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The initial theory of co-dependency was created to explain a non-problem: the often volatile relationships between substance users and non-users. The co-dependency theory makes two false assumptions. The first false assumption is that substance users are sick (diseased) people, which they are not. And, the second false assumption is that if an individual stays in any type of relationship with a substance user, the non-user is just as sick as the substance user. Both assumptions involve "illnesses" that take the place of individual responsibility for thoughts, behaviors and actions. In reality, both the substance user and the non-user are making their own choices based on their own desires and needs at any given moment; they are certainly not suffering from an illness.
To mislabel a person's voluntary relationship motives and behaviors is to cause non-users to look for solutions in modern co-dependency therapy and "family days" at drug and alcohol treatment programs. Being that the premise of "sickness" is patently false; the therapy to address the "co-dependency sickness" is also false. It is a mythical problem in search of a nonexistent solution. For substance users, this search can last too long and some die before finding the truth. For the non-user in the relationship (spouse, sibling, friend, co-worker, etc.,) they are taught that they are also at least partially at fault for the substance user's erratic choices and behavior. They spend their days with guilt and confusion as to where they went wrong.
Those in alcohol treatment programs trying to help families with alcohol or drug users must understand that people do things that they believe will satisfy them or make them happy. For the active substance user, that activity involves getting high or drunk. For non-users, a part of their happiness may be staying involved with the substance user regardless of the substance user's chaotic and sometimes abusive behavior. Because these relationships often cause both participants pain and unhappiness they are classified, by the drug and alcohol treatment industry, as "sick" relationships. Unhappiness, however, is a normal consequence of certain choices. It is not a sickness.
There are relationships in which the participants truly love each other, unconditionally. These people usually do not look for outside help because they do not feel they need it. However, most relationships that include a substance user are not so accepting. It is in these relationships that the term co-dependent would seem to apply. This is especially true when the non-user complains bitterly about the drug or alcohol use. The non-user is deeply hurt over and over again, sometimes for years or even decades. Yet, the user and non-user remain steadfast in their relationship. These people do not remain in these relationships because of a sickness. Rather, they stay for two dominant reasons: the hope of love (no matter how little) and an internal desire to "fix" the other person. Sometimes this drive to fix the other person is based on their perception that by making their loved one better they will in turn experience greater self-esteem and happiness. This desire to "fix" their spouse is not a sickness; it is an intense drive to make the other person happy so they, too, can then be happy.
The underlying driving force in these relationships is the pursuit of happiness, much as it is with all areas of life. Sometimes this is very hard to recognize because these relationships can be incredibly painful. But, much like the substance user's nearly futile search for happiness through drugs and alcohol, the comfort found in these types of relationships is usually sporadic, fleeting and just barely satisfying enough to keep these people together. And yet, it does.
In those cases in which the relationship's balance of love and pain are teetering on total collapse but remain in this volatile state for years, the participants are unwilling to find other options for love and comfort in their lives. This situation is defined by the participants having found a state of being together that does little to demand personal change, regardless of the consequences. In short, these limited relationships may be the only love option they see at the time, and the miniscule return of emotional happiness is enough that any major personal changes are not seen as immediately needed. How many marriages, in your opinion should have split long ago, but have remained intact? When asked why they stay together, most often the honest answer is simply, "I love him (her.)" Perhaps this is true, but as an outside observer there seems to be a steep price to pay, with limited benefits, for the non-user. Like the non-user, the substance user's option list does not include breaking apart. The relationship stays together, albeit volatile and emotionally draining. The return each receives is simply enough to avoid what may be a difficult change and a move into an unknown future.
Love can mean different things to different people. In some cases non-users may have a personal perception that love and their self-image is tied up in a learned behavior of trying to "save" the substance user. In those rare instances in which they appear to have saved their spouse from certain destruction, they feel happy. This pattern can happen over and over, and sometimes for an entire lifetime. From the substance abuse treatment industry's subjective, judgmental viewpoint, these relationships are labeled as "sick." This could not be farther from the truth. Behaving in a relationship such as this is not a sickness, but rather a form of acquired happiness that has little return for the emotional investment. But, it is still happiness for the participants.
Non-users stay in the relationships to fix substance users so that non-users can improve or validate their own self-image. In these situations, the non-user usually ends up unhappy and bitter when the substance user does not behave. When the change does not happen quickly, the non-user is let down repeatedly, causing resentment, hurt feelings, and a sense of hopelessness. In some of the more extreme cases, even the hurt feelings and bitterness is a form of relative happiness, as this is a way for that individual to convert the chaos into gaining attention from others and validating their existence as a perpetual victim, feelings they savor and value. Once again, from an outside perspective this situation seems totally counter to happiness and satisfaction, but looking past the chaotic rim of the relationship, you see that people are ultimately driven by the pursuit of personal happiness.
This phenomenon of accepting such little positive return for the massive emotional effort expended is driven by the perceived lack of other options that non-users believe they have at that moment. So, much like those who hurt themselves physically to "feel" again, or gain attention and love, non-users often stay involved to gain a marginal amount of comfort. Many of these perceive that they have little internal worth. This lack of self-worth can be caused by any number of factors, many of which may have nothing to do with the relationship. Regardless of the cause of this lack of self-worth, their value is then placed on the substance user's behavior and response to their ultimatums.
This fixation on being emotionally tied to their object of love can be lessened by creating options that do not include the relationship. For instance, the pain of being emotionally tied to a substance user's lack of attention can be lessened by non-users developing new goals, and moving towards these goals, thus personally fulfilling themselves and lessening their need to look to others for happiness. Creating confidence and independence does not mean that the relationship must end, but rather, that the relationship can be enhanced. There are, of course, many relationships that end once one member decides to grow beyond the confines of the relationship.
Having insecurities, although sometimes destructive, is a natural human condition. However, labeling people, who are already insecure, with self-defeating labels such as "co-dependent" does not help. Understanding yourself, whether you are the substance user, the spouse, or the family member or the friend, is the beginning of finding new options and new ways to happiness.