What’s love got to do with co-dependency?
‘Co-dependency’ is the all too common outcome of the romantic lie that there is ‘the one’ perfect partner for each of us. It should be possible to love anybody. Mutual desire and compatibility affect our choice of partner, but those who love without fear of loss, or the desire of attachment and need for their love to be returned, shall love many others, and many others shall love them. Which, in our society, creates complications.
The problem with co-dependent relationships is that both partners lean on each other, which means neither can stand up for themselves when the other isn’t there. That’s not how someone who loves their partner would wish them to be. A contract based upon the notion: ‘united we stand; divided we fall’, denies both partners the freedom to grow strong on their own, but an alliance which empowers each partner will, for a time, be synergistic. Greater than the sum of its parts. Both stand perfectly well on their own.
Some relationships continue over a lifetime: the lifetime of whichever partner dies first. Increasingly such relationships are becoming rarer, but this isn’t necessarily destructive; neither for children of the relationships, nor for society as a whole. The life-enhancing qualities of a brief interlude of shared and compatible desires ought not to be devalued by comparison with long-term relationships which descend into dysfunctionality. That is destructive madness.
Many co-dependent relationships create at least (think of the children) two lives of misery and compromise, and, after the death of one, the bereaved partner is more likely to wither than to grow anew. If they do find a new direction of their own, for the first time, many regret that they’d not gone their own way sooner. Those who die ‘of a broken heart’ often die because the co-dependent relationship denied them their own personal sense of worth, meaning and direction. They die because they are not a ‘whole’ person. They cannot go on for themselves. As for the children of such relationships; they do not benefit if their parents were damaged by staying together ‘for the sake of the kids’.
A rare few relationships work because each partner is truly independent, but they choose to be together because they find a synergy; the other acts as a catalyst, inspiring each to ‘go their own way’, and they never fear that parting will mean loss of purpose in life. Sadly, most people think these relationships are ‘wrong’.
Ironically, these rare relationships can last ‘forever’, because neither ever feels trapped by dependence on the other, and both know they’re free to leave without damaging each other. When they stay together it’s because they desire to do so – because each remains the person who most inspires the other to live the best life they can. Not because they need to lean on each other. After their partner’s death, they still have the personal strength to go on, and the anger felt by dependent partners, when the other dies, is usually absent from their mourning process.
Beware of building a relationship on mutual need. Need sucks the energy from both partners. Desire is a much more positive basis for teaming up with someone. So long as mutual desire is fulfilled, it boosts the energy of both partners. It is life-affirming and empowering.
It’s always possible your ways will part. It’s a tall order to expect any person to meet all your desires, all your life. As you grow, you change, and so will your partners. Either or both of you might find your desires are no longer met by being with the other. Perhaps someone else (or merely solitude) offers you more inspiration in your personal growth. A chance to explore another direction in life which, you discover, gives you the opportunity to develop some part of yourself which your erstwhile partner cannot inspire. You may both be better alone. And if there are children, they will benefit by not being brought up in a dysfunctional family.
Yeah – but what about love?
You might ask, with all this selfish desire – getting more for yourself from the other people with whom you choose to relate – where is there any love?
Love, in this sense, is about desiring the other’s self-interests to be served as much as (but not more than) your own. It is creative, rather than destructive, and – strangely, some might think – can be found in relationships which are not conventionally hetero-normative.
It can, for example, be the basis of extraordinary Sado-Masochist, Master/slave and Dominant/submissive relationships.
A loving Dominant provides fulfilment of their submissive’s needs because it gives the Dominant fulfilment to see the submissive’s desires fulfilled. Which is not selfish. It is a love that values the other’s desires as being as important as your own. Paradoxically, these apparently unequal relationships empower both partners. In ‘public’ it is surprisingly common to find that a ‘submissive’ partner has higher social, economic or occupational power and status than the ‘Dominant’. A CEO finds fulfilment in being dominated sexually by her subordinate.
