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Modifying Behavior Part 3: Codependency

I help you, you help me

The idea of codependence is an affront to most people: I behave like this because I LOVE HIM/HER, and they wouldn’t function so well without me, and get this…They need me!

I find a definition online ( a little elementary, “Codependency involves sacrificing one’s personal needs to try to meet the needs of others.” It doesn’t mention the reward the sacrificing party gains that perpetuates this behavior; a perverse satisfaction, sense of identity, and achievement. Its functionality, responsibility, maturity, and objectives are arguably ambiguous, but at the end of the day hitting repeat on this behavior will bring about undeniable pain for both parties. Modifying behavior in the midst of codependence with another party is kind of like swatting flies with a bamboo cane; painful and inconclusive.

“It’s okay not to be okay”, the recent hit Korean drama series portrays the essence of codependence perfectly. In the first 10 episodes we see Moon Gang-Tae (played by Kim Soo-Hyun; AKA lil bro), molded by his late-mother to be a caregiver to Moon Sang-Tae (played by Oh Jung-Se; AKA big bro). Big bro has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), of which symptoms are expected to be managed by lil bro, and later combined with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) results in frequent work disruptions, changes in living environment, and behavior eruptions. An additional disturbing aspect was how big bro repeatedly stated that lil bro belonged to him, and that phone calls were rampant with, “Who’s more important to you? Me or XYZ?” (this was common amongst big bro, lil bro, and even their mutual friend *can-you-see-my-flabbergasted-face-right-now)

It was so trying for me to get through the initial episodes (countertransference, eh?) because I kept yelling out, “Sang-Tae (big bro) stop being selfish!” with extreme aversion to his character. Lil bro is of course, rewarded through the lessening of his guilt for wishing that his brother was dead, a sense of filial piety towards his late-mother, and achievement in his otherwise menial lifestyle. Anyhoo, stay with the series because it gets better afterwards (*cue character growth). I have to admit that I have not completed the series because my sore throat has yet to recover.

My previous clients mostly fell into these two categories — Mega Mama and Mighty Missus. Addiction issues tended to morph into family problems because finances are involved. Behold, their stories…

Mega Mama

Mega Mama has a perfect son; courageous, brilliant, and loving. Prince performs wonderfully as a table tennis player and is on the fast track to national fame. Mega Mama is proud of him and feels as if he is achieving all she ever wanted in life. Life is good.

One day, Prince tells Mega Mama that he is unable to cover his car installments because a friend borrowed a large sum of money from him. Without a second thought, Mega Mama offers to front the payment, musing that her son is adorably loyal to friends. Two days later it’s a sudden fee to the table tennis club. One week later, it’s some unexpected expenses for an upcoming scuba diving trip. And this goes on for a year…

Prince finally admits to Mega Mama that he spent all his cash on the slot machines at the local casino. He secretly visited the establishments in between his training sessions and managed to accumulate RM299,999 with the goal of ending it when he gained RM300,000. Alas, fate would not have it. He lost everything he had in one night and tried to get back on his horse with loans from friends, credit card advances, and his monthly player’s fees.

Mega Mama is astonished but works out a plan in her head immediately. No one has to know if she culls the matter right in its slightly rearing head. “How much debt do you have? RM15K?” she asks tentatively. Prince looks at her, eyes shining with hope, and says, “a little more…around RM50K.” Mega Mama’s voice wavers only a little as she responds, “that’s…that’s alright. I have it.” That’s about half of my retirement savings gone! Plus the savings bond I’ll need to cash out…but it’s alright as long as my boy learns from this. Prince is saved.

One week later, Mega Mama enters her bedroom to find Prince, on his knees, sobbing uncontrollably. “I lost it all! I thought I could make enough to clear all of my debts…” Of course, it was never RM50K in the first place. Try RM200K. It was always meant as a pool for gambling. But Mega Mama is undeterred. Anything for her golden boy. Prince is saved.

And the cycle goes on and on. Each time, Mega Mama prays with every fiber of her being that Prince will finally, finally, learn his lesson. And each time, she pays the price. Prince is saved.

Is Prince saved, though?

Mighty Missus

“I live the life of Cinderella!” Mighty Missus wiggles her toes in glee. Hubbie works hard as a trader and the pay-off is magnificent. Five properties, three cars, and a baby on the way! Mighty Missus never worries about any household issue — as Hubbie says, “All I need to do is to look presentable!” Mighty Missus feels grateful that Hubbie swept into her life and cradled her from a life devoid of any meaning. Now, life is great.

Of course, Mighty Missus tries to respond in kind. She cooks, cleans (#nohelperandproudofit), and ensures that life at home as is great for Hubbie as life outside is for her. She reads up on the latest news (and Googles for a summary) so that Hubbie can come home to intellectually stimulating conversation. She goes for weekly medical and nutrition consultations so that baby will be perfect.

Hubbie proposes selling one property to boost their cash reserves for the baby. Then two cars, because “my company has a driver!”. Then the gardener goes. Weeds start appearing amongst the plants but “it’s alright, nobody really looks at them anyways”. In the midst of it all, Mighty Missus smiles serenely and thinks that her husband is being humble as always. All these excuses just so that we don’t appear too well-off and unimpeachable!

As all stories go, one day Mighty Missus finds that her credit card is rejected for groceries. She calls the bank to find out…-this part is too boring that I just couldn’t continue-…and Hubbie says that he hasn’t been trading for years but instead relying on his superb gut feeling for Baccarat. That was how properties #2 to #5 and car #3 came about. Of which by-the-way, Hubbie says through his winsome grin, their house is on auction but his parents mentioned that they could stay at their place “for a while”. Another wonderful smile, and Mighty Missus finds out that the mortgages were registered under her ownership. One more beam, “…you must have some money squirreled away for emergencies. Come let me have it.”

Fast forward six months later, Mighty Missus works two jobs that she hates. 60% of her salary pays the collateral fees for loan defaults while the rest barely keeps herself and baby alive. Hubbie pesters her for the money, promising great dreams and whispers of their past lifestyles. He succeeds most of the time as Mighty Missus too feels nostalgic for the past. She wiggles her aching toes, hoping for blood circulation to be restored, while thinking, “I live the life of Cinderella indeed.”

These two stories embody how codependence may occur in the lives of two different people. Both are decent, good human beings striving to cope with situations the best they can. Codependence merely became a by-product of living in suffering. Rather than blaming the codependent individual, understanding their situation may be the key to modifying their behavior.

Treatment for codependency

As promising as it sounds, treatment comes at a great cost to those who are much rewarded from codependent behavior. Most likely treatment only occurs when the codependent individual is so battered and wounded from the tradeoff that they are unable to persist in it. And yet, the intention to want to help will never be completely gone.

The change comes from realizing that everyone needs healthy boundaries. That sometimes, bearing pain on behalf of others will not be fruitful. That the person being “saved” is mutating into something worse. That the codependent individual, needs to care for themselves too.

This radical shift comes from persistent therapy sessions with a directive purpose in repositioning your stretched-out hand (to help others) in order to soothe and bandage your own neglected wounds (to help yourself). At times you will lapse. Other times you move forward one step to end up where you started again. But I promise that the end of the journey is someone who feels deeply for others and helping them the best way they can by simply staying put. Who knows? Those who needed to change in the first place may also find their behavior modified purely because you are no longer offering the olive branch for all their mistakes.

To all the Mega Mamas and Mighty Missus-es, I feel you.