Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency

Let’s stop pathologizing and start celebrating our caregivers.

Posted Jul 16, 2018

Keisuke_N/Shutterstock
Source: Keisuke_N/Shutterstock

Riddle Me This

If my beloved wife of 12 years received a cancer diagnosis, and we had two kids under the age of seven, would anyone label or judge me for doing everything possible — even to the point of giving up important parts of my life — to keep my family stable and relatively happy? If I took on two jobs, quit my exercise program, resigned from the company softball team, and stopped seeing friends to address this unexpected family crisis, would anyone in my life call me out as enmeshed or enabling? And if I went to a therapist for support, would my therapist ask me to explore the ways in which my dysfunctional childhood might be pushing me into an “unhealthy obsession” with my wife’s cancer diagnosis?

Of course not.

Now, in contrast to the story above, let’s say my spouse of 12 years became addicted to alcohol and prescription painkillers. Let’s say she lost her job, because she was drunk and high at work. Let’s say that because of her addiction, I can no longer trust her to adequately care for our kids. What happens now when I take that second job, stop going to the gym, stop hanging out with friends, eliminate my recreational activities, and start to obsess about her drinking and using, all while paying the family bills and caring for our children? Will my friends and family, my employer, my clergy, and my therapist support this degree of caregiving and caretaking, while empathizing with my frustration and exhaustion?

Most likely, they will not.

In the addiction world, support and therapy for a loving spouse (or parent) typically involves judgmental head-shaking, tut-tuts, and expressions of concern about the caretaker’s problem, with that problem being identified as dysfunctional attempts to love, save, rescue, and heal the addict and the family. In other words, caretakers are labeled as codependent and advised to “detach with love” as a way of caring for themselves.

Codependence

     Codependence is a trauma-based theory of human dependency which, by definition, states that those who partner with an active addict do so as a form of trauma repetition — putting themselves in a relationship where the other person’s needs will eventually exceed and overwhelm their own. These caretakers, by definition, demonstrate their trauma-based low self-esteem and desperate desire for approval by seeking out and becoming deeply attached to such troubled people, feeling that they can resolve the addict’s problems.

For years, I have listened to therapists and counselors talking about how difficult it is to work with the wives, husbands, and parents of addicts. I consistently hear statements like:

  • "They don’t want to own up to their part in the problem."

  • "They view the addict as the sole source of the problem, and that makes it hard to help them."
  • "They don’t see how their caretaking is making things worse."
  • "They may be sober, but they’re every bit as sick as the addict and sometimes sicker."
  • "They just can’t stop rescuing, and that causes more problems than it solves."

Ouch!

But what if loved ones of addicts aren’t so difficult to treat? What if “the problem” lies more in how we conceptualize them? What if our primary model for treating them has misunderstood and marginalized them in ways that simultaneously confuse them and cause them to feel unnecessarily blamed and shamed? What if we prejudge loved ones of addicts as codependent, and therefore driving a dysfunctional family system? What if that “diagnosis” pushes them into a reactionary state, where they feel they must defend their actions and tell us where the real problem lies, which, in their mind, is with the addict, and we then we go round and round with them playing pin the tail on the pathology?

Time for Something New? 

I find it difficult to understand why we so often choose to initiate therapeutic relationships with the painfully overwhelmed and under-supported loved ones of addicts by thrusting a negative, pathological view of caregiving on them (codependence). And then we expect them to not only embrace this concept, but to start working on it immediately. And when they act out against this model, we call them difficult, which reinforces our belief that they are as innately troubled as the addicts they love.

What about their grief for how their lives have turned out? What about their years of feeling confused, anxious, overwhelmed, and fearful about the future of their addicted loved one, themselves, and other members of their family? What about the fact that they have been victimized in their own homes, sometimes for years on end, by an addict who is more willing to lie, manipulate, and keep secrets than to face the truth?

Even when caregiving loved ones have been “doing it all wrong,” experience has taught me that it’s usually not a good idea to tell them that or to blame them in any way for facilitating and perpetuating someone else’s dysfunction. And why would we expect otherwise? If you were exhausting yourself working part-time in three different places while taking care of multiple people, including an active addict, would you feel engaged by a message that asks you to start looking at your problem? Most likely, you would not. Instead, this message would feel both hurtful and counterintuitive.

If our approach to loved ones of addicts alienates them before they can take advantage of the care and insight we can offer, then maybe we need to change our methodology. Maybe it’s time to find a better, more empathetic, and compassionate way to approach the caregiving loved ones of addicts. Instead of blaming caregivers for resisting a path that feels innately wrong to them, maybe we should find a less intrusive, less shaming way of supporting them.

Prodependence: A New Approach

     Prodependence is an attachment-based theory of human dependency which, by definition, states that those who partner with an active addict are loving people who may be caught in circumstances beyond their ability to healthfully cope. Moreover, their desire to help the addict and all related actions toward helping the addict demonstrate nothing more than a normal and healthy attempt to remain connected to a failing loved one while facing extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Nearly all the current books and treatments intended to help the loved ones of addicts have been created by individuals focused on the ways in which childhood trauma can (and often does) affect adult relationships and life. The general thinking is that people who end up loving, partnering with, and staying with addicts are generally people who experienced similar trauma in childhood, usually by growing up with an alcoholic, addicted, or mentally ill parent or caregiver. Codependence in particular is focused on the belief that those who survive early-life dysfunction tend to carry that forward into their adult lives, often by bonding with and becoming dependent on people who, over time, neglect, abuse, and let them down in similar ways — thereby mirroring, to some degree, their past relationships, losses, and trauma.

This dynamic of re-creating childhood trauma by partnering with an addict likely makes perfect sense to those who’ve written about it as codependence, because this is almost universally their lived experience. In fact, nearly all the major codependence literature, especially the earliest material, was written by women who say they experienced profound trauma in childhood, often related to an alcoholic father, only to grow up and re-create similar situations by marrying alcoholic men or becoming alcoholic and/or codependent themselves.

Prodependence, a new model for treating loved ones of addicts that I am proposing, takes a vastly different approach, looking at addiction not from a trauma perspective, but from an attachment perspective. Instead of viewing the loved ones of addicts as the inevitable victims of a traumatic past that has caught up with them and is now repeating itself in their adult lives — mostly in their relationship with the addict they’re paired with — prodependence views them as valiant individuals struggling to love another person even in the face of addiction. With prodependence, there is no shame or blame, no sense of being wrong, no language that pathologizes the caregiving loved one. Instead, there is recognition for effort given, plus hope and useful instruction for healing.

More to Come…

I realize that this short article gives little explanation about what prodependence is, how it is best implemented, and the meaningful ways in which it both differs from and mirrors the existing model of codependence. These are questions that I promise to answer in future postings on this site. Until then, I hope that I have piqued your interest, and that you will share in my hope for a new and better approach to evaluating and treating the caregiving of loved ones of addicts.