Codependency Issues in Marriage

Twins I received an email earlier this week from a married friend of mine who always signs off, “With love from Natalie and Jeff.” Jeff has never sent me an email nor, as far as I can tell, does Natalie consult with him in advance about what she plans to write. Despite its inclusive closing, the email came from Natalie alone. I was reminded of a couple I knew back in Los Angeles, Tom and Molly, who shared a single email address: tomolly@whatever.com. It was a clever play on the word tamale, of course; but even then, in the early days of email, I wondered why they didn’t have separate addresses. Marriage involves the formation of a new joint identity, but for some married people (and for some unmarried couples, too), this new combined identity overshadows and often eclipses a separate sense of self for its members.

“I now pronounce you husbandwife.”

I’m sure you’ve known couples who seem to be joined at the hip, who have no separate interests and do virtually everything together. Sometimes such couples are best friends as well as relationship partners, with a great many shared passions and preferred activities. But often, what they actually share are problems with separation and merger. For a variety of psychological reasons, they may have merged identities on an unconscious level, becoming emotional “Siamese twins” in order to avoid the experience of being two separate people. To experience the actual dependency involved in all significant emotional relationships, you have to recognize that you are distinct from the person you need. If I’m unconsciously merged with you, I thereby avoid the conscious experience of actual dependency and the potential for pain that goes with it: frustration, disappointment, jealousy, loss. Furthermore, if you and I agree that we are the same person and want the same thing, we don’t have to deal with the conflict, negotiation and compromise that make up a part of all healthy relationships.

Sometimes, these fusion-based relationships are asymmetrical — that is, rather than feeling the same way, the needs of one partner take precedence over those of the other. The apparenlty subservient partner appears to be without needs and is devoted to caring for the spouse. Now we’re in the realm of codependency — one of those buzzbirds people throw around without fully understanding what it means. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (typically narcissism or drug addiction); and in broader terms, it refers to the dependence on the needs of, or control of, another. It also often involves placing a lower priority on one’s own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships. Codependency may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, or control patterns. Narcissists are considered to be natural magnets for the codependent.

With its emphasis on manipulation and control (one person the apparent victim of another due to “low self-esteem”), this definition obscures the fact that a codependent relationship actually satisfies the unconscious emotional needs of both parties. For example, codependency may be a shared delusion where we both agree that I am the strong one without significant needs; you are the needy one with all the difficulties but you actually control me. I exist in order to look after you. On an unconscious level, I off-load my needs and vulnerability into you, thus ridding myself of hated aspects of myself; and while you may lack certain emotional capacities or psychological strengths, you annex those very qualities in me and take control of them. Neither one of us is truly needy or separate.

In my practice, I’ve worked with clients on either side of the codependent relationship. An emotionally chaotic woman, forever in crisis, married to a high-powered litigation attorney who (from what I could gather) had little conscious awareness of his own feelings and needs. A schizoid engineer who projected unconscious pain and despair into his wife, who was chronically depressed and unable to work, continually in need of emotional “rescues.” You’ve probably known married people with similar dynamics to their relationships. This type of codependency can be tremendously stable and enduring, despite the apparent dissatisfaction of both parties.

When one spouse in such a marriage starts to grow and separate (perhaps as a result of psychotherapy), it unsettles that equilibrium; either or both partners may find it so threatening that they seek to re-merge and undo the change. One of my clients is currently going through such a painful transition in her marriage. The apparently “crazy” spouse, she has lived for years in a state of delusional fusion with her husband, the strong and unemotional one. As she has begun to separate from him, becoming healthier and more self-reliant, more able to cope alone with the emotional challenges of her life, she notices that he repeatedly tries to “incite” her to craziness. He will say things or behave in ways designed to trigger a familiar emotional outburst. To the extent she can refrain, and as she has become more invested in her own hobbies and interests that don’t include him, he feels threatened and jealous. He hovers about, waiting for her to be free, always trying to enlist her in one of his own activities because he’s unwilling to do things alone.

