Finding Words to Describe the Mistakes of Codependence and Differentiation Models
Have you ever watched someone carry a cumbersome load, stumbling over the smallest of obstacles and struggling to keep it all in their grasp without losing an important piece? Sometimes the scene is hilarious and we delight in observing the endeavor. Other times we hold our breath and hope for the best.
I have watched my clients struggle through the process of loving an addict and navigating the demands of recovery and healing. First introduced by Dr. Robert Weiss, the new concept of prodependence holds far-reaching implications in treating loved ones of addicts and other troubled individuals, and I find myself stumbling over my own attempts at communicating in a coherent and effective manner. It may help to cringe along with me, laughing with me as I traverse the slippery surfaces, empathizing with me as I invite you to witness and look into my passion, pain, and concern.
For over a year, I have hesitated to release this article, concerned that I am not doing this important topic justice. Today, however, I believe the time has come to set it free and let it be imperfect, with room for improvement and the potential to be refined. I am simply joining an ongoing conversation.
My perspective on these matters came at a significant cost. Yet, I am willing to take this journey because I can see that the change from codependence to prodependence only requires a small shift. A shift away from pathologizing, blaming, and shaming and toward empowering, celebrating, and creating.
When I first became aware of the problems associated with the codependence model, I was in grad school studying to become a Marriage and Family Therapist. I was also training to become a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) through the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). There, I met two people who would later come to be significant figures in my journey toward being considerate and empathetic as a way of honoring and respecting my clients: Dr. Kevin Skinner of Addo Recovery, and the aforementioned Dr. Robert Weiss, Chief Clinical Officer of Seeking Integrity.
The Seatbelt Metaphor
During my time in grad school, I worked with a couple who had come in for marital help. There had been a betrayal – infidelity covered with denials and lies for some time. They were both professionals in an intense career of saving lives. Their relationship previous to the affair was described as close and safe. They relied on each other and believed in each other. They played together and were raising children together.
Before beginning work with the couple, I asked them to separately scale their commitment to the marriage. They both expressed full commitment to the marriage and a desire to heal and move on. It was evident to me that these two individuals and their relationship had been involved in a tragic “wreck,” and they were each seriously wounded. I described the first phase of treatment to them as triage, arriving on the scene immediately following a devastating wreck, assessing for signs of life and further danger, and doing whatever was necessary for getting them stable and to a place of safety.
Unfortunately, at that time more than one of my professors taught that if one of the partners engages in sexual or emotional relations outside of their committed relationship it’s because the relationship was not healthy in the first place. One even taught that the faithful partner in some unconscious way gives permission and even incites the betraying partner to go have an affair.
One professor in particular taught us to use the wreck as a crucible, a means to dive into the underlying problems in each partner’s inability to be self-sufficient even in the face of crisis and tragedy. To him, the tragedy was not the wreck itself, but the inability of each partner to keep from feeling a need for validation and support from the other by being “emotionally mature” and “autonomous.” He taught that if a partner disclosed an infidelity, it should be regarded by the betrayed partner as something that incites curiosity rather than crippling pain.
Students of this theory say, “If my partner told me he didn’t enjoy sex with me, it would make me curious. What is this anger and hurt you are expressing? Let’s practice expanding your window of tolerance, increasing your resilience, and addressing your unrealistic expectations. The goal is emotional maturity, so you can choose to be seen by your spouse regardless of his or her experience of you.”
Now, this wasn’t always stated explicitly, though these exact statements were said in my presence many times that year. More often, these teachings were implied. The result was a client being shamed for his or her inability to be more resilient and independent in the face of tragic wreckage.
I found the analogy of the crisis or a crucible to be helpful. But the goal of autonomy within a relationship was ineffective in addressing the needs and pain of the clients. As I worked with my clients, I expressed to them the scenario of a vehicle collision in which both partners were critically wounded while noting that they were both wearing seatbelts at the time of the wreck. What I meant by that was that they were in a committed relationship and surrounding themselves with loved ones who cared about them individually and as a couple. They both were willing to stop thinking about where they were going and to focus on the crisis at hand. They both were sensitive to how the other was being impacted, even if they couldn’t yet rely on the other to come to their side for support and tenderness. They were in the same wreck, but their wounds kept them from being able to reach each other.
