It’s always bad to put labels on people—especially yourself—just by looking at the outer behavior. For example, a person with a tremor could have a brain dysfunction, a motor problem, delirium from a life of drinking, or plain old fear. How can you know which it is by just looking at his hands shaking?

Labeling oneself as “co-dependent” could be the same mistake.

  • Let’s take a case and see how it plays out:

Al has been an alcoholic and has managed for decades to hold down a job—and do a good job at it—in spite of his bingeing on weekends. Sally has repeatedly told him that he needs to quit because the bingeing has created a terrible cost in their marriage. When he’s drinking, he is not her friend because he’s simply not mentally “there” to talk to. He can’t watch the children or help them with their projects or drive them to their sports events.

On the other hand, Al is a good person; he is supportive of his wife; he gets well paid. And Sally loves him.

Is Sally co-dependent? What do you think Sally should do differently?

To answer this question, what we really need to know is this: Is Sally’s behavior motivated by fear, love, or patience? And a second question is: What is Sally getting out of catering to her husband?

It seems to me that Sally should not have to quit the marriage. She is trying to bring pressure on her husband to stop drinking but so far has been unsuccessful. Does her lack of success mean that she is co-dependent? I don’t think so. She loves her husband and is patiently trying to get him to do the right thing. Perhaps she will be successful in getting him to listen when she tries another approach. Just because she has not made an ultimatum and not quit the marriage does not by definition make her co-dependent.

Sally is not getting anything out of her husband’s behavior. It’s difficult and frustrating, but she is patiently trying to get him to change.

  • Case 2: Melanie rules the house with a reign of terror. No one dares cross her but that doesn’t help because she will still find a reason to be angry and upset. Mike just avoids her, leads his own life and takes the guff that she dishes out. Is Mike co-dependent?

The answer is “yes.” He is enabling his wife to continue being an abuser. What is he getting out of the deal? Well, it also enables him to do things that perhaps he could not do if he had a sweet wife whom he felt obligated to please. Because his wife is so miserable to be around, he has persuaded himself that he is justified having an affair. If his wife were decent and kind, he could not indulge. Thus, Melanie’s behavior enables him to get away with things that are not one bit less bad than what his wife is doing. That is the real meaning of “co-dependent.”

  • Case 3: Slim has grown heavy. In fact, with his diabetes, kidney failure and bad heart, he has grown so heavy he needs to be wheeled everywhere in his wheelchair. Suzie pushes that chair. She does not get down on him to diet. At one time she used to but she decided that the quality of his life was so bad that if he indulged himself once in a while it wouldn’t be the end of the world. She notices that he doesn’t really eat to excess; his lack of exercise is what puts the weight on. Is Suzie co-dependent?

Suzie doesn’t get anything out of this deal. She is catering to her sick husband because in her mind she at least has health and a quality of life. I would say she is behaving this way out of a generosity of spirit and love. She is not co-dependent.

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