A lot of people talk about co-dependency. We all know that it's not something good but what does it really mean? And is there a good type of dependency? Or is all dependency bad?
The term originally came out of 12-step programs like AA. In that system there is the addict and then there is their partner who is the "co-dependent". This person is wrapped up in the addiction just as much as the addict. The addiction rules their life with equal fervor. On the surface people's sympathies often go with the co-dependent rather than the addict. We may find ourselves thinking "oh, that poor person, attached to that addict who is making their life so miserable".
But the reality is that both people are dysfunctional. The co-dependent person is getting some kind of perk out of being in this situation. Mabye it's the sympathy of others. Or the excuse as to why they can't get ahead in life-- because they are too busy taking care of the addict. The addict looks like the "hot mess" in the relationship and in contrast the co-dependent looks well put together.
In this type of relationship both people actually have an agenda. The addict wants to maintain their addiction and the co-dependent wants to have an excuse for why their life isn't the way they want it to be. In fact in these relationships both partners are using the relationship for meeting mostly their own needs. They do not expect the relationship to be fair. In fact, they expect and act as if relationships will NOT be fair! Their needs may be to have a partner hold down the home front while they engage in affairs or addictions. Or the need may be to play the martyr and support an addict while complaining to everyone else about how mistreated they are. This is not interdependency.
Interdependency involves the idea that in a relationship, we are greater than the sum of our parts. That two together can accomplish more than either one alone. Or as the african saying goes, "if you are going to take a short journey, go alone and you will go faster. But if you must go far, take another". Life is a long journey and taking a partner along with us to be our help-mate can be incredibly fulfilling and successful if we can learn the basic rules of truly mutual relationships. Psychologists and researchers call these truly mutual relationships "secure", meaning that each partner knows that the other person is going to be there for them no matter what. And that each partner also knows that whatever happens to their partner happens to them too. So in a secure relationship, one would never do anything that would intentionally hurt the other person, or be unfair to them, or take advantage of them, because in the end it would hurt BOTH of them. It is a state of knowing that you are bound together on all levels and acting accordingly.
The method of couples therapy that I practice, called the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy, or PACT, talks a lot about how to develop a secure relationship. Dr. Diane Poole Heller interviewed PACT's originator, Dr. Stan Tatkin, about the phenomenon of interdependency. You may enjoy watching the interview to learn more about this:
I hope you find this video helpful as well as the information provided above. Remember, all relationships can change given proper support and guidance.
If you have read my website you will know that I am very interested in attachment styles. Research done by Dr. John Bowlby and his associate Mary Main in the 1940's showed us that infants have a potential of 4 different styles of relating to their primary caregivers: Secure (the ideal, healthy pattern), Anxious-Ambivalent (sometimes called Angry-Resistant), Anxious-Avoidant and Disorganized (sometimes called "Cannot Classify"). These 4 patterns have proven to be extremely useful in predicting adult behaviors in romantic relationships as well as parenting behaviors.
If you are interested to find out what your attachment style is there are several ways to go about this. The "gold standard" has always been to have the Adult Attachment Interview administered by a trained researcher. This is the instrument used in research to identify attachment patterns in adults. However finding a therapist who is trained to administer this instrument can be difficult! Another adult attachment test that has been developed is the Adult Attachment Projective. However, this also needs to be done by a trained professional and not all cities (and certainly most rural areas) have anyone who has this type of training.
In an effort to find a method for people to determine their adult attachment classification I have tried various self-administered tests. The one that I have found to be most useful is on the website of psychologist Diane Poole Heller. Her self-administered test can be done online and gives you results immediately. Rather than being fully categorical (meaning you can only have one classification), her test creates a pie chart showing you what percent of your responses line up with a particular style. This is much more in keeping with what I see as a clinician-- that in some situations a person will look anxious-ambivalent, but in other situations they may look more anxious-avoidant for example. I think her approach makes sense clinically and is also easy for a lay person to understand.
For a really great understanding of how your attachment style impacts your romantic relationships I strongly recommend listening to Dr. Stan Tatkin's MP3 download, "Your Brain On Love". It explains in plain English how your childhood attachment style influences your romantic relationships in adulthood.
Remember, even those of us who came into adulthood with insecure attachment styles can learn new ways of being. With the help of a good therapist we can learn to re-pattern our ways of relating to mimic those of secure functioning couples. This can bring increased harmony, enjoyment, intimacy and stability to our relationships. Thanks to neuroplasticity we all have a chance at the benefits of a secure attachment to that special person.