They called for emergency aid by coming to therapy, resulting in better chances of survival, healing, and recovery afterward.
Had this couple not been wearing the seatbelt of compassion toward themselves and each other, and of commitment to their own health and to the many loved ones in their lives, they would likely have been thrown from their vehicle, separated, and unable to envision any kind of relational recovery. The seatbelt of empathy, tenderness, patience, willingness to endure the trials at each other’s sides, and of honesty in moving forward saved their relationship. It also helped them heal personal wounds both past and present. It brought them closer and gave them more freedom to be authentic and informed. It was their coming together with honesty and empathy that saved them, not their striving toward autonomy and differentiation.
Today, we are finding that labeling a person as codependent silences them by accusing them of causing their own problems. It implies, “If you are hurting, it is your own fault for being overly sensitive or caring too much about what the other person thinks of you.” Sadly, it disregards the impact when a loved one withholds validation and even dehumanizes them by ignoring or rejecting their self-expression.
Chances are, if you are reading this article, you have someone in your life who is struggling with an unhealthy relationship with a substance or a behavior that brings relief, but then leaves them needing more relief when the initial relief wears off. Life has plenty of opportunities for pain and the search for relief and comfort, but there is not enough alcohol or sex or money or pills in the whole world to eliminate all of the pain in any person’s life. The problem is that the relief we find in these substances and behaviors is temporary and the return to pain is compounded and intensified by the experience of shame, regret, despair, disgust, and the inevitable loss of relief (when the drug or escapist behavior wears off or ends).
Enter well-meaning addiction professionals, offering to help the addict break free from the cycle of pain, relief, and more pain, accompanied by shame, more pain, more relief, ad infinitum.
A New Light on Gaslighting, Too
Most addicts reach a point of shame and regret, caught in a cycle of pain and relief. I have seen addicts reframe their behaviors in an effort to empower themselves to function at their best while hoping to protect their loved ones from the inevitable harm that results from their pursuit of relief. As my alcoholic friend said, “I don’t have a problem with my drinking. Everyone else does.”
Addicts don’t want to think they would pursue relief while their son is searching the stands after hitting his first home run at the community ballfield. Dad wants to do what he can to spare his son from the hurt by explaining to the son, “I was there, you just didn’t see me.” Dad might make up some elaborate story hoping to convince his son or he may blow it off as no big deal or act like he isn’t listening. Whatever the response, dad wants to spare his son the profound pain of his father’s absence. However, any response other than taking full responsibility for the absence is an act of “gaslighting.”
In the addiction industry, gaslighting is referred to as manipulative behavior with malicious intent. But what about the addicts who engage in these behaviors with the heartbreaking desire to spare their loved ones as much pain as possible? What about the spouse who wants to believe that secret porn viewing is harmless as long as his or her partner doesn’t know, and so denies the activity when the partner suspects it?
I remember, as I was training to work with sexually addicted clients, asking a colleague if gaslighting was always done with malicious intent, or if it would still be gaslighting if the person was hoping to spare their loved one pain. Sadly, the response was that gaslighting is always malicious. That said, while there are certainly malicious intents involved, I find it helpful to acknowledge more than malice and utilize the addict’s love for his or her family as an additional motivation for compassion and recovery.
As a Therapist: What To Do?
With time, I began to wonder if these harmful ways of seeing our clients (thinking of addicts as malicious gaslighters and both addicts and partners as codependent) were constructed for the therapist’s benefit, serving to provide distance, ease, and confidence when addressing difficult client circumstances and underlying problems.
It seemed to me that we were essentially throwing the addict and the betrayed partner under the bus for not being autonomous and resilient enough in their relating to others, rather than addressing the crisis and examining ways to heal with dignity and respect to human needs. Even worse, this approach led the therapist to bypass the crisis intervention stage and jump to using client wounds as a crucible experience that was supposed to lead to more autonomy. It claimed a person’s need for support in the form of validation, availability, and empathy from loved ones was emotionally infantile – despite the mounting evidence in research and scientific studies showing the importance of human connection, validation, and support for overall physical and mental health.