While such separation/individuation struggles are extreme, all of us in committed, long-term relationships must try to find a balance between shared and separate experiences, between our identities as individuals and as halves of a couple. In order to keep our relationships emotionally vital, we need to make sure we have enough “us” time, even when one or both of us may want to do something apart. We also need to make sure we have enough alone time for pursuing separate interests or friendships; if we don’t, the marriage may become stifling or claustrophobic. I’m sure you (like me) have known couples who went too far in either direction. I personally find it a difficult balance to achieve. If I’m not careful, I become too selfishly focused on my writing ambitions or playing piano; if I put those interests aside too extensively for the “common” good, I can easily feel deprived and resentful.

How do you remain an individual without sacrificing emotional connection? How do you remain emotionally involved with your partner without losing sight of yourself?

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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37 comments

    This is something I was thinking about today. Thanks for the article! My husband has lots of his own special interests and always has made time for himself to pursue them, when the kids were small I devoted myself to them. This worked out okay, but I often felt resentful of how much time he took for himself. And he never felt he had enough time. Now that our kids are older teens-early 20’s they don’t need me any more so I have found my own interests and separate friends. My husband and I also plan a walk together every evening and a play or movie night once a week. This is so much easier to negotiate now that the kids are older. I did require a transition time for me to figure out my own activities, not to rely on husband to fill my time.

    That empty-nest (or almost empty-nest) period can be so fulfilling if you’re able to do what you have done. It’s also great when the partners re-connect emotionally after many years of parenting when the children’s needs come first.

    You asked: How do you remain an individual without sacrificing emotional connection? How do you remain emotionally involved with your partner without losing sight of yourself?

    While I am like the female patient you mentioned who is learning to become healthier and more self-reliant, I am in a struggle with my narcisstic husband whose life is spiraling out of control. I try so hard to stay healthy and dole out self-care in order to fight off the unending depression. To answer your question, I stay an individual by focusing on my individual hobbies and involving our children in them. I reparent myself by involving our children in those hobbies with me. And then when he takes our children out of the house for activities/parks/etc, I do more of those hobbies by myself, and rest. We are able to each remain an individual by way of finding a way to reparent ourselves through our respsective connections to our children. Our children somehow help us keep us emotionally involved with each other, because we are both trying to reparent ourselves and recover from our childhood traumas at the same time.

    Thanks again for another helpful and insightful post. I enjoy your psychodynamic approach and explanation to things.

    Your approach sounds very similar to what I strive for. It helps if your partner/spouse also has hobbies and interests and isn’t just waiting around for you to pay attention.

    I attended a wedding this afternoon during which the bride and groom had a Unity Candle Ceremony, a common practice here. Each of them held a lit candle which they used to light a larger one. Then, they blew out the other candles, replaced them in their holders and walked away. I was horrified to watch the trails of smoke rise from the candles representing their separate selves. If only they had left them to burn alongside, it would have meant so much more!

    Nice metaphor. It’s one thing to join your life to another person’s and travel down the same road together; quite another to give up your individuality for a merged identity.

    Oh wow Joe, another very poignant and relevant post – one that has hit me like an ocean wave. Initially when I saw the title I thought, ‘great this will help me understand what my mother is like’ and I got half way through still believing that… this bit in particular about projection is very much what our role reversed relationship was like when I was a child and adolescent, “I off-load my needs and vulnerability into you, thus ridding myself of hated aspects of myself,” – she always was exceptionally skilled at making me think I could look after her whilst pouring her toxic hate into me so that I took on all her issues. However, I read on and slowly began to realise that perhaps I haven’t completely escaped. I have been with my husband for over a decade and I knew that we were unusually dependent on each other in the early days (it felt like we needed to be in order to survive our childhoods) and as the years have gone on we have become more like separate people within a relationship but we are still very much enmeshed. I read the passage I have quoted below and my heart sank. This is what is happening right now. This is what I am bringing to my therapy sessions although I didn’t realise it. The little arguments that I am processing with my therapist when we should be processing childhood-trauma. I knew something was going on with my husband, I couldn’t verbalise it but I thought he was struggling with the change in me at the very least. But this is definitely it. I am going to print this off and take it to my next session in the hope that I can work through it and come up with ways to help my husband deal with all this change. I want to move forward WITH him! – “When one spouse in such a marriage starts to grow and separate (perhaps as a result of psychotherapy), it unsettles that equilibrium; either or both partners may find it so threatening that they seek to re-merge and undo the change. One of my clients is currently going through such a painful transition in her marriage. The apparently “crazy” spouse, she has lived for years in a state of delusional fusion with her husband, the strong and unemotional one. As she has begun to separate from him, becoming healthier and more self-reliant, more able to cope alone with the emotional challenges of her life, she notices that he repeatedly tries to “incite” her to craziness. He will say things or behave in ways designed to trigger a familiar emotional outburst. To the extent she can refrain, and as she has become more invested in her own hobbies and interests that don’t include him, he feels threatened and jealous. He hovers about, waiting for her to be free, always trying to enlist her in one of his own activities because he’s unwilling to do things alone.”

