Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Codependency And Real Relationships

An adopted friend had a quote on his page that I immediately stole from him. It says, so succinctly, what I have been trying to say for years. It was written by an English psychiatrist and author named Anthony Storr who, himself, underwent bouts of depression and had a childhood that was less than comforting. Dr. Storr said, "‎It is only when we no longer compulsively need someone that we can have a real relationship with them." - Anthony Storr

When you examine the dynamics of adopting and, later, reunion, you find a lot of that kind of codependent need. It is for this reason that I believe adoption is a dysfunctional arrangement from the get-go. In the traditional infant adoption, this is an arrangement that calls upon the adopted child to fill the emotional needs of the adopters. Growing up with that kind of emotional pressure is damaging and a breeding ground for all manner of emotional disorders. Unfortunately, for quite a few adopted people, this kind of relationship is their model for what they think is "Love."

Many marriages and love affairs are of this ilk. Being "in love" and loving are often very different. When one is starry-eyed, swept away and stirred with passion, it's hard not to grow addicted to that feeling. The endorphins literally pour into the lover's system. It is too easy to attach one's self-image and worth to the responses of one's beloved and a crash is inevitable. When one leans on another for any sense of identity, the results can be disastrous. But it is wise for married people to keep a bit of  adventure in their lives together.

I have been in this kind of relationship and we are both better for it having ended. Learning about codependency and where it can lead has saved me a lot of heartache. In my marriage, today, my husband and I offer each other a whole person, not mirror images and certainly not the offer or expectation to carry the other, emotionally.

People who can't take rejection, who pine after the person who has ended the relationship and who may even go so far as to take their own lives or attempt to do so, have based their entire self-worth on the acceptance of the other. That's NOT love. Love can let go. It can be sad and hurtful, this letting go, but an emotionally whole person can face it and the life ahead with optimism.

The codependent person goes into a relationship, be it marriage, friendship or reunion, expecting emotional needs to be met by the other person. When that doesn't happen, in reunion, the road becomes bumpy and harsh. One of the most inane lines ever uttered by anyone was spouted by Tom Cruise in "Jerry McGuire" when he said to his lady-love, "You Complete Me." Whoa there, hoss! If you weren't complete to begin with, what would she want with you? But so many sighed and smiled and brushed away a tear at that sentiment.

Natural Mothers and their Adult, Surrendered Children have spent years wondering about the missing part of their family to the point that the emotional investment in the other person is huge. Reunion is based on expectations and needs, not all of them healthy. We are meeting familiar strangers, people who have their own likes, dislikes, politics, religious views, and attitudes. Not all of them are going to jibe and mesh with the greatest of ease. As I have said in an earlier post, the bond never really breaks, but it becomes very twisted and knotted. Many have referred to reunion as an emotional minefield and, when you add in the codependent expectations, you are in danger of a major explosion. We get angry and it starts a cycle of resentment and frustration. I was introduced to this model of the codependency/anger cycle when I was in treatment for my eating disorder.

I have watched this happen in more than one reunion and each participant always blames the other rather than looking within. Two human beings with so much to gain can sabotage themselves with their own insecurities and fears unless they can take a step back and an honest look within.

I wanted to be able to offer my two lost children a mother they could respect. I wanted them to see that they came from loving, decent, good, solid people. I was unprepared for their ambivalence and the insecurity of their adopters. I felt frustrated with my children who were adults, yet kept in this perpetual, dependent childhood by the entire construct of adoption. But this was all they knew. Knowing that I surrendered them against my will was not enough to re-build their sense of self. I couldn't do it for them. Only they can do that. This is sad but true because there is enough of the mother in me that I wanted to do that for them. Standing back and letting them find their way is tough.
There is enough pain and strife in the human condition without the trauma of surrender and separation. I know now, that I was codependent and totally vulnerable when I lost my two oldest children to the Industry. I folded, collapsed upon myself and waved the white flag and one of the pressures put on me depended upon my need for the approval and acceptance of my family. I also spent years being obsessed with the father of my first born and that was really unhealthy. So I am no stranger to codependent thinking and behavior and I am not one to judge anyone for being immersed in that strange malady.

