A healthy family requires healthy relationships between family members. Parents need to be whole or emotionally complete with good coping skills, good communication skills, have a strong moral sense of right and wrong, have the ability to express love and other emotions in positive ways and the ability to teach all of these things to their children. The children raised in such homes should then grow up internalizing these skills and values perpetuating the ability to have functional, healthy, fulfilling relationships with others when they become adults. But, what happens when dysfunctional parents raise children who then become adults engaged in their own relationships with others? These new adults may perpetuate the caustic, dysfunctional relationships they learned to model from their parents or guardians years earlier. Many negative consequences can occur when adults learn the wrong ways to cope with life’s stressors and how to engage with other people. What concerns me is the numbers of people today who seem unable to cope with life’s ups and downs without external aids, many of these destructive to the person in the long term. There seems to be a whole generation of people who grew up in dysfunctional families who learned from their relatives to deal with life and others in negative ways. They have grown up to become dependent on drugs, alcohol, gambling, others approval or the need to be needed by others. There seems to be many ways people negatively cope with the world around them, but the one that I wish to cover in this article is the need of people to be codependent on others. When people grow up learning to be the victim of others and others grow up to learn to be needed by those victims to feel whole then we can have codependent relationships if and when they find each other and bond. When it does occur, unfortunately the relationship becomes self-destructive, the behaviors become self-destructive and unfortunately negatively reinforcing. They then can pass on these negative ways of dealing with life to their children and the cycle perpetuates itself again. I bring this up because as families we cannot keep doing this to ourselves and our children. We cannot raise another generation of children to be as dysfunctional in how they live life as the last one has. We owe it to ourselves and our children to change how we are raising our families and break the cycle of dysfunction that is gripping our society. The first thing we can do is learn what codependency is, what an enabler is and what a dysfunctional family looks like.
Codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. We observe it in our parents or loved ones and then perpetuate those actions. Codependency is also known as relationship addiction. The person is seeking symptom management from the outside instead of within himself or herself. Codependents have low self-esteem and so look for anything outside of themselves to make them feel better. Most often, this is through the partnering with others who are dependent on them for support. The people they bond with typically are alcoholics, other types of substance abuse users, or those who are chronically or mentally ill. These codependent people often form dysfunctional families. People who are codependent have poor interpersonal boundaries whereby their needs and their partners needs become hard to separate. Codependent people have blurry or weak boundaries. Codependency can also be defined as a type of psychological condition or in which a person is controlled by another who is affected by some type of personality disorder such as narcissism, borderline personality or who self medicates as with drug addiction. Those that are dependent seek out or need of the control of another.
Because codependency is usually rooted in a person’s childhood, again learned from their parents, guardians or through abuse, treatment often involves exploration into early childhood issues and their relationship to current destructive behavior patterns. Treatment for codependency also includes education, experiential groups, and individual and group therapy. It is through these treatments which codependents identify their self-defeating behavior patterns and learn to detach from them. Treatment also focuses on helping patients getting in touch with feelings that have been buried during childhood and on reconstructing family dynamics. The goal is to allow them to experience their full range of feelings again. Codependency can also occur between mother and child or father and child. Codependency between parent and child is especially difficult. With mothers it goes against the grain of their nurturing parental role, often they feel the children should come first no matter how destructive the relationship is with their child, for mothers learning not to help their children because it is not helpful can be extremely painful to the parent. Nevertheless, we have to remember that in codependent relationships if you are the enabler or the helper, you are not the one making ruining your life and expecting everyone else to clean it up. Unfortunately, you are the one cleaning up the mess and making it easier for that person to wreck their life even more. The more you help the dependent person the more they will destroy their life and in the process, you and that person will destroy yours. In the end you must decide what part you play in your role as the victim. We can control ourselves, but we cannot solve other people’s problems for them. When someone’s issues becomes everything to us, defines who we are and our existence, then we should pause to think and begin the long slow process of learning to let go with love, because letting go will save you and perhaps them as well.
So what is a dysfunctional family? How can you spot one or determine if yours if dysfunctional? A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied. Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. They don’t talk about them or confront them. As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. The care-taking becomes compulsive and self-defeating. Codependents often take on a martyr’s role and become benefactors to an individual in need. The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a downward sloping destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy care-taking of the benefactor. As this reliance increases, the codependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from being needed. When the care-taking becomes compulsive, the codependent feels helpless, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it.
An enabler in a dysfunctional codependent relationship is the one who does the care-taking in that relationship. In part, what makes the care-taking destructive is it is one sided. There is only one person providing the caring to only one other person. The roles can switch and often do but both do not care or take care of each other at the same time. These roles’, being the caretaker or the rescuer, the victim and the persecutor are often shared by the second person in the relationship and is part of the Karpman drama cycle. An enabler is someone in a relationship whose actions make it easier for the dependent person in the relationship, be it an addict or a person who is mentally ill, to continue their self-destructive behaviors. An enabler is a person that facilitates the continuation of another person’s self-deprecating actions; be it substance abuse, bipolar cycling, hoarding, gambling, compulsive behavior. The enabler in a relationship facilitates the persistence of the dependents self-destructive actions by providing excuses or by making it possible for the dependent person to avoid the consequences of such negative behavior. Any given time you contribute or allow another person to continue his or her unhealthy or addictive behavior you are enabling that person. If you are in a relationship whereby you see your partner struggle with mental, emotional or financial instability and you tell yourself the person will change in time or get better in time, while still supporting this person, you are becoming an enabler to that person’s instability. Only they can help themselves get better, heal, recover and become self supportive. We cannot do this for them. It will not work. If you find yourself obsessing over what that person might do or not do tomorrow or next week then you might be an enabler to them. You might be making it easier for them to be destructive to you and themselves.
If the person you are in a relationship with simply cannot solve their own issues, they continually look to someone else to do it for them, have a tendency to make excuses or reasons as to why they are not doing what they should be doing then they are codependent and playing the victim. If you have a relationship with a person that is going on every day without any realistic plan on how to solve the problems they are dealing with then he or she may be codependent, dependent on you. You can tell you are in a codependent relationship and an enabler if you become frustrated and bitter when you find out that your help just will not solve another person’s problems. This person could be in a romantic relationship with you, a friend or one of your children. You are an enabler if you need to be in control and you feel you need to because it seems everything around you is out of control. Nevertheless, understand you cannot control someone else’s addiction, their life, or the decisions they make. Are you saying yes too often, when you mean no? You might be codependent. We need to take care of ourselves, love ourselves and be kind to ourselves. You need to treat yourself with respect. We can let go, detach and still love others, maybe from afar but it can be done. Detach from your family members issues, your friends issues and allow them to manage their own lives. Do not be enabler obsessed and worried sick, over what someone else will or will not do when you least expect it. You need to let them go, let them find their way and if necessary fall.
Tough love can make an enabled person grow up and break free from playing the victim. Tough love can help a person cease their self-destructive behaviors, because they then get to feel the natural consequences of their actions. Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom for both in a codependent relationship to realize they need to stop what they are doing to each other. People who enable others are also setting themselves up for social isolation. Why is this? Because people who enable others tend to be moody, bitter, accusatory, angry and perspective toward others. If you have lost many of your friends over time, you might be an enabler. Enablers often are the martyr, the rescuer and even the persecutor in a codependent relationship as well as the second person participating in the dysfunction. These roles can switch repeatedly, even many times in the same night or during the same argument. If you feel this is happening with your partner then you may be in a codependent relationship. You are participating in the Karpman drama triangle. You may eventually need to detach from them.
The Karpman drama triangle is a psychological and social model of human interaction that was first outlined by Stephen Karpman. The model has three positions or roles that people take in any given codependent situation. One role is of a victim, the second role is the one who persecutes the victim, and the third role is of the rescuer, who intervenes, seemingly out of a desire to help the situation or the underdog. The same person or another person in the relationship can take any of these three positions, but both people cannot take the same role at the same time. They can however switch roles as often as necessary. Of these, the rescuer is the least obvious role. In the terms of the drama triangle, the “rescuer” although seems to aid the victim, actually does this for egotistical reasons. On the surface, the rescuer seems to have the motive of resolving the problem, and appears to make great efforts to solve it, but in the end also has a hidden motive not to succeed, or to succeed in a way that they the victim benefits. The victim is not as helpless as he or she feels and the rescuer is not really helping. If the rescuer actually helped the victim, the victim may not need the help of the rescuer anymore and so the rescuer would not get his or her needs met. The situation plays out when a crisis arises and a person takes a role as victim or persecutor. Others then take the other roles in the Stephen Karpman drama triangle. Thereafter, during the crisis the players move around the triangle switching roles as the move to each point on the triangle. This allows each person to get their emotional needs met, although dysfunctionally, so that for example the victim turns on the rescuer, the rescuer switches to the situation endures is that each gets their unspoken (and frequently unconscious) psychological wishes/needs met in a manner they feel justified. All this is accomplished without anyone in the codependent triangle having to acknowledge the harm each one has done to each other as a whole. As such, each person in the codependent relationship, most often two people rotating between the three roles in the Karpman drama triangle, act upon their own selfish needs, rather than acting as healthy adults or in an altruistic helpful manner.
We need to stop the dysfunctional codependent crisis we are having in society today. We need to stop raising dependent and codependent children who then grow up to raise unhealthy children, unable to feel whole or complete without needing others. A healthy family requires healthy relationships between family members. Parents need to be whole or emotionally complete with good coping skills, good communication skills, have a strong moral sense of right and wrong, have the ability to express love and other emotions in positive ways and the ability to teach all of these things to their children. Part of this is the need to determine if we are in codependent relationships. We need to know if we are enablers’ to those who are playing the victim in our families. We need to admit it if we are and change. We need to know if we are rolling through the drama triangle, argument after grueling argument, fulfilling our needs but destroying our families and ourselves in the process. I have seen too many codependent relationships lately and it worries me. We need to have strong interpersonal boundaries. We need to know what real help is, what real needs are and what we can do to make our lives better. Our families deserve healthy parents, we deserve to have healthy, whole, functional relationships and we need to learn to learn how to solve our own issues. Our society will thank us for it, your relationships with thank you for it and society in general will be better off for it.