    Thank you for this post, I look forward to reading other comments which may give me an idea how other people, “remain emotionally involved with (their) partner without losing sight of (themselves)”.

    It’s a difficult challenge you’re going through. A lot of what happens, though, will depend upon HIM. You can work through your own issues but he needs to grow and develop along with you.

    Yes, thank you for that validation. It is tricky because I don’t want my journey towards a healthier me to have a negative affect on anyone, least of all my husband. We have discussed the idea of him coming to therapy with me but my therapist is undecided about whether it would help or not as he would normally refer a client to another therapist if they later sought couples therapy to avoid any unintended bias.

    Thanks for your input, much appreciated.

    Thanks for explaining this Joe. I used to belong to a group that unknowingly distorted attachment in psychotherapy to be the dynamics of the type of relationship you describe (i.e., merging). I’ve seen some cases where the co-dependent person somehow takes control of the therapy. It takes a consistent therapist with a strong sense of self to allow a healthy attachment to form; I think it’s very important that a therapist do several years of their own work.

    I used to find myself in these types of relationships. I had such a strong need to be loved, that I’d sacrifice my autonomy. Some refer to it as people-pleasing or co-narcissism. Psychoanalytic therapy helped me form a solid sense of self. The therapist’s holding strong boundaries allowed me to develop my own solid psychological boundaries. He did not change as a result of my neediness and pleadings for his love and affection. He remained his consistent self regardless of my needs, which allowed me experience unconditional acceptance from him. It was his accepting that I don’t have to ‘do’ for another to be loved that allowed me to stay consistent in my new sense of self. The therapy was cut short by circumstances beyond our immediate control so I’m still working on this. There’s still much work to do, which I realized after finding myself in one of these relationships where I allowed myself to be controlled by someone. This time, I stopped it before it got too deep. So I’ve made some progress.

    I’ve seen relationships where the co-dependent person is actually the narcissistic and controlling one, especially when the other person is avoidant or has schizoid tendencies. These are people who believe someone owes them for their ‘help’. And it’s always help the other person didn’t ask for in the first place. This emphasizes how both parties are getting needs met by the other, but at the expense the autonomy of both.

    This past weekend, my brother was able to legally marry his partner of 31 years. During the vows, he made the comment that they have been “joined at the hip” for all of those years (a surprise statement to no one). They are both very happy with their relationship and openly admitting their dependency.
    So, I can’t help but wonder why the assumption that experiencing the actual dependency and the potential for pain and having to deal with conflict, negotiation and compromise is “healthier” for them? They have consciously chosen and defend their relationship patterns. If both partners are “on board,” why is the “co-dependency” a problem?

    It is a tricky balance indeed. In my own experience, it helps when both partners are able to express their emerging discomfort with too much “you” (separateness/distance) OR too much “we” (togetherness/resentment). An ongoing dialogue which sometimes requires acts of generosity (offering more together-time or separate-time) to keep the rhythm of love moving along. Aiming for improvement not perfection helps :-)

    Sadly I was a parentified child, and as an adult I am startlingly devoid of self, and completely unsure of, or too scared, to think about my true needs. I am married and in love with my spouse.

    But here’s the real question: how did my husband fall in love with someone so empty? What does it say about him? What does it say about me?