I came across a youtube video yesterday that talks about something I often discuss with my depressed patients. That depression is a self-sustaining disease. Meaning that once depression takes hold, it will make you do things that make the depression worse and it will prevent you from doing things that would make it better. So it can be very hard to get out of a significant depression. If you have never been depressed this can be hard to appreciate, so often well-meaning loved ones or partners will say things like "why don't you just ____" or "you would feel better if you would ____". While whatever they are saying may be true, it can leave the depressed person feeling like they are not only depressed but also a failure and a disappointment in the eyes of their loved ones.
For more information on this double-bind quality of depression see the following 22- minute video with Dr. Jon Allen from the Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas :
I hope this helps depressed people to be more compassionate with themselves and I also hope it helps their loved ones to be more understanding of why the depressed person has such a hard time recovering. Depression is treatable with the right kind of help, which can be a combination of some of the following: exercise, talk therapy, medications, yoga, mindfulness, supplementation if one is low in Vitamin D or testosterone, proper sleep and, in extreme cases, deep nerve stimulation or electric shock therapy (yes, ECT is still around and is much improved from the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest days).
I ran across a great interview with Dr. Peter Levine about trauma and how it is stored in the brain and body. With all of the discussions about PTSD in the news these days I thought it would be a great thing to share. PTSD can be caused by the obvious traumas such as war or being the victim of a violent crime (school shootings come to mind), or it can also be a product of medical procedures. I have seen many cases of medically-induced PTSD in my 20 years of practice. Most often situations where children were subjected to surgeries or other invasive procedures without adequate preparation or support. But I have also seen the phenomenon in adults. It's important to remember that our bodies do not distinguish between being cut open to remove an infected appendix and being cut open by some mad man who crawled through out window at night in search of a victim. The body experiences both events as the same-- being cut and in danger of dying.
So for a wonderful overview of trauma and PTSD from one of the originators of the field of study please listen to this interview with Dr. Levine.
I've decided to keep a reading list in case anyone is interested in the same kind of uber-nerdy psychologically oriented stuff as me. So here goes!
I just finished a book entitled Love 2.0 by Barbara L. Frederickson, Ph.D.. Good stuff. Basically the book is about the positive impact that love has on us as human beings. As I tell all of my patients, humans are "hard-wired" for connection (just ask poor Harlow's monkeys). So it's no surprise that when researchers such as Dr. Frederickson study the impact of love on things like health. For example, people who reported more loving contacts with others during the day had significantly better "vagal tone". Vagal tone is the relative health of the vagus nerve, the largest nerve in the body. The vagus nerve is responsible for your ability to recover from the fight or flight response. So after being scared or threatened (when your heart rate naturally accelerates) your vagus nerve helps the heart rate to slow back down to its normal pace. The better your vagal tone, the faster your heart rate recovers. People who report a higher number of loving connections during the day (this can be a warm hug from a friend, a sweet text from your significant other, etc.) have better vagal tone. They are literally healthier than people who have less positive social connections. Vagal tone is associated with heart disease also, and since heart disease is still the #1 killer in America, vagal tone should be important to us all. Vagal tone is also related to the strength of one's immune system, especially regarding inflammatory responses. Inflammation is implicated in things such as arthritis, strokes, diabetes and some gastrointestinal disorders. So again vagal tone is something we should be thinking about.
Dr. Frederickson gives lots of encouraging information about how we can improve the amount of "love" we get in our lives. For example she has found that just thinking about a loving exchange with someone we care about can cause the same health improvements as having that exchange. So sitting at your desk and remembering the big hug you got yesterday from your close friend can actually re-create the positive effect of that hug right then and there at your desk. There are precious few things we can do sitting at our desk that are going to improve our health, so I think this finding is very encouraging!
Another recommendation that Dr. Frederickson. makes is to practice LKM. This is Loving Kindness Meditation, a buddhist tradition. She gives explicit instructions on how to do LKM (it's quite easy) and explains-- you guessed it-- the numerous mental and physical health benefits of it. I especially appreciate that she explains how to do LMK if you have problems loving yourself (as many people do). Part of LKM can be directing loving feelings towards oneself, and that is not always easy if you come from a dysfunctional family where you were lead to believe that there were major things wrong with you. She gives some "work arounds" for this problem which I found very helpful.
If you are interested in research on the impact of positive social connections (aka "love") I think you will find this book very readable and informative. It doesn't focus on romantic love (so the title may seem a bit misleading) but does a great job of expanding our ideas about what love means and how it can influence our emotional and physical health.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.