johnny’s parents had had issues with depression). Inbal, on the other hand, had two very difficult parents – her mother was a heavy love addict and a mouthy malcontent with strong issues of depression and needing to control others – especially her children. Inbal’s father was a heavy love avoidant, also with very strong issues of control. As a child, Inbal dealt with her difficult parents by disassociating herself. Later, as a young adult, Inbal went for counseling for a couple of years and then came to the conclusion that she was “cured” of identifying with her mother and no longer needed therapy. But, what Inbal didn’t realize was that she had in her not only the traits of a love addict (from her mother), but also the love avoidant (from her father).

At some point in the marriage, Johnny’s codependent love addiction issues went into remission (he became less needy) and he pursued hobbies that brought him joy, and he also began cultivating some male friendships outside the marriage. This was confusing for Inbal who noticed that Johnny wasn’t “leaning” on her as much anymore to meet all his needs, and so she flip-flopped and started exhibiting strong love avoidant thinking and behavior which she had learned very well how to do from her father. Incidentally, after the marriage, Johnny came understand that it was unreasonable for him to expect that Inbal should fulfill not only the role of wife and lover to him, and mother to the children, but also the role of sister, best friend, and even the role mother to him.

Well, one day, Johnny had the impression that Inbal didn’t love him anymore. For example, when he’d phone Inbal while commuting to work in the morning (after they had each dropped off a child at school), Inbal no longer wished to have those morning conversations with her husband. Instead, now she was always on the phone with her father in the mornings. And, after a long day at work and a long commute home, Johnny would drive up to the house and the kids would run out to greet him – overjoyed to see their father. But, Inbal had little to say to Johnny, other than a greeting. When he tried to talk to her, she always said the time wasn’t right… there was dinner to prepare (which dad helped with)… there were dishes to do (which were often done by him)… there was bathing time for the kids (done by mom)… and then there was story and bedtime and Johnny enjoyed reading stories to his two kids, Sophie and Ives, in any case. The kids were in bed and the nine o’clock hour was reached. Inbal was suddenly very sleepy. There was no “time” leftover at the end of the day for talking – or anything else. Johnny and Inbal thought they’d solve this problem by scheduling a date with each other – once every two weeks. But, invariably, forty minutes into each date, Inbal suddenly got very anxious and started calling the babysitter to verify that the kids were okay, and that they were being put to bed. The babysitter was a very responsible older woman who knew how to handle small children, so there was nothing at all to worry about. Besides, the babysitter had the cell phone numbers for both parents so there was even less cause for worry. This is an example of love avoidance, where Inbal began using the kids as a total distraction so that she could avoid having to do much of anything to cultivate the marriage relationship. In Inbal’s mind, the marriage would take care of itself because, as her parents kept stressing with her – it was all about the children now and both parents were immaterial. Sadly, Inbal believed this down to the core of her being. And this is because Inbal had strong issues with self-esteem and self-respect. Inbal had both unresolved codependency traits inside her: love addict and love avoidant. The love addict part of her made it distasteful for her to spend any time alone, and when she was forced to be alone – as in commuting to work – she disassociated and “time” seemed to vanish for her. This need of hers “not to be alone” (her husband didn’t count anymore for some reason) is what drove her to spend time with other Israeli couples, even at the exclusion of their respect for her. Johnny found himself coming to her defense many times because her so-called Israeli friends berated her, to her face and behind her back.

Perhaps Inbal suffered from certain neuroses. Perhaps she thought Johnny just didn’t care enough – or not as much as she – about the kids. Johnny did love his children, a lot. But he understood that without a strong relationship with his wife, which meant good communication between them, their marriage was doomed.

Johnny and Inbal wound up going their separate ways, and the children are minus a parent. Later, Johnny had an epiphany and came to understand that the only communication he and Inbal had before their break up (and which took the form of Inbal’s verbal attacks) were simply Inbal’s attempts at fulfilling her perceived needs. To Johnny, it felt as if Inbal was trying to transform him into the person of her and her dad. Also, Johnny came to understand and accept that both he and Inbal suffered with severe issues of codependency. The difference was that Johnny had a revelation, an “ah ha” moment, and realized that he couldn’t blame Inbal anymore (or any other woman for that matter) because of relationships gone sour. Ultimately, Johnny realized, it was his own fault because, wallowing as he had for so many years in his unresolved codependency issues, he had attracted the wrong kinds of women to himself. It is extremely important that a man hook up with the right woman, meaning, a woman who shares similar values and ideals with him, and who lets him be the person he is, and the person he needs to become. But, if the man is floundering in his unresolved codependency issues, then how can he (a) be happy with himself? and (b) find the “right” woman? This is why the relationship we have with ourselves is so important.

To this day, Johnny remains a love addict but with the big difference that he knows he is a love addict and he has willingly entered recovery. As far as Johnny knows, Inbal is still wallowing in her love avoidance, indicated by the fact that she has chosen to have no contact with him whatsoever. For a time, Johnny felt hurt and angry by Inbal’s silence, because it also meant he was deprived of any contact with the children. But, as he progressed in his codependency recovery, Johnny realized that it was all for the best. Unless Inbal willingly recognized her codependency issues and truly wanted to exit codependency denial, there was no point at all to have any contact with her anyway, as it would only lead to more strife. So, Johnny is good with just letting things be, and he focuses his energy on codependency recovery. This means focusing on having a healthy relationship with himself.

You can read more about Johnny Midnight in the first story of Idaho Powwow and Other Tales from the Slipstream, and in future stories.

And, I will leave you with this important note. Between love addicts and love avoidants, there is actually a lot of hope for the love addicts especially. It is easier for love addicts to bounce out of codependency denial than it is for love avoidants. This is probably because love avoidants are just so much more stubborn and convinced that they are “right” in their thinking – and that everyone else’s thinking is “wrong”.

It’s a sad thing that for the most part, humans do not exit denial and make changes to their thinking until some very dramatic things happen in their lives that put them into life situations that are “unacceptable”. Once in an unacceptable life situation, a human has no choice but to examine his or her life and then make a decision: whether to be honest with himself and admit that it is his own fault he finds himself in a given “unacceptable” life situation. Or, whether to persist in denial and… well, we all know the adage… The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result.