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From Codependence to Prodependence

The codependence model is flawed. Let’s try something new: prodependence.

Vive La Différence:

  • Codependence is a deficit-based trauma model that views loved ones of addicts as inherently traumatized, out of control, and overly obsessed with their troubled loved one.
  • Prodependence is a strength-based attachment model that views caregiving loved ones of addicts and other troubled people as heroes for continuing to love, help, and remain attached, despite the debilitating presence of addiction or some other serious issue.

Codependence Has Gone Awry

Akiko Nuru/Shutterstock
Source: Akiko Nuru/Shutterstock

Codependence, as commonly understood, occurs when one person tries to control the actions of another (in the guise of helping), so that they can feel better about themselves and their relationship with that other person. The codependence model is rooted in discussions of early-life trauma and the ways in which that can affect later-life behaviors and relationships. Unfortunately, for many loved ones of addicts (and plenty of therapists), framing a person’s commitment to helping a troubled loved one as stemming from that person’s reignited early-life trauma (as opposed to being an expression of love and commitment) feels negative, as if the caregiving loved one is being blamed, shamed, and pejoratively labeled for loving too much, or not in the right way, or for selfish reasons.

This was not the original intent of the codependence movement, but it’s what we’ve currently got. And based on this morphed belief system, the advice typically given by codependence experts and therapists is that it’s better for loved ones of addicts to “detach with love” and focus on caring for themselves — in particular, working to heal their own assumed early-life trauma (the trauma that is said to underlie and drive their “unhealthy caretaking”) — than to focus on their troubled loved one. In this way, codependence has come to mean caring for yourself instead of your addicted loved one, rather than caring for yourself as well as your addicted loved one (as the co-addiction movement originally intended and encouraged).

Even worse, the codependency label now applies a pathological sheen to those who love and care for addicts and other troubled people — if not officially, then in the collective mindset. Nowadays, people labeled as codependent are often treated as if they have Dependent Personality Disorder, even when their behavior does not even remotely approach that level of pathological neediness and enmeshment. Codependence has devolved from a formal model of treatment for a specific population to a general term for being overly dependent or enmeshed. Colloquially, this is known as “being a co.”

According to the codependence model as it is currently practiced, the answer to one’s problems with a troubled loved one is to stop rescuing. No rescue means no drama. If loved ones of addicts would just look within to identify the true source of their “pathological rescuing” (their unresolved trauma), they would be able to detach with love, to stop caretaking, and to self-actualize. Or so the theory goes.

To this end, spouses, parents, siblings, and friends of addicts and other challenged individuals are routinely counseled to explore their own trauma-based weaknesses, to step away from the dysfunction of their failing loved one, to stop rescuing, to stop enabling, and to “stop being so codependent.” Unfortunately, this approach does not empathetically meet them where they are (anxious, fearful, angry, etc.), nor does it mirror their internal reality. Thus, they often respond negatively to these suggestions, thinking and saying things like, “How can I possibly abandon a person I love, especially in his or her hour of deepest need?” Or worse, “So you’re telling me that my working three jobs and doing everything I can to keep this family together is MY PROBLEM? Well, I’m sorry, but at least I’m functional. What about that guy I live with who loses jobs and drives drunk with our kids in the car? Isn’t he the dysfunctional one? I’m looking for support, not judgment.” And so it goes.

Prodependence: No Labels, No Pathology, Just Love, Support, and Direction

Prodependence is an attachment-focused term I’ve created to describe relationships that are healthfully interdependent, where one person’s strengths fill in the vulnerabilities of the other, and vice versa, with this mutual support occurring automatically and without question. As applied to caregiving loved ones of addicts, prodependence refers to the extraordinary, loving attempts that spouses, parents, and friends offer when trying to help someone to whom they are deeply attached, even when that person has become chronically dysfunctional.

Rather than blaming, shaming, and pathologizing such people for loving too much or enabling instead of helping, prodependence celebrates their need and desire to love and to caretake when appropriate. Prodependence views the act of loving and trying to help an addict or a similarly troubled individual heal (or make it through the day without creating or experiencing disaster) as an indicator of healthy attachment (or at least the desire for healthy attachment).

With prodependence, there is no shame or blame, no sense of being wrong, no language that pathologizes a loving caregiver. Instead, there is recognition for effort given, plus hope and useful instruction for healing. To treat the loved ones of addicts using prodependence, we need not find that something is “wrong with them.” We can simply acknowledge the trauma and the inherent dysfunction that occurs when living in a close relationship with an addict. Then we can guide them toward loving more effectively, with better self-care and boundaries.

As with codependence, prodependence recognizes that when a caregiver’s actions run off the rails and become counterproductive (enabling, raging, enmeshment) — and yes, this happens quite a lot when a person is trying to monitor and assist a deeply troubled loved one — measures can be taken to put the relationship back on track. However, prodependence does not imply that a caregiver’s dysfunctional behaviors arise out of any past or present trauma or pathology of their own (regardless of whether they have such issues). Instead, prodependence views their actions as an attempt to maintain or restore their family and their relationships.

Prodependence does not ever consider efforts made to help a loved one get well as pathology, even if those attempts to help are misdirected and ineffective. Under no circumstance does prodependence imply that love is or can become pathological. Instead, prodependence acknowledges that loving an unpredictable, addicted partner who blames, lies, seduces, manipulates, and gaslights to maintain an addiction or some other dysfunction can make pretty much anyone look crazy over time. Because that is the type of behavior that puts people in crisis. And people in crisis can look crazy.

Interestingly, prodependence recommends and implements the same basic therapeutic actions as codependence — a fresh or renewed focus on self-care coupled with the implementation of healthier boundaries. That said, the models approach this work from vastly different perspectives:

  • Codependence, as a deficit-based trauma model, views the loved ones of addicts as traumatized, damaged, and engaging in unhealthy caretaking behaviors as a result of that.
  • Prodependence, as a strength-based, attachment-driven model, views the loved ones of addicts as heroes for continuing to love and continuing to remain attached despite the debilitating presence of addiction.

Instead of blaming, shaming, and pathologizing deeply attached caregivers, instead of telling them that their actions are being driven by unconscious attempts to heal their unresolved trauma, prodependence says, “You’re a wonderful person for putting so much effort into helping your addicted loved one. It’s possible, however, that you’re not doing that as effectively as you might. And who can blame you for that? It’s hard to worry about loving someone in the best possible way when you’re in the middle of a disaster zone. If the house is burning down, you grab your loved one and drag that person out of the fire, and you don’t worry about whether you’re grabbing too hard or in a way that hurts. Now that you’re in therapy, though, we can slow things down and figure out how you can help the addict more effectively — in ways that might be more useful to the addict and your relationship, and that won’t cause you to feel so overwhelmed.”

That is the essence of the prodependence model.

Prodependent treatment with loving caregivers recognizes and accepts, first and foremost, that these individuals are in crisis, and they are likely to behave accordingly. As such, they will show emotional lability. They may also exert superhuman effort with household chores, childcare, doctor’s visits, home healthcare, and earning extra money to pay for everything. And they behave in these ways as an expression of love and attachment, not pathology. In short, the prodependence model encourages therapists and clients to celebrate the natural and healthy human need to develop and maintain intimate connections and to provide ongoing, uninterrupted support to loved ones — even in the face of addiction or some other profoundly troubling life issue.

In future postings, I will explain the healthy human need for prodependent relationships, and how therapists can help clients (even clients who love and care for an active addict) develop and healthfully maintain these vitally important intimate bonds.

For more, refer to my soon-to-be-published book, Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency.

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