The dynamics of intimate private relationships are often both unexpected and well concealed. We can discover unexpected aspects of our own potential in response to our partner’s desires. There is no dependency in becoming more than we would otherwise have been, had we not been attracted to our partner. Nor should this be any surprise. The paths we take in our lives, loves and careers can lead to many alternative, and equally valid, selves.
Compatibility lies in the capacity for what, in polyamoury, is called ‘compersion’ – the feeling of being happy to see a partner’s desires fulfilled by someone else (the very opposite of jealousy) because it gives them something which you cannot. That can include expression of sexuality as much as it can playing string quartets with someone who isn’t your non-musical ‘significant other’.
I’m not suggesting that breaking free from co-dependency is easy. It requires confidence, courage, strength and the generosity never to burden someone else with the responsibility of fulfilling our desires to the exclusion of their own. And it can be tempting to be comforted by knowing that your partner won’t leave you, because they can’t make it on their own. A prisoner is not a lover. Do not hope that they will develop the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and love their jailer. If you’ve left them any strength, they may realise that they remain free in their minds. First they may begin to hate you, but ultimately their capacity for self-preservation may simply lead them to indifference.
And it’s hard, if your partner’s desires are no longer fulfilled by you, despite your remaining inspired by them, to let go. Nonetheless, that is the loving thing to do: if they can’t fulfil their potential with you it would be cruel to refuse to set them free. And it will poison you both. But you can part and still love one another. You simply should not try to be exclusively one another’s ‘property’. Love does not have to mean that you can live together.
“Breaking up is so very hard to do” – as the corny old song said. But, according to Buddhism, that’s the secret of personal enlightenment. If we can avoid being governed by our desires, and never depend upon attachment, then we can find our own calm freedom. It may not be the lazy contentment of inaction, nor the hedonistic pleasure of ‘happiness’, but once attained, the calm of freedom from attachment to desires is unlikely to be lost.
But what about family love?
What (you might also ask) about love for parents, grandparents, children and other blood relatives? Parents and grandparents will die with ‘unfinished business’, if they believe you’ll be unable to ‘go your own way’ after their death. It’s the business of parents to raise their kids to be independent – not ‘co-dependent’. And what goes for them, goes for you. You shouldn’t allow your own insecurities to encourage you to make your children, brothers or sisters dependent on you, nor you to depend on them. The ties will remain.
There are objections you might raise: what about babies and people with disabilities which make them physically, intellectually or even emotionally dependent? Certainly our relationships with those we love in such circumstances are challenging, however; it’s wrong to be so ‘nurturing’ that we deny them whatever independence and freedom they can attain, and we should guard against defining ourselves as the person upon whom they depend, because it tends to make us dependent upon their dependency, and conflicts with their ability to find personal freedom, however limited that may be.
Anybody who has experienced a period of dependency will know the tendency of carers to deny their protégé the freedom to do things for themselves.
When, for a time, I was unable – as a result of an adverse reaction to cancer chemotherapy – to walk, I got around in a wheelchair. Since I was able to propel it myself, manually, I found some enjoyment in the freedom of going out in town with my dog. On one occasion it began to rain, and going uphill on slippery paving was more of a challenge than usual. A nice, middle-class liberal family, walking by, saw that I was having difficulty (the wheels were slipping) and offered to push me. I was actually going in the opposite direction, and if I’d accepted, they would have turned around, interrupting their journey. I thanked them for their concern, but told them I intended to make it by myself.
They then began to insist. They wanted me to depend upon them to get me where I wanted to go. I began to feel a little patronised, and my initially gracious refusals started – as I was forced to repeat them – to be tinged with annoyance. Eventually they (reluctantly) accepted my refusal, and parted from me, clearly disappointed by being denied the opportunity to do a ‘good deed’. The father pointed at my wet and bedraggled dog, and said, as he turned back downhill;
“At least you have your faithful friend with you.”
I wondered, pushing off uphill, whether my dog would have felt as angry as I did, if he’d understood what had been said. I felt my temporary disability was no excuse for other people to feel good by making me dependent on them. A good deed done with the wrong motives is more culpable than an evil one, done in error, for the right reasons.