Then It Hit Home
As a young mom struggling through the challenges of raising littles while separated geographically from relatives, I went to therapy expressing exhaustion and burnout. The therapist, trained in these older approaches, described me as codependent, externally validated, and needing to adjust my expectations. I was encouraged to step back from my closest friends and become my own therapist by setting better boundaries. (Because young children are able to provide for themselves when mom needs a break?) Instead of being offered encouragement and strategies for connecting, I was burdened with the weight of not being differentiated enough and for pathologically thinking that I needed others.
Discovering the harm of this approach came at the cost of lost friendships, emotional unavailability in my marriage, and a personal sense of despair and hopelessness about my “lack of resilience.” Despair, hopelessness, and dissociation characterized my life for over two years as I struggled to trust myself and to reach out for help again. My children suffered the loss of a vibrant and attuned mother during some of their most critical stages of development, and my marriage came to a halt.
Therapists trained in these outdated theories would say that my marriage should have gotten better, stronger, and healthier because the crisis should have shown me that I am more resilient than I thought and that I did not, after all, need validation from my spouse or anyone else. They would say that there is no such thing as emancipation because no one is ever trapped, enslaved, or helpless. They would say those are simply states of thinking and perceptions, not a reality that forces us into corners and self-protective behaviors.
They were wrong. But the damage was done.
As I began to reconnect with myself and my spouse, I found that I would still hear the accusations (of emotional immaturity, unrealistic expectations, and the shameful need for validation from others.) These messages were like a Greek chorus that mocked and dehumanized me and overwhelmed me with fears and further shaming, rather than leading, as promised, to freedom, healing, and dignity.
I know now that with a great deal of healing I can silence those voices. And most days I recognize them for the lies they are. But on my hardest days, I am crippled with pain and grief for the way I and my loved ones were harmed.
As a part of my own recovery, I am choosing to speak up and tell others about the dangers involved in misusing a codependency model and a differentiation theory that became, over time, something it was never meant to be. Those well-meaning professionals honestly intended to spur me on to a healthier identity and sense of competence, but they inadvertently did the opposite.
A New Culture of Respect
I am willing to share my experience, even though doing so is emotionally and psychologically painful, because I can see that the needed change (from codependence to the new model of prodependence) only requires a small shift. A shift away from pathologizing and shaming toward empowering, celebrating, and offering life.
The treatment goals are still to empower the clients to care for themselves and their loved ones more effectively through emotional healing, healthy boundaries, and intentional strategies for enjoying connection and intimacy again when and where it is safe to do so. But the prodependence model is tender, gentle, empowering, supportive, encouraging, validating, and comforting. It is the exact approach I needed as a client, and it’s the approach I find my current clients also require.
There’s more, isn’t there?
It asks for the “more” with boldness.
It demands better, and goodness.
Hope is the paradox that allows us to enter into the truth of our pain while also participating in the celebration of the better that is to come.
We are imperfect people, in an imperfect world, engaging in imperfect ways of relating. We are going to hurt each other. But that doesn’t negate our needs. Our inability to be a “safe” person to others at all times doesn’t negate the need for safety at all times.
Instead of imposing your need for me to be “self-soothing” and “resilient,” please simply sit with me. Be generous toward me. Don’t shame me for not achieving a level of resilience or not having an ability to self-soothe so you don’t have to be inconvenienced by my pain. If you value resilience, as I do, practice your own resilience first. Don’t force it onto me. Even if you think my hurt is a result of misinformation. I’ve still been hurt.
If you like the concept of differentiation, be careful that you don’t minimize needs (both yours and others) while striving for the resilience of self-soothing. The very thing differentiation strives to achieve (“please say you don’t need me”), serves to impose the same burden onto others. Telling me to not need you shows you need something from me: to not need you. So acting like we don’t need from each other is an absurdity.
Pain and recovery require entering into, grieving, and hoping.
What happened was tragic. Say it. Acknowledge it. Scream it. Cry it. Demand better. You can, because what’s coming is different.
And THAT’s the difference. It’s not striving to minimize needs or increase our resilience to unmet needs and it’s not imposing our beliefs onto others. It’s bearing witness and coming alongside others in their time of need.
Prodependence is about emancipation. Prodependence is about more.
There’s more, isn’t there.
There’s more dignity, hope, and empowerment in prodependence.
Thank you, Dr. Rob Weiss and Dr. Kevin Skinner for restoring hope and offering more.