For most couples, the path to marriage is the same. You meet, you spend time getting to know each other, and you fall in love. You discover life could not exist without your partner, so you get married. After marriage, masks are removed. You discover the true nature of the person you walked down the aisle with: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Perhaps you were aware of some of their faults during the courtship. Yet, you accepted them as they were. Maybe you even thought that they would change, or that you could change them.
Every couple enters marriage with the illusion of bliss. From the time a couple first says “I do” and checks into their honeymoon suite, the plans for their future are formed. Then, dreams are unfolded, and life happily-ever-after begins. But no couple ever considers that they could fall victim to a codependent marriage.
Every marriage will have struggles. From mortgages to who left the milk out, married life is not without conflict. Your marriage will be no different. What matters is how you handle that conflict.
Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute states, “Conflict is inevitable.” He goes on to encourage couples saying, “It can be a way that couples get closer to each other if they can understand each other more fully. It is a mechanism for learning how to love each other better.” This is determined by how you handle conflict.
Dr. Gottman asks, Do you:
“Turn away” conflict can create a lopsided marriage. When one person commits an offense, the other smiles and takes it. They can internalize it and even feel guilty. When these individuals continue this cycle, they end up in a codependent marriage.
Within a codependent marriage, one partner has extreme emotional or physical needs, and the other partner is willing to do whatever it takes to meet those needs. The codependent is so in love, and they want that love reciprocated. Out of fear of rejection, they do what they feel is necessary to keep the love and attention of their partner. This can become disastrous when the other partner is involved in self-destructive behavior, including substance abuse.
In many cases, codependency doesn’t suddenly begin with courtship or marriage. This trait is often learned through the growing up process. Since a child's adult behavior will be the byproduct of life experiences, he or she must grow up with positive influences. When a child is privy to relational negativity, they will continue these bad habits because they think it’s normal life. The same applies to codependency.
If a child sees one parent bowing to every need of the other, then that child will be more likely to view those behaviors as necessary to keep a romantic relationship alive. This pattern can be manifested in a few distinct ways: low self-esteem, the loss of boundaries between right and wrong, and an unhealthy obsession with the relationship.
Low Self-Esteem – When someone feels they are unworthy, any affection they receive is like water on dry soil; it immediately soaks in. Doing whatever they need to keep the water flowing, even if the process hurts. Living off the other’s opinions, allowing them to define their self-worth. But soothing words only last so long. The soil will dry up, and negative feelings will resurface until the next affirmation comes along.
Loss of Boundaries – The desire to please others removes boundaries regarding what is acceptable behavior. The codependent often defends their partner’s behavior, allowing them to say and do things that not only harms themselves but harms the relationships around them. They avoid saying ‘no’ to their spouse at all cost, fearing it would make them unhappy.
Honesty is another factor that affects the codependent. When they are afraid of offending their partner, they tend to lie and deny that there is a problem, just to keep the peace.
Obsessiveness – The need to always keep their partner happy can become obsessive. In fact, they will get upset with anyone who throws that balance off. Their obsession is the other person. They want their acceptance, need their approval, and are terrified of losing it. So, they will often do what it takes to keep their spouse engaged in the relationship. Even if it means giving in to their destructive habits.
When one partner has a substance abuse problem, this only increases the codependency. The codependent spouse can act out of fear, habit, or even worse, pity. They might want to help their spouse, but sometimes the thing they do is the very thing their spouse doesn’t need. Caretaking is enabling. Silence is acceptance. But to the codependent, the consequences of saying something is too much of a price to pay. So, they often continue permitting the habit, acting in ways that are centered around keeping the peace.
Codependent fear exists on different levels:
Through these fears, the codependent’s submission continues. They live in a constant state of negativity and amplified fear, as if they are walking on eggshells, always trying to help but never sure if it is what their spouse wants.
Dr. Gottman says of a negative outlook, “They can distort reality and even see positive things as potential put-downs.” He also says that with that negative perspective you will “fail to see 50 percent of the positive things the other partner is doing.” Even when a codependent spouse is trying to do good, their partner may not notice. Or worse, they may misinterpret it as something negative.
Finally, there is the fear of losing the relationship if the situation is resolved. The codependent might feel their spouse or partner will not need them anymore and leave.