Self-sacrifice, paradoxically, can create a burden of guilt for the people for whom we make such sacrifices, and deprive them of the fulfilment of ‘fending for themselves’. Sometimes, when they’re stubborn, wilful, and wrong, it is better to let them fail, trying to achieve something by themselves, than to do it for them – the right way – and succeed. It is, quite simply, disempowering to deny someone their autonomy. It denies the dignity of another person.
The Seventh Age
My ninety-one year old mother is currently cleaning shit off the bum (ass, butt, or fanny – for my American readers) of my 77 year old step-father. He had a stroke six months ago. It’s not his fault.
Together they won a leg of the international 1991 Schneider Trophy air race, across the North Sea from Belgium to central England. At the time, she was seventy. She navigated, whilst he flew so low over the sea that the propellor was an inch and a half shorter by the time they landed. They had a relationship which gave them so much more than they might have had separately.
They are private people, and it would infringe their dignity (and autonomy) if I insisted on helping. I offered. I’m no stranger to life’s realities. And, together, they have made each others’ lives more fulfilling.
Why? Why am I here? Why don’t I impose my impulse to ‘help’? When he is – unexpectedly – no longer he who was my mother’s ‘carer’ and the roles have been reversed?
She loves him. She doesn’t enjoy it. But nothing meets her desires more than to do this for him. She doesn’t feel ‘ennobled’ by her dedication. She isn’t tied by some notion of duty, fidelity, or indebtedness. She isn’t doing it for all the wrong reasons. And I might want to ‘help’ for all the wrong reasons.
Why, after six months of being unable to be with the woman who drives my inspiration, am I still here? Because I am selfish. Because I could not desert my mother, nor the man who made her life so much fun, so meaningful, that my impulses, my desires, tell me I must be here. I have no brothers or sisters. It is nothing more than a burden I desire to carry.
I am grateful that my wife is prepared to understand it. That her desires are – at the moment – to allow me mine. And, if either of us would satisfy our desires with someone else, I believe that we would cope with that. And if that means adding someone else to our ‘coterie’, then that will become part of our lives. Should it mean that parting is the best way for either of us, it will (I hope) not impair us, our children or our grandchild. That we try to live our lives in a spirit of unconditional love is a foregone assumption. I have never stopped loving anyone I loved in the past. I do not expect that to alter.
I will be there for her, if she desires me to be, because she is the very heat and heart of my own desire. If she desires another, because I love her, so it must, and shall be. I do not require her to be ‘there for me’.
If she decides she is longing for death, though I might selfishly try to dissuade her (as she did herself, when I thought death was welcome) then I should let her go. And – equally – I trust her to let me go, if it is my time to leave. She was right that it was not, when she (and my son) refused to allow me a death in my pain.
We don’t have a “suicide pact”. If either of us delivers the other to our death, it will not (notwithstanding the law) be the end of our own life. We owe it to one-another: to keep on growing. It’s what we’ve enjoyed together. Growth.
But it would be remarkable if we died simultaneously. And, perhaps, blessed.
Love and loss
Grief in loss is unavoidable. No matter how successfully we might have avoided becoming dependent or jealously attached to whatever has given us joy and fulfilment in life, it’s undeniable that losing them (even the leg which allowed us to run marathons, however badly) brings pain. I don’t want that grief in my life, nor do I wish it upon my loved ones. It diminishes our continued fulfilment. But true personal independence requires the capacity to continue to grow.
Even when we grow old. The operative word is ‘grow’ – not ‘old’. At the moment of our death, we should still be growing, but we will be alone. Even though our family, lover, carers, or friends may be gathered around us, we all die alone.
If we die dependent on others, and have allowed others to depend on us, we shall die unresolved, and the others will suffer the pain of our failure to live our lives fully.
She must have a life after my death. And vice-versa.
First and foremost in life, we must think and act for ourselves, to the extent of our abilities. We must not demand of others that they think or act for us, nor should we impose our thoughts and actions upon them. nor on their behalf. Co-dependency wastes lives.
“There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons;
and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life.”
TS Eliot – Little Gidding