    Nice article. I’m still a bit confused about dependency issues. What exactly are characteristics of someone that has dependency issues and why would they have them?

    Dependency is a part of all relationships, as I keep saying. It is the kind of over-dependence where the person wants to merge with the other that is a problem. Someone with this type of dependency issue would likely have had unreliable or traumatic parenting. The “dependency issues” in later life result from not getting what you needed when you were small.

    Thank you for that article. I just had an epiphany. I was a classic codependent to a psychopath. After may years of fighting to “keep” him, I finally had to let go. But I didn’t really. I steamed and hurt as he plowed through more women. Finally, though I thought I understood codependency and had it under control, I became a hoarder. After a few years of work on overcoming that, I have control over most of the emotional issues that are involved in it and I’m trying to deal with the repercussions, which takes time and energy. I see today, that I likely traded my dependency on my ex husband for a dependency on objects. Not being able to let go of them. The thought of losing them being unbearable, like losing my husband was. Mix a lot of things in there, illness, accidental injuries, depression an abusive mother. I am a afraid, no matter how much awareness I have, that I can’t trust myself in a romantic relationship. As it is, I have two best friends that I talk to every day and I can’t imagine life without them. Am I destined to always be dependent on something emotionally? I feel freer than I ever have, but it is likely because I have friends who are filling that dependent need. Sorry for the long comment, thank you for triggering more insight for me.

    Being dependent is a part of all authentic relationships; what you’re describing is over-dependence, where the partner is unconsciously felt to have some magical ability to heal you, if only it worked out right. It sounds as if the hoarded objects fulfill a similar magical role for you.

    Have you noticed whether it is more likely the woman who merges these identities? Consider the sociocultural anthropology 101 perspective. Stepping back from the intimate interpersonal dynamic, marriage or couple-hood is expressed and contained as a social system within the culture. As such, there is a status hierarchy in our system which remains male dominant, patriarchal. The ideal (it often feels like a myth) is that she merges her identity with his and he considers it a privilege to have her, gaining status through “his” lineage. In the social scheme, women are elevated through marriage and reproduction, and her life is safer on many levels when coupled. Couples have more social status than singles. Her marriage and family identity are important to her survival and the survival of the family children. So, it seems to make sense that if the interactive contact is a personal or social one, the woman would present her “coupled” identity. It takes awareness, raised consciousness, continual effort and individual bravery to alter such a system and to create or preserve individual identity or self-hood within the pair or a close family system. And it usually hurts. Generally speaking.

    Wonderfully said, and yes, of course, you’re absolutely right. Different pathological conditions tend to build upon and amplify what is already there, so codependency and narcissism tend to amplify a pre-existing sociological condition. Having said that, I’ve also seen a number of marriages where the man was the apparently ill one and his wife the savior.

    “When one spouse in such a marriage starts to grow and separate (perhaps as a result of psychotherapy), it unsettles that equilibrium; either or both partners may find it so threatening that they seek to re-merge and undo the change…. “
    Wow. This is exactly what happened in my marriage and it was a result of my psychotherapy. I was the “crazy” one in the marriage but I now I know that I am much stronger than my “strong and unemotional” spouse. Unfortunately, we are now headed for divorce.

    This intrigued me: “If I’m unconsciously merged with you, I thereby avoid the conscious experience of actual dependency and the potential for pain that goes with it: frustration, disappointment, jealousy, loss…” I always assumed that to feel dependence: i.e. to be jealous of your significant other, etc. was negative and meant you were “insecure”. It appears that this is the stuff of life and love? I am learning that feeling some level of dependence on others; needing others, is an important part of connecting in a deep relationship. In doing this we are allowing the potential for pain as you described, but vulnerability and dependence are essential in order to have the experience of a truly deep connection.

    Thanks for the timely post–at least for me!

    Yes — some degree of dependence is inevitable in authentic relationships. When most people use the word “dependency” they actually mean “overly dependent” in an unhealthy way.

    Whoops! I see I have used this word myself many times without really understanding its meaning.

    Or at least I was unaware of the broader connotations of “the relationship (the codependency) satisfies BOTH parties” With hindsight its obviously implied in the word co-dependent. Many of the people I have labeled CD were simply dependent.

