There are many dark sides of co-dependency, an unhealthy pattern of relating that is often described as a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s bad behaviors which can include but are not limited to: active addiction, poor mental health where the other party is unwilling to get help, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement (laziness). However co-dependency, like other addictions can morph, subsequently changing and manifesting in an alternate form and is not always related to perceived weakness, propensity, or inadequacy in the partner.
Once someone becomes aware of their co-dependent nature and desires to change they can choose another path that appears to be the anti-thesis of co-dependency, excessive self-reliance. The mantra can shift from, Make sure he/she is always ok to Never need anything from anyone. What has happened is that the co-dependent has shifted from unhealthy enmeshed attachment with another to detached attachment. It’s still not healthy but can feel safer. And really who can blame them? On the path to emotional health we often swing like a pendulum rigidly from extreme to extreme until we find a safe middle ground, where we are at peace.
But the dark side of this particular unhealthy attachment form is that the other people with whom the co-dependent is relating can have absolutely no idea there is anything amiss in the relationship. It is less obvious than the typical form of co-dependency with it’s relentless pursuit of another’s happiness. Now the co-dependent appears emotionally present, and engaged. They share bits and pieces about their lives. They come to functions with other people and laugh and talk. They give of their time to help those they care about (in a more limited fashion than in their previous state of unhealth), what could possibly be wrong?
Some clues that there is still something amiss often are:
An apparent lack of genuine vulnerability. The co-dependent will share about what’s going on in their lives, it can even be messy, but they will always appear to have a measure of control or distance. You never really see their soft emotional underbelly, where their weakness lies. Vulnerability is a solid no for them.
Their ability to ask for help is limited or completely non-existent. They won’t ask you to help them move something heavy even though they live alone. They won’t ever ask for financial help, directly or indirectly and would have difficultly benefiting from services provided by outside agencies. They won’t ask for emotional support during difficult times, but are quick to offer it others. They are baffled when help is offered and clueless as to how to respond. They have a tendency to isolate when feeling emotionally vulnerable, so that they can ensure they are only engaging when they are “OK”. If you would be surprised to ever see them “not okay” you’re probably dealing with an unhealthily attached person, especially if its in a relationship where it is okay for you to be “not okay” with them.
As far as an unobservant relational participant is concerned everything is fine. They love and care for the co-dependent and the co-dependent loves and cares for them. But the co-dependent is the one doing all the caring while they’re (the other party) relating to a carefully constructed facade. A facade that feels the palatable emotions when other people are around. A facade that easily agrees with other people's preferences. A facade that answers: "it's okay" when a half-hearted apology is offered for what feels like a mortal emotional wound. This is not an equal relationship.
Another dark side of co-dependency is that only the exceptionally astute even detect its presence, leaving the self-inflicted sufferer more isolated than before. Their emotional cries for help deafened by the sound of their own voice assuring everyone else they're fine. Beyond the emotional facade which is ultimately unable to be related to, this is also still unhealthy because the interior world of the co-dependent is still being driven by the desire to be "acceptable" to others at all times. They are still editing themselves to make sure they're palatable to those they care for.
I have walked through this darkness. I am a co-dependent. I know this stuff forwards and backwards and upside down because it is my default mode for relating. I know the isolation a careful facade can offer. I am aware of the risk honesty brings with it. Many find it abrasive and distasteful.
As I have attempted to free myself from the chains of co-dependency by attempting to be emotionally vulnerable or honest with others, I have been characterized as being harsh, abrasive, difficult to take, extreme, etc. As I tried to push my pendulum back towards the center balance of health I was met with all kinds of resistance from those who didn’t want to relate with a “real” Shannon. They liked the co-dependent facade. I was available before, whenever they were! I listened well before for as long as they wanted to talk! I never asked for anything, even when my life was in crisis. I was the ideal relational participant for a ‘taker’. After taking enough hits on my way to center vulnerability and honesty stopped feeling safe Pretty Damn Quick.
And so I pushed that pendulum hard toward isolation and let me be honest it feels safer up there. But it’s also really freaking lonely. Life is hard when no one knows all of you. When no one knows what makes you cry at night or how much you’re really truly afraid of failing. That underbelly is soft but showing it is strength. About a year and half ago I finally found my tribe and I began practicing vulnerability with them. I’m still so far from vulnerable. But they were kind enough to let me practice with them. Others are still far more likely to characterize me as unshakeable than they are emotionally vulnerable. (If one more person tells me how strong I am, I swear evil Shannon will appear). My go to response is still: no I’m fine. The mantra in my head still tells me, never needing anything is strength. But I know now that is a lie, strength comes in vulnerability. Strength comes in telling someone you passionately love that they hurt you and being terrified but doing it anyway. Strength comes in not editing your story because you’re afraid it’s too messy, crazy or outlandish for the person you’re talking to, simply owning it because it’s yours and your perspective is valid. Your life is valid. There is nothing you have to do to become more acceptable. Strength comes in not letting those close to you love a facade, in not being perfect. Strength is speaking your needs knowing that they might not be able to be met.
Co-dependency is like an addiction, maybe it is one, I don't know. That question is above my pay grade. What I do know is that it will change and find another way to present itself but it’s never really gone. The pendulum stops swinging when we stop running from it. We own it, don’t make excuses and choose to live in relationship with other people anyway.