The Myth of Co-Dependency

September 27, 2004

Archive of the DVBlog

by Wendy McElroy

My last DVblog entry broke off with an observation: gender feminism has created myths that surround the issue of domestic violence, acting as barriers to understanding and healing by many victims. The gender feminist approach to DV undoubtedly explains the reality of their experiences to some victims of abuse. How many, I don't know. But I know as a certainty that it does not explain mine…and I don't believe I am unusual in what I experienced or in how I reacted.

The most difficult question I've ever had to answer -- and I've never managed to answer it to my own satisfaction -- is "Why did I stay?" Part of the problem in formulating an answer is that there isn't just one. At the beginning of the abuse, I stayed for very different reasons than at the end. In the beginning, I viewed the abuse as an aberration, as something that would go away and never come back, especially if we talked about it and changed some things. Later on, I was so confused and I'd relinquished so much of my self-respect that I found it difficult to do anything decisive; my emotional world revolved around "holding a steady course," keeping things normal, avoiding conflict. I remember one temp job I worked as a legal secretary -- which was how I made a living before my writing/editing provided support. I showed up with large black bruises on my arm one day and the head lawyer (it was a small group of four lawyers who handled entertainment law mostly) took me aside. He tried to ask me about them. I kept protesting that everything was fine until he finally held up his hand to silence me and said, "Look, when you decide it's not fine, come to me and I can help you." At that point, I wasn't willing to take help even if it was being pushed on me. I wanted so much for "the mess" (which is what I called the abuse) to go away that I argued with people who were trying to tell me it existed. I find it difficult to even reconstruct that state of mind. By contrast, I remember well what it felt like in the beginning, including what I thought.

But the problem with answering "Why did I stay?" is not merely that the reason changed over time…there never was only one reason. There was always a collection of whys. For example, he made me feel needed. I was the one person on earth he could break down in front of and cry, he could lose control with me, he didn't have to hide any part of who he was. And being needed, being unique and irreplaceable made me feel safe. It took a long time for that feeling to go away; it literally had to be beaten out of me. Other feelings -- or, perhaps, more accurately personal characteristics -- were there at the same time and also "made" me stay. I consider some of those characteristics to be virtues; they've helped me in other areas of my life. For example, I don't give up easily, especially not on people or causes I care about. The more I care, the longer I'll fight. It is not merely that I hate to admit failure -- tho' that characteristic is plenty present as well -- it is that I don't care deeply for many people or things. I've known people for whom friends and even lovers seem almost interchangeable. You lose one, you pick up another -- "parts is parts." But I can't replace people easily and adds to my determination to make a relationship work out.

George Rolph wrote eloquently of how gender feminists view the idea that people sometimes put up with abuse for "good" reasons. To quote from his essay The Anatomy of Abuse, "The co-dependancy (co-alcoholic) idea was first developed to explain other family members reactions to living with an addict and the harmful effects of those reactions. It is an entirely reasonable idea based on sound research. However, during the 1980`s the definition of codependency was expanded beyond all reasonable bounds, by people looking to make quick money by selling cheap books, to include virtually any form of caring for another. Simply put, this means that any and all caring behaviour is a form of psychological illness unless the person being cared for is the self. It could almost have been written by today's radical feminist element who advocate blaming others for the way we feel while accepting no responsibility for our own actions. The pushers of the modern codependency therapy system of mock psychology will tell you that as a victim of abuse your feelings of caring for the abuser are wrong. (In fact, they will tell you that almost everything you feel about other people is wrong.) But caring for others is not a pathological condition."

This is one of the first insights into DV that made me freeze in my seat and read, then re-read the passage over and over again. It was the first time I realized that "my staying" was as much due to my strengths as it was to my weaknesses. At least, at first. "The mess" brought out some of the best and worst aspects of who I am; sometimes the two got so mixed up together that I couldn't and can't sort them out. For example, I always try to take responsibility for my actions so I kept trying to figure out how I could change myself so he wouldn't get so angry…but my taking responsibility got mixed up with a tendency to assume guilt, even when I don't deserve it. I think at some points the capacity for guilt -- a characteristic I don't value in myself -- took over completely and replaced my sense of responsibility. The difference between the two is that responsibility adheres only to actions you've actually taken, to situations you've really caused -- and it doesn't feel bad, it doesn't make you feel sick or weak inside. In some sense, guilt can be an abnegation of responsibility because it keeps you from dealing with the realities of your actions and makes you deal instead with a distortion of reality that someone else is projecting onto you. In some sense, I avoided the responsibility of standing up for myself or facing reality by feeling guilty.

Gender feminists would pathologize both my sense of responsibility and my tendency to assume guilt. It's not that simple. Nothing about abuse that lasts over time is simple. Victims who move on and try to look back, to understand what the hell was going on shouldn't have to label themselves with psychological jargon. If it helps to do so, great. But it doesn't help me. If I had pathologized all the reasons I stayed in a bad relationship then I would never have been able to commit so deeply to another human being when I finally met someone (my husband) with whom it did not hurt to be in love.