    I actually envy my partner a lot. I want to have, to know, to do everything he has, knows, does but I don’t. I do not truly feel I want to merge with him but more that I want to add him to me. Which is very disappointing because obviously I can’t be him as well as my self ! But what bothers the most is that the envy is always there. It’s so painful to see him so focused on his interests and hobbies and me lost in confusion. At one point I have no idea of what I truly like or dislike. He reminds me of things I would have loved to to but for some reasons I hardly ever did. And it feels insane for me to copy him even though that’s my ultimate wish.

    During five months of successful therapy, my spouse began to express approval as he saw me “coming out of my shell” and becoming happier, more alive. Now that I want to enjoy more of life by establishing friendships and offering to include him with couples activities, he has become possessive and jealous. I feel betrayed. I should have seen it coming when he wanted to be my therapist initially, telling me he did not understand why I needed to see someone else to talk things over with when I had him available – why not him instead of therapy. I’m beginning to see ways in which the marriage of 20 years had transferred control and definition of happiness to him, subservience and obedience to me, as standard operating modality. I am sad, and feel myself slipping backwards. Thank you for this article.

    Whenever I have this conversation with someone I always stress thats it’s called a relating ship (learning to relate). The learning is for the LIFE of the relationship (helps to understand why marriage/relationships are so much work).

    I tell my friends when two people become committed they have to visualize three people in a relationship: 1)Her 2)Him 3)Their relationship.

    One and two are coming together to give life to the third. Three does not exist without one and two so each has to give half of themselves to make three whole. If they both are working to give half, then the half that is left is for them to be just 1 and 2.

    CW

    So true that individuation problems and codependency underlie most reasons for marital unhappiness, and it’s common that individuals are attracted to others who complement their unconscious needs and undeveloped traits. A pleaser or pursuer might be attracted to an aggressive or distancing person, respectively. As Jung would say, “other” adversary is “the other within us.” I differ in that a narcissist and addicts are codependents and likely the high-powered attorney, who learned, as codependents do, to be self-sufficient, in control, and to deny feelings. People usually marry someone of who is at the same level of individuation. At the highest level, not achieved by many, there’s no difference between separateness and closeness. (Discussed in detail in my book). As codependency is a developmental problem of the self, my definition focuses on the self: Someone who can’t function from his or her innate cues, but instead organizes thinking and behavior around a substance, process, or other person(s).
    Darlene Lancer, MFT
    Author of Codependency for Dummies

    Very interesting question. We share our separate lives – I think this is the key. There is him, there is me, there is the two of us together, like rooms in a house, his, mine, and a sitting room, separate areas but the doors are never locked, we walk about, look around, ask questions and always enjoy a visit. He doesn’t like ballet but likes the fact that I dance and enjoy it, he likes me as a dancer and asks how my class or rehearsal had been, comes to the shows I am in but not to the ones I just want to watch, I go there with other dancers. I cheer him on in a table tennis championships but I do not play except for the occasional fun. We do/ make / like music together, sing in the same choir. But he plays the organ, I play the piano; he practices for himself l’art pour l’art, I am a show-off who takes private voice and gives recitals and enjoys performing.
    I could go on for ever – to sum it up, we admire each other’s qualities and enjoy the differences, our common life consists of the things we do together as a couple and also the things we speak about. He doesn’t need to understand ballet world drama; sharing means he listens to “me” and takes interest in what is happening in my life and vice versa, I have no idea about the advanced level science at his workplace but still I love to hear how his day was, what new project he works on, I know about the meeting he is about to have and I will make sure I ask him how it went, not because I care about the “meeting” but I care about his life and and the meeting is an important part of it on the particular day.
    There is another metaphor, a poem from a Hungarian (János Pilinszky), everyone can interpret it as they like:

    Life sentence

    The bed is shared.
    The pillow is not.

    A horrific picture of loneliness for some (maybe for Pilinszky himself) but a fact of life for others. I am totally OK with sharing my bed with someone I love and he has a right to prefer soft and fluffy pillows while I like hard ones or none at all :)

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