Saturday, October 30, 2010

Breaking the Contract

I taught a Creative Codependence class a few weeks ago and the topic of “breaking the contract” arose. I’ve written about contracts before but, in short, codependent relationships are a contract between the codependent parts of two people. The needs of one fulfill the needs of the other; an implicit agreement is made and survival is based on maintaining the status quo: there is no rocking of the boat.

I remember when a good friend of mine decided to “break the contract” that we had between us. My codependent parts were not ready for this, that is, I was not in recovery and I went into survival mode. She told me she needed time apart to rethink our friendship; that she was feeling drained. I felt that she had cruelly pulled the plug out on me. A gamut of emotions coursed through me from fear and grief to anger and resentment: how dare she? The situation felt desperate and, at my most extreme, I felt that I would die without her friendship.

A bit melodramatic? Perhaps. But the truth of the matter is that our codependent parts feel the only means to survival is to get approval from another or, adversely, to control, bully and/or rescue another. There is no safety within, so they look to another to find some sort of validation that they have the right to be. My codependent parts needed my friend to play her part and when she pulled away (out of self preservation) I felt abandoned to the wilds.

The main problem for our codependent parts is that they are confused about how to satisfy the necessities of life. All of us need love, validation and safety but these parts look for it through external sources, much like we did as children. However, young children are by nature helpless; they have specific needs and these must be met by their caregivers. When these needs are adequately met children mature into adults that can take healthy care of self and have a sense of well-being and self worth. If these needs are insufficiently met children will mature with parts of themselves still looking to external sources for not only a sense of wellbeing but a means to survive. These are our codependent parts.

It took time but after the initial “abandonment” shock subsided, I started seeing the truth of the matter. I slowly got myself back into a place where I could look objectively at our relationship. I saw how desperate I had been for her approval and how she had, just as unconsciously, fed into this need for her own sense of validation. I also saw that she was not only taking care of herself by taking a step back but how her actions could only benefit me. I got serious about my own recovery and the seeds for Creative Codependence were sowed. But don’t let me fool you in thinking my recovery was based on this one “broken contract”, I had been through several before this event. One in particular was, in retrospect, quite funny. Many years ago, having just left a long term intimate relationship I swore to myself that men were off limits until I had a stronger sense of self — I would not again lose my identity in the arms of another. Very soon after those words were spoken I entered a platonic relationship with a woman that mirrored the exact same issues. It took three years for that partnership to end only to come full circle back into another codependent relationship.

This, however, is not a morality tale about the unique timing of one’s healing journey, although that is definitely true. With each relationship breakup I learned more about myself and, equally important, I started seeking help from healthier sources. I took workshops (ARC was instrumental in my growth); got private therapy and read many books Charles Whitfield’s Co-dependence: Healing the Human Condition was the first to lay out the facts for me in a calm, easily digested (at least for me) format. Through time I built up enough internal safety to stop looking for it through my friends, teachers and others so that when this last break came, I could truly step into recovery.

My friend and I eventually re-established a more respectful relationship but, unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. If I had stayed in denial about my codependence the healthiest thing she could have done was to cut her losses and keep her distance: it’s hard to maintain a healthy relationship with someone who is continually (consciously or not) asking for certain needs to be filled. If she had allowed herself to be pulled back in by my desperate emotions then her codependent parts would have taken over and her recovery would have lapsed. Fortunately for both of us, she took the first step in breaking the contract and I followed along, eventually seeing the contract for what it really was, a prison of unhealthy (and unrealistic) expectations.

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