They smile. They coo. They comfort. They offer advice, solicited or unsolicited. But don’t let that fool you! Thoreau summed it up best: Codependents “lead lives of quiet desperation.” I know because I am one and I learned it from my mother, who has also admitted to being codependent. I’ve experienced codependency from the inside, the outside, the upside and the downside. It’s a special kind of Hell.

What Is Codependency?

Fourteen years after “discovering” codependency and the wonderful books by Melody Beattie, defining codependence is still like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Probably the best definition I’ve heard is “an addiction to other people’s emotions.”

But it’s easier to describe how it feels in real life. Let’s say my husband is laying under the sink, fixing the pipes. He starts gruntin’. Then he starts cussin’. Then he runs around, rooting through his stuff trying to find the right tools, narrating the whole process verbally.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my chair, pretending to ignore him and biting my tongue because I’m in emotional agony. I’m wracked with guilt because any plumbing problem must be my fault. All his gruntin’ and cussin’ and narratin’ feel like my fault, my responsibility. I need to fix this situation, find his tools, do anything so he can stop gruntin’, stop cussin’ and stop narratin’. If he’s not happy, then I’m not happy. His emotions are my responsibility.

That is one side to the Hell called codependency.

But here’s the twist. For all his gruntin’, cussin’ and narratin’, he’s actually happy as Larry. Nothing’s wrong. He’s not mad at me. The plumbing problem is not my fault. He lost his own damn tools (as usual) and he’ll find them again (as usual). And he’d rather I just leave him alone than try to help, fix, soothe and encourage. He doesn’t want it, need it nor ask for it.

That’s why I call codependency a two-sided Hell. It’s Hell for those of us who are codependent and Hell for those we try to “rescue.”

Narcs Love Them Some Codependents

While codependency is usually identified in the family members of alcoholics, narcissists love codependents. They seek us out. The initial romantic chemistry between a narcissist and their chosen codependent is electric. They play the victim, we play the rescuer. It’s a match made in, well, somewhere. While Co-Ds married to alcoholics clean up their physical vomit, we clean up our narcissists’ emotional vomit. Time and again. For years!

Learning to be Codependent

I learned codependency at my mother’s knee. She’ll be the first to admit it and the first to rue it. She learned it at her mother’s knee because she had to become codependent if she wanted to be loved and accepted by the Victim Exceptionale narcissist who raised her.  For years she considered it her “ministry” to be the shoulder her mother cried on daily over the telephone. Later, she discovered her mother just enjoyed playing the victim and had played her for a sap.

When she wasn’t empathizing with her mom, she was empathizing with her husband. Every night while Dad complained about his supposedly inept coworkers over supper, Mom offered all kinds of advice on how he could manipulate them to be better. Silently eating my chicken, I thought her advice was banal. Little did I know that the root of the problem was the macabre dance between the narcissist and their codependent.

Then I grew up and, naturally, chatted to my mom about problems I was having at work. Again, she ponied up all kinds of perfectly useless advice I didn’t want and was sick of hearing. Finally, we figured it out. I just wanted to talk. She thought I was soliciting advice and frankly, she was sick of everyone turning to her for comfort and advice. She blamed them. But, in truth, she was 50% of the problem.

As a child, she taught me to lie and play stupid rather than setting a boundary with anyone and their intrusive questions. How she regrets it now! But on the other hand, every time I tried to set a boundary with her I was instantly accused of hiding some transgression, while she engaged in what I call “furious pouting.”

Meanwhile, she bore the brunt of her husband’s blackout rages. While admitting that most of his rage was at coworkers, Mom was always the one who supposedly flicked the plug out of the towering inferno of this rage. She bore it. She sat through his screaming, his fist-pounding lectures. We both did. We felt guilty for being the “cