Dr. He Said, She said: Codependency vs. true love — how to tell them apart
By Hanalei Vierra, Ph.D. and M’Lissa Trent, Ph.D.This might not be a new topic for our readers, but it is one that we encounter every day in working with couples that we feel could use some clarification. We see that what many couples call true love is really a fear-based, mistrustful, and indirect way of dealing with each other that we call codependency.
What defines codependence or codependency is the way that: 1) we place the needs of others first to the exclusion of our own; 2) our self-esteem is dependent on gaining the approval of others; 3) we worry excessively about how others may respond to our feelings, so we walk on eggshells or tiptoe around each other; and 4) how all of this makes it very difficult for us to feel like we can be free to be ourselves in relationship.
Many of you have probably heard of codependency as it applies to those who have grown up in alcoholic households, particularly the Children of Alcoholics (COA) experience. We have observed, however, that this dynamic of how family members deal with each other indirectly also describes the picture of what many married couples create in their relationships that they have come to regard and accept as love or being in love with each other.
We try to teach couples to think of true love as being an emotionally mature and adult way of creating an equal partnership, rather than the parent/child, teacher/student, one-up/one-down way of relating that is created by codependency. This codependent dynamic is crucial to identify and challenge because—even though it may have felt good for the marriage for many years—it inevitably erodes the stability of an adult relationship because by definition it precludes mature interaction between two people. This mature interaction is what is necessary to create an emotionally safe environment for both people to be authentic and genuine with each other. Wherever there is codependency, there is fear. Wherever there is fear, there is mistrust. And wherever there is mistrust, there is instability in the relationship. Here are three things to look for:
1) Ask yourself whether you are withholding your thoughts, opinions, or feelings because of your fear of your partner’s reaction. If so, this means that you cannot trust that your opinion will be valued in some way by your partner if you say what is true for you. Think about what that says about your relationship. Nor do we condone spewing out your feelings without some forethought or consideration about your delivery. Being aggressive or abusive with your feelings is just as unhealthy as walking on eggshells or tiptoeing around somebody. Being forthright and “adult” means expressing yourself directly, as in “I feel ______” or “When you do this particular thing, it makes me feel _____”. No one has the right to criticize you for the way you feel.
2) Ask yourself what you may be projecting onto your partner. Projection is a defense mechanism in which one’s unacceptable behaviors or thoughts are attributed to someone else. For example, a husband may insist he knows that his wife hates him when in fact it is he who has these feelings towards her. We all do this to some extent, but sometimes all we see is what we want to see. Our blinders keep us from keeping our relationship real because we have unrealistic expectations of our partner based on our projection of what we want them to be vs. who they really are.
3) Ask yourself if you truly have an individuated sense of yourself separate from your partner’s feelings, interpretation, or perception of you. Individuation is the innate tendency we have as humans to become individualized away from others (especially our parents), as well as to become conscious of our life purpose and know who and what we are and where we are going. Codependency on the other hand, keeps us locked in our emotionally immature patterns with one another and keeps us from maturing and growing as an individual on the planet.
These are three crucial components of true love, because when all three are present, there is a healthy pattern of inter-dependence between two separate people who are interactive, supportive and direct about who they are. Graduating to the honesty and trust of true love is what offers the hope of a healthy and happy relationship.
Hanalei Vierra, Ph.D. (Dr. He) and M’Lissa Trent, Ph.D. (Dr. She) are a married couple who have worked together for over 14 years coaching troubled relationships to clearer communication, deeper intimacy, and healthier partnership. See their web site at www.sandiegotherapists.com/conjoint.html For more information on Relationship Advice for Men, go to www.HowToKeepHer.com on the web, where you will also be able to purchase Dr. He and Dr. She’s new eBook entitled “Making Relationships Work.” Please email any questions to: DrHanalei@aol.com .
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