Making polite conversation, I asked the man, in his mid-sixties, about his recent travels. “Where did you go? Which country did you like the best?” He looked at me, laughing nervously, and said: “Don’t ask me. Ask her. She does all the thinking. I just go along and do what I’m told.” I glanced at his wife, a tiny but domineering woman, and noticed a smirk of satisfaction cross her face. She had him right where she wanted him!
Co-dependence is a dynamic in a relationship where one partner is dominant and the other is submissive. It is easy to assume that the dominant partner has created this unhealthy dynamic however the problem often lies with the submissive partner who fails to assert and set boundaries.
In such a relationship boundaries are blurred and two people are enmeshed, not knowing where one stops and the other starts. The submissive one does not see themself as an individual, clearly expressing their own opinions, feelings, needs, preferences and wants. On a night out, they often can’t express an opinion about a movie, show their annoyance about a rude waiter or even order from a menu.
Likewise the submissive partner does not see their partner as a separate individual. The enmeshed one often takes their partner’s moods as meaning something about themself. They absorb the other person as if their boundaries are porous. If their partner is irritable, the enmeshed partner is upset without the ability to say “that’s you, this is me”.
A Pay-off for Being Passive
The submissive partner allows the dominant partner to make most decisions. There is a pay-off for passivity. He or she is avoiding discomfort and conflict. And the compliant partner does not take responsibility for decisions and gets to blame the aggressive partner if things go wrong.
But there’s also a cost. Whenever you do something you don’t want to, out of obligation, to win approval or out of guilt or fear, it breeds resentment. Often the submissive partner is carrying repressed resentment which seeps out in covert, passive-aggressive ways.
The submissive partner feels like a helpless victim rather than a pro-active adult in charge of their life choices. Such a disempowered state can lead to chronic anxiety and depression.
In the case of the dominant partner, why do they cross their partner’s boundaries? Because they can. The dominant partner learns what they can ‘get away with’. And there is a strong element of dissatisfaction and frustration. Clearly they want things that their non-assertive partner is not giving – love in the form of affection, attention or understanding; shared responsibility, support and strength. But instead of asking and accepting their partner’s right to say ‘no’ to requests, they cross boundaries and demand and force their will on the weaker partner.
Lack of Respect
The co-dependent relationship lacks respect. The submissive partner lacks self-respect and becomes a doormat and the dominant partner stops respecting the weak partner and treats them with condescending disdain, even contempt. This is not a relationship between equal adults but is based on a parent-child dynamic.
How does co-dependence come about? It is caused through an immaturity in psychological development. When a child reaches adolescence and early twenties they need to develop independence, individuality and ‘separate’ from their mother and father. If this doesn’t happen because the parent is clingy or controlling, they remain psychologically enmeshed with the parent.
A Strong, Independent Self
Stunted in their development, the adult will carry this co-dependent dynamic into their marriage. They will either attract a domineering partner or turn their partner into one. In the marriage, they are often in a regressed state of the obedient child or defiant teenager with transference on their partner as Mum or Dad.
How do you change this and create a respectful marriage between equals? The first step is recognising the dynamic exists. While either or both of you are in denial or comfortable with the arrangement, there will be no motivation to change.
The passive partner has to overcome their anxiety and assert themself. They have to learn to express their own opinions, feelings, needs and wants, develop their own interests and take responsibility for their choices. Together, they must also learn how to function as an emotionally mature couple.
The dominant partner has to learn patience with their partner: drawing them out and validating them. They have to hold back on bombarding them with dogmatic views, strong feelings and inflexible demands. They have to back off in an argument and take time out.
None of this is easy if the dynamic is deeply entrenched. Both partners would benefit from weekly support groups that help them heal old wounds and grow. And then they can love each other as two well-formed individuals, from a position of mutual strength and respect.
This article was published in October, 2008 in XL Extra! an international magazine for entrepreneurs and business people.