My husband and I try to maintain a healthy sense of humor about even the most difficult things in life, including his porn and cybersex addiction and the strain it places on our marriage. Over the years, I have learned that if you have a choice between laughter and tears, laughter is healthier (and burns more calories). This year for Valentine’s Day, my husband gave me a card which proclaimed Happy Co-Dependent’s Day! and on the inside, be mine (he had also inserted a very sweet, heartfelt letter).
Unintentionally or not, though, the card made me stop and think about my role in our marriage and in his addiction, about how my own personality and background had shaped my response to those things, and about how that role had affected and changed me. Did the “co-dependent” label fit? If you are the spouse of a sex addict, you should also examine your feelings, your behavior, and your relationship.
What is Co-Dependency? One dictionary defines co-dependency as a situation in which one partner is an addict and the other is “psychologically dependent on the first in an unhealthy way.” A co-dependent person can be described as addicted to his or her partner’s addiction (although this doesn’t follow the strict medical definition of addiction, it IS a useful metaphor). Specifically, co-dependents are usually “psychologically dependent” on their role in the addict’s life as a caregiver and as a victim. Sometimes this is because of personality traits we bring to the relationship, and sometimes it is because of the damage caused by a partner’s chronic infidelity.
Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) offers no specific definition or criteria for its members, but they do provide a good list of behavior and thought patterns to help you evaluate yourself. In general, co-dependents usually:
- Have low self-esteem, which was often part of our personalities before we entered our current relationships. Dealing with an addicted partner can make this problem worse, especially in the case of sex addiction and the particular behaviors that tend to come with it.
- Thrive on feeling needed, to the extent that we often come to believe our partners cannot care for themselves, and that we are essential to our partners’ recovery efforts. Feeling needed and helpful gives us a sense of validation and self-worth, even as it keeps us in an unhealthy situation. Many of us are terrified of being alone and unnecessary.
- Perceive ourselves as selfless, which often means that we place others’ needs first and neglect our own completely. Sacrificing our needs for our partners’ needs is a product of our low self-esteem and an attempt to seek praise or validation.
- Portray ourselves as victims or martyrs, and seek out this status.
- Use manipulative, controlling, or passive-aggressive methods to have our needs met, instead of healthier and more direct methods of communication; because we need to feel like selfness martyrs, we often have difficulty simply expressing our emotional or physical needs, and instead force ourselves (often unconsciously) to seek those needs in less healthy, less respectful ways.
- Comply with things we know are unhealthy or against our morals in order to please a partner, to keep him or her in the relationship, or to gain praise or affection. We may subconsciously view this as part of our victim status or part of our selflessness, but it often leads us to do things we will regret in order to seek approval from others.
Co-dependent behavior can be very harmful to you and to your addicted partner. A co-dependent partner may actually impede an addict’s recovery efforts by enabling the addictive behavior. Co-dependents who do not receive help may eventually suffer from depression, develop our own addictions, develop eating disorders, or suffer from anxiety disorders and social phobias. Many of these issues can be directly traced to dealing with the addict’s behavior over a long period of time, but co-dependency allows that behavior to have these drastic long-term effects.
It is important to remember that simply being the spouse of an addict does not make you a co-dependent. Co-dependency is a very specific behavior pattern (see above) which often involves taking perfectly good impulses (such as caring for others) to unhealthy extremes. You can be a loving and compassionate spouse to your addicted partner in healthy, mutually beneficial ways as long as you:
- Recognize that, although there are important things you can do to support your partner’s recovery, he or she is the only one who can actually “work the program,” and your spouse is the only one responsible for his or her actions
- Treat your partner with compassion and try to meet his or her needs, but remember to care for yourself as well, and express your needs openly to your partner and others in your life
- Never do anything to please your partner, to seek approval, or to keep him or her around, if it goes against your morals or if it seems unhealthy; keep a firm sense of your own moral and ethical identity, and do not compromise it.
- Seek help from a mental health professional, especially if you struggle with these things, have low self-esteem, feel depressed, or have a difficult time coping with your situation.
- Refuse to tolerate abusive or unhealthy behavior from your partner or anyone else; healthy caregiving for addicts is often described as loving but assertive.
If you recognize patterns or signs of co-dependency in your behavior, please seek help. Therapy or counseling can be extremely helpful for many people. You can also contact several different support groups (many of which are based on the twelve-step model) for co-dependents. Co-Dependents Anonymous is a general support group for anyone who identifies as a co-dependent. Your partner doesn’t actually have to be an addict (he or she may be narcissistic, suffer from another mental health condition, or simply be an unhealthy object for your attachment), you don’t actually have to be in a relationship, and you can decide for yourself what co-dependency means and whether it applies to you. COSA (formerly “Co-Dependents of Sex Addicts”) is a support group specifically for partners, friends, and family members of sex addicts. Even if you don’t identify as co-dependent but still have difficulty coping with your partner’s addiction, this group can be a great resource. COSA describes itself as a group for “men and women whose lives have been affected by someone else’s compulsive sexual behavior,” which is pretty broad and inclusive.