But I do look askance at those who choose to remain in such a pit of emotional quicksand. It's scary to face it and overcome one's codependent nature, but the rewards for doing so are tremendous. It doesn't guarantee that you never will be hurt or sad or miss someone.

But it usually guarantees you will survive it all. And those of us who have been battered by adoption need the survival skills.


Anonymous said...

Robin, Early in my life I battled with Co-dependent behavior, after much inward looking and consistent choices, I overcame that tendency, at least, until reunion. You described it perfectly here,"I was unprepared for their ambivalence and the insecurity of their adopters. I felt frustrated with my children who were adults, yet kept in this perpetual, dependent childhood by the entire construct of adoption.", this combined with my decision to handle this behavior, (which manifested itself as my children blaming and attacking me, rather than taking responsibility for their own uncomfortable feelings), with active listening and patience, instead of setting firm boundaries,(one can't do what one doesn't know,now I know better so I do better), was a recipe for a co-dependent stew of the first magnitude. After much effort and heart break, I am pulling out of the co-dependent crazies, but unfortunately we all have damaged our already fragile relationships severely, I don't know if they can recover, but I have to let that go. I hurt, I am sad, but I no longer have any expectations of these relationships, my fairy tale bubble has thankfully popped and I am free to be the flawed person that I am once again, thankfully. I don't know what the future holds for me and my two adopted out children, but I know that I will be okay whatever happens, and I know that I will always love them both unconditionally no matter how they choose to handle their relationship to me. It is a daily choice I make still to NOT let myself get spun up in fantasy and expectations, I am only four years into my reunion. I'm told it gets easier with time, the letting go and not internalizing the painful rejection.

Unknown said...

As a mother, I want to make my children's booboo's better. I know I can handle whatever comes my way, because I have done so in the past. Being a good parent, however, doesn't include doing things FOR your children but allowing them the respect to believe that they can do the tough things for themselves and honoring their right to do so. It is a hard thing to do, I know. I struggle with it daily....

CullyRay said...

I want to say that this is the best blog entry of yours that I have ever read... but it's only One of Many ;-)
just the other day I was writing about relationships... unrequited ones. Trying to figure out the anger that some carry with them... heavy, burning baggage.
anyway, I'm going to save this entry - Thank You!!

The Adoption Digger said...

This is indeed a masterpiece, Robin! I studied the codependency links some years ago and even did a workshop on it at an AAC conference. I was amazed at how many of the books I read on codependency spoke directly to all of us.

I wanted to share an experience with you from another AAC conference. I was asked to lead the evening support group for, yes, "birthmothers." I was a little nervous about doing this, because the group was a mixture of old-timers like me and newcomers who were barely beginning to come to terms with their losses.

I began the session by asking, mostly out of curiosity, for a show of hands of how many mothers felt they were being - or had been - abused by their husbands or partners, physically, psychologically, or even sexually. I expected to see a significant number of hands go up, but was amazed to witness a virtual sea of hands! It opened an opportunity to discuss the possible reasons for this, and what we learned fit perfectly with your posting here.

In losing their children, they had lost such a significant part of themselves that they sought completion in a very unhealthy way - a codependent way. They were very needy, and had sought out "needy" partners, though they didn't recognize it. And because of their shame-based self-perceptions, they felt unworthy of any better treatment than what they were being dealt.

These revelations reassembled a puzzle that I had put together wrong earlier. I had been a bit concerned that a number of moms I knew, or heard of, had experienced marriage breakups after reunion with their kids. I had assumed that the reason was that the husbands just couldn't handle either the revelation of "the secret" or the reunion dynamics themselves. What I came to recognize after that AAC support group meeting, however, was that these women's (successful) reunions had massively fortified their self-worth, empowering them to break out of the unhealthy relationships they had endured for so long.

Yes, there were some reattachment issues that had the potential to create another set of codependent relationships - this time with their found kids. But those weren't as toxic as their marriage relationships had been. And I'm sure they dealt with issues like those you described as they made their way through the uncharted waters of long-term reunion. I'm sure, too, that the less-than-favorable reunion outcomes exacerbated the situation for mothers who stayed with their husbands/partners and continued their codependent relationships with them.

It's all just said, isn't it? None of this is the way God wanted us to be!

Thanks for sharing your brilliant observations on this important topic.

The Adoption Digger said...
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Robin said...

Sorry, Digger. For some reason, your comment posted four times.

Thank you for your input, but your evidence, like mine, is largely anecdotal. I had escaped my relationship of codependency and dysfunction long before I was reunited. I'm glad I did and had learned about this, or I would have been totally wrecked and pulled back in to codependecy after reuniting. As ot was, I had some shaky moments.

I still hold to the theory and practical evidence that the adoptive relationship between adopters and the child they adopt is, by its very nature, dysfunctional and codependent and that it the only relationship model that adopted people have as children.

I know many NATURAL mothers who have attained emotional stability that has nothing to do with, and did, indeed, occur prior to, reunion. Yes, it gives us a boost, but we have to tread carefully. It is my opinion that, the more emotionally self-contained and balanced either party is going into reunion, the better chance that reunion has for being successful. If either party to a reunion holds unrealistic expectations, then they are going to be disappointed.

Years before reunion, I followed my own path to recovery from these issues because it was in ME to do it. I could not depend on my fantasy of a reunion or any other person to reach my goal of good emotional and mental health. I see a lot of adopted people balking at that idea.

Yes, unfortunately, I do think a lot of our children look to reunion as a key to solving all their emotional issues. They don't realize that they are holding the key, themselves and have, all along. They have been made responsible for the emotional needs of others for so long that they know no other way.

All our healing is within each of us. A counselor can act as a guide, but we have to do the work. I have learned, now, that all relationships are the icing on life's cake. WE are the cake.

The Adoption Digger said...

Sorry for the multiple postings. On my end, I kept getting a window that said my post was too long, so I kept editing and trying to resend. Finally, I gave up, so was surprised to see it had made it through at all.

Again, you're absolutely right. The healing and wholeness has to come from within, and my posting was narrowly framed. My observations at that group meeting represented a "moment in time" where the more obvious aspects of codependency were revealed. In describing it, however, I inadvertently left the impression that wholeness depended on a successful reunion - the "happily ever after" story. The observations I made - yes, strictly anecdotal - didn't address the far bigger picture, but only the empowerment many women felt to end toxic relationships when the dynamics that bound them were loosed. What they did or didn't do to heal themselves from within - the authentic healing - thereafter is unknown.

On the other hand, those who were met with rejection appeared to have resigned themselves to their codependent relationships, having experienced yet another blow to their self-worth. Some may well have experienced the healing necessary to form healthy relationships in spite of their disappointing reunion outcomes. If so, they didn't speak up at our "moment in time."

Without a doubt both groups of mothers needed far more inner healing than either they or I were aware that evening. Hopefully we've all learned since then!

Robin said...

It's not just the mothers that need the healing. That really wasn't the thrust of my post or observation. I have seen adopted adults who fit this codependent model to a "t" and cannot understand that open records and reunions are not going to make it all OK. They have to find what they are looking for inside themselves, as well, and hostility and codependence are not healthy states in which to live.

Robin said...

You know what, Digger..I think I understand what you were saying...surrender can cause a tendency to codependency. I was in that situation in my first marriage. But it wasn't reunion that pulled me out..rather it was a driving need to be whole and sane. I guess we each get where we're going in our own time.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robin, you really have a gift for getting to the heart of the matter in your writing. This post is amazing and really resonates with me as a mother. It has been such a difficult journey thus far, separation, grief, reunion, just simply having a NORMAL conversation...thank you for caring enough about us other mothers to share your wisdom and insight so that we too might grow and understand ourselves and our lost children.

Becky said...

I absolutely loved your post! You completely hit the nail on the head in describing the difference between a healthy relationship and a co-dependent one. There is a great book that I just finished reading on co-dependency titled, "Soaring Above Co-Addiction" by Lisa Espich that really helped open my eyes. The author writes from the viewpoint of a wife and mother who struggled to save her family from addiction, and eventually found the right source of help. I could really relate. I am now using the tips she has outlined and am finding it so helpful!