Actions out of Habit – Just like driving on the right side of the road, we do things repeatedly because they have become habits. It would seem abnormal to do things any other way. This is also something that is learned young. If you have a habit of keeping your mouth shut at a parental scolding, you will most likely keep your mouth shut with the scolding from a spouse.
Additionally, just as we saw our parents argue, or how they made, up, we will behave the same way with our spouses. The cycle continues in what we think we should do, and without any correction from an outside source, we perpetuate the behaviors we have learned.
Clinician and couples therapy thought leader Dr. Stan Tatkin reminds us that, “We all come [to the relationship] with our fair share of unresolved painful experiences from relationships.” These issues become ingrained in who we are. And will determine how we react to conflict with our current partner. These habits can evolve into codependent habits.
Whether we know it or not, we tend to view the people we engage with through the lens of the past. Tatkin calls the areas of our brain that have assimilated such behavior “primitives.” They act out of habit, based on personal experiences. Codependency can very well reflect those primitives in action.
Actions out of Pity – The excuses the codependent uses to justify their partner’s actions can sound pretty defensive:
What can I do? They don’t know any better. Their dad drank or their mom was an addict. They need me to help them. If I’m not there, things would be worse. I am able to make excuses to their boss, their friends, their family for why they are acting that way. If I don’t, they would be jobless, friendless, and family would keep their distance.
But it is important to remember the chasm between pity and love. Love is about respect. You cannot respect someone you pity. Just a sorrowful ache that a codependent tries to make up for through attempts to hide their spouse’s shortcomings. Covering up becomes a habit, then helping becomes an addiction in itself. The codependent partner can become so dependent on their spouse that defending them has become their identity.
When a marriage falls into codependence, the codependent partner becomes an enabler to the abusive habits. While they may genuinely want to help, their codependence becomes an addiction of its own. This traps both in a cycle that can only be broken by getting help. Not just for the substance abuse, but for the codependency.
First, admit There is a Problem
To begin the road to recovery, you must admit there is a problem. Just as the partner with the substance abuse issue is reluctant to admit they have a problem; the Codependent partner shares the same reluctance to accept they have a problem. Unfortunately, the Codependent may be standing in the way of the abusing partner overcoming their issues. Their enabling habits never give the abusing partner the opportunity to get out of their destructive patterns.
Then, Stop Enabling
Once both spouses realize that they are in too deep and need help, they can begin the road to recovery. The next step is to stop the process from continuing. This is probably the toughest step. It begins with setting firm boundaries. The codependent needs to stop enabling their spouse. And on the opposite end, the spouse with the addiction needs to quit their abusive behavior that feeds the addiction of the enabler.
Next, Seek Professional Help
Seeking help is never easy. It means airing your laundry outside the confines of your home. Seeking substance abuse help is just the beginning. A codependent habit can be just as challenging to overcome. They should also undergo some form of treatment for their codependency.
You can admit there is a problem, set boundaries, and seek professional help, but you must always continue to move forward. It is never one and done. It is never a completed task. It is a minute-by-minute, day-by-day process.
Even when you gain a grasp of the situation, continue the new healthy habits you and your spouse have learned. Eventually, it becomes easier. It is a long process, but one worth fighting for. The ability to repair the broken relationship will strengthen your marriage. As Dr. Gottman says in his Making Relationships Work seminar, “Every relationship experiences conflict and periods of alienation. The difference between the Masters and the Disasters is they’re able to repair.”
While codependency gives the appearance of a happy marriage, it is based on pretenses. It is always a fragile relationship. Yes, there may be peace, but the tiniest spark can set the whole thing ablaze. All it takes is for someone to go too far, then happiness quickly dissolves, and animosity takes its place.
Admit there is a problem, get help, and keep at it. Don’t give up on your spouse.
Understand that there will be setbacks; substance abuse is not easy to overcome. Neither is a codependency issue. But together you can work on repairing your relationship and living the life that you envisioned from day one.
If you are having trouble coping with codependency or a host of other possible marriage challenges, reaching out to a licensed couples therapist might be the way to go.
From the Gottman Method to Emotionally Focused Therapy to the PACT model, we apply science-based methodologies to every couples retreat or couples therapy weekend we offer. We also offer weekly sessions for those who can't find time to break away during the week.