Understanding Your Obsession
At the root of many relationship problems is codependence. The term is occasionally misused, sometimes made light of, and generally misunderstood, but it is a useful concept. Simply put, codependence is a pattern of painful dependence on people and their approval for one’s self-esteem. It is caused by a lack of the affection and affirmation that a child needs. This causes him or her to feel emotionally needy as an adult.
Such people tend to do many things to excess – working, eating, spending, risk taking – in order to satisfy their insatiable need for affection and affirmation. They use people, substances, or activities to fill the emptiness within themselves. This is risky business, because the very intensity of their emotional neediness drives them to excess in whatever helps them feel good about themselves. They can’t get enough alcohol, food, sex, love, achievement, etc., to fill the aching void.
Many associate the idea of addiction with drugs and alcohol. But there are a great many “clean” or “process” addictions practiced in respectable families that have long escaped the notice of the general public – such things as excessive eating, shopping, or working. Even religion can become an addiction when it is practiced compulsively, to excess.
It may be helpful to think this behavior in terms of preoccupation or driven-ness rather than addiction. It may even feel like an obsession. And the impact of these compulsive behaviors on families is as serious as the impact of alcoholism or drug addiction.
If one were to compare the behavior of a child of a workaholic and a child of an alcoholic, they would find that their emotional problems were almost identical. It doesn’t matter whether a child’s parents are preoccupied with alcohol or work; they are unavailable to their children. Whether Daddy is at the bar or at the office makes no difference. He isn’t at home. Whether Mommy is passed out on the couch from exhaustion or from sleeping pills, the consequences are the same. She is not there for her children.
The addictions and compulsions that our parents and other caregivers had when we were young affect us. Children who don’t get adequate nurturing don’t emotionally mature. Their emotional and social growth is stunted. They don’t learn what they need to know in order to have healthy, mature relationships. The time and energy intended to raise children is diverted into controlling crisis and chaos and children do not learn the essentials for growth and development.
In adulthood, the children raised in these homes may use marriage and parenting as a way to feel good about themselves, as a means of repairing their damaged self-esteem. They seek identity and meaning from their family instead of giving meaning and identity to others in the family. They use their spouses and children for self- regulation. This, in turn, sets their children up to do the same when they grow up. It’s a vicious cycle.
If you, as a child, were dependent on someone who wasn’t dependable, you may be codependent. This is not an indictment of you. To acknowledge that you are codependent is not a statement of weakness or unworthiness. It simply means that someone else’s preoccupation or driven-ness has shaped who you are today.
Wounds carried on our hearts from childhood, affect our ability to have healthy adult relationships. If you did not grow up in an alcoholic family yet still feel emotionally driven or empty, ask yourself what “process” addictions or trauma in your family may have had a detrimental effect on your social and emotional development as a child. How is this affecting your emotional stability today?
This doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life blaming the adults from your childhood. Given the neediness they inherited from their parents, they may have done the best they could. To the contrary, you will only recover when you can stop blaming your parents and other caregivers in the past for your problems and take responsibility for your recovery in the present. Only then can you take control of your life.