Polyamory Helped Me Ditch Codependence and Find Healthy Interdependence

a closeup photo of a rusted chain link joined to two other rusted chain links
Image by Chris Dart / CC BY

Codependence is an overused term implying that normal partner interdependence is somehow dysfunctional.

The concept and terminology came out of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement; the addicted were seen as trapped in a web of dependency with others (their enablers, or codependents) who made excuses for and assisted the addicts in avoiding the consequences of their addiction, making their impaired life seem more normal and postponing the ultimate reckoning that would force the addicts to change their lives.

Pop psychologists and media spread this idea far and wide, and today almost any relationship can be tagged “codependent,” as if the unitary self-sufficiency of the dismissive was the ideal state and any reliance on others weak and unhealthy. Of course a close relationship has features of mutual dependency!

-Jeb Kinnison, Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner

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Codependency is a term that came out of research attempting to understand why treatment efforts with individuals dependent on alcohol were seldom successful. The research discovered that alcohol dependency often occurs in a relationship in which a non-user gains many emotional benefits from rescuing and forgiving the user, much as how a good child feels she should act. The non-user, being indirectly dependent on the alcohol to provide them with the opportunity to do good, is thus codependent…those who want to be seen as good need to create a contrast for themselves by portraying others as bad or defective in some way…

The common practice of urging a person to declare, ‘I am a codependent’ doesn’t help her give up an undesirable behavior pattern and pressures her to accept a negative identity. This is abusive to someone whose self-esteem is already weak. It makes change more difficult when well-intentioned rescuers first urge the person to accept this negative identity, and then try to help her not be what she just became.

A better approach for you is to work toward replacing a dissatisfying, ineffective pattern of behavior from childhood or codependency with one that is more healthy, synergistic, and satisfying. This is easier said than done and will take time, thought, analysis, experimentation to identify your particular patterns and what replacement behaviors will work best for you.

-Al Siebert, The Survivor Personality

I Didn’t Think I Had a Dependent Personality Until I Started Getting Better

It’s truly funny in hindsight: I didn’t think I had a dependent personality until I started getting better. Sacrificing anything to gratify even the smallest whims of my lovers, stoically accepting mistreatment, feeling virtuous as I vacuumed up their messes. When I was deep into those kinds of unhealthy behaviors, I had no idea. And neither did anyone else.

I was described as fierce by a lot of people. Self-assured. Bossy, even. When my friends found out I had gotten involved with the kink community, they assumed I was a dominant, even though I played first as a submissive.

I’d spent years ignoring my own voice. Bending over backwards for anyone who dated me. Violating my own core beliefs if it were necessary to please the person I loved. I may have looked confident to some people, but the reality was that somewhere along the way I had lost my identity.

And polyamory helped me find it. Because I quickly discovered that my normal way of treating a romantic partner just didn’t work when I had more than one. I was used to doing basically anything to please a romantic partner, regardless of how healthy (or uhealthy) the decision was, how much it affected me, if it conflicted with my values. I viewed love and sacrifice as synonymous. So nothing seemed too big of a compromise.

But the level of self-sacrifice that I could achieve in a monogamous relationship was unsustainable when I became non-monogamous. Because there were often times when I couldn’t say yes to everyone. Sometimes my partners’ desires would conflict with one another. And I was forced to figure out what wanted, in order to break ties.

It was subtle at first, but I learned to listen to my own voice and grew progressively more autonomous.

It certainly wasn’t why I tried it in the first place, but being polyamorous nonetheless taught me how to be interdependent in a way that forced me to factor my own wants and needs into a complex equation. To cooperate rather than automatically compromise.

What Bordered on Pathological Was Interpreted as Being a Good Wife and Partner

But it wasn’t until that point that I even became aware of how unhealthy my ways of relating to past partners had been.

And neither did anyone else. Certainly not my partners. Friends or family.

What bordered on pathological had been interpreted as being a good wife. A good partner.

And sometimes I wonder how many people there are out there who are living as I once did, without ever knowing there could even be a different way to do things.

Because most of the time, things aren’t so clear cut. And when those self-sacrificing behaviors are advantageous to people, they’re lauded. It’s only when they’re personally inconvenient to someone that they’re condemned.

And in fact, it was precisely when I started to change those behaviors that one of my lovers began to complain bitterly about them. Telling me that I couldn’t possibly know what I was doing because I was “codependent” and would always be. That the newly autonomous decisions I was making were really born of blind loyalty to the other person I was siding with.

However, I knew the truth. I’d discovered my own voice, and I could hear what it was saying.

But I learned an important lesson that day: The perception of whether something is a problem seems to be based on where you’re standing when viewing the behavior.

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