Dave is his son Jack’s biggest soccer fan — you can tell by his boisterous presence on the sidelines. A former player, Dave knows what it takes to perform well, and he makes sure Jack never misses a practice. He runs drills with him on nonpractice days and monitors his diet to make sure he’s avoiding junk. After a bad game, Dave points out missed opportunities and revisits problem plays. Jack is a decent player, but his dad worries he won’t win a college scholarship if he doesn’t knuckle down.
If you ask Dave why he’s so involved with Jack’s soccer career, he’ll tell you it’s because he loves his son and is willing to do anything to help him succeed. What Dave doesn’t realize is that his sense of self-worth, his very identity, has become linked to Jack’s success on the soccer field. Worse, Jack’s own sense of self-worth is slipping, becoming tied less to his own performance than to how his dad sees himself in him.
Dave and Jack are fictional, but their stress-inducing dynamic is all too real. Experts call this type of relationship “enmeshed,” “fused,” “poorly differentiated,” or “codependent.” No matter what role a person plays, it’s as confusing as it is common.
The oft-loaded term “codependence” originated in recovery circles, where it’s used to describe enabling and other maladaptive behaviors people use to cope with emotional pain, such as a loved one’s alcoholism. But it isn’t just an issue for people involved with addicts.
“Emotional fusion fits everyone to greater or lesser degrees,” says Ruth Morehouse, PhD, codirector of the Marriage & Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colo. And these dynamics pervade all kinds of interactions, from casual encounters to long-term professional and family connections. Sooner or later, however, they can lead to relationships that are unfulfilling and dishonest — even, and sometimes especially, with the people who are most important to us.
“People treat you the way you teach them to treat you,” says Julie Sullivan, LCMFT, founder of Looking Glass Therapy and Mediation Center in Leawood, Kan. “You’ve put yourself in a certain role in a relationship, and then when you’ve had enough, you’re stuck in this role.”
Codependent behavior is tricky to identify, however, because it’s often disguised as a willingness to adapt to others’ needs or a selfless desire to help. We all see ourselves through the eyes of others occasionally, but trouble starts when we overidentify with how we’re seen (“I’m the reliable one!”) or become overly invested in how we see others (“What you should do is . . .”). We get confused about where we stop and other people begin.
And when we haven’t developed a strong sense of self — our place in the world, our boundaries, our values — and haven’t learned the skills to communicate wants and needs directly, we’re more likely to bend and fold ourselves to accommodate what we think others want. Or to manipulate situations and people to get what we want from them.
People consciously or unconsciously assign everyone else in their lives a role, explains Lauren Zander, cofounder and chairman of the Handel Group, a corporate consulting and private coaching company. They then devise strategies for dealing with people based on their presumptions about what these people want from them.
“You are conducting a puppet show in your life with the people around you,” Zander says. “You don’t realize that you are the director, manipulating people and situations based on your opinion of them in your head.”
The specific roles we play in this “puppet show” are typically passed down from generation to generation, says Jamie Huysman, PsyD, LCSW, a certified addictions professional based in Orlando, Fla. The roles we take on as children are replayed when we’re adults, and rare is the family that is immune to less-than-healthy dynamics.
“On one end of the continuum, you see the families of enmeshment where everybody has their spoon in your soup,” says Huysman. “On the other are the families of total detachment.”
Meanwhile, plenty of us land somewhere in the middle, neither smothered nor ignored, but having nonetheless acquired a set of self-limiting beliefs about our place in the world and our expectations of others. We all fall somewhere, as Huysman puts it, “along the bell curve of codependence.”
The point is, most of us could learn a thing or two about setting healthy boundaries. To that end, here are some of the most common codependent roles (don’t be surprised if you see yourself in more than one) — and some suggestions for how to change the script.
Or as Hertz succinctly puts it, “Do you want to pay the price for a bad relationship, or the price to maintain a good one?”
Related CE Course on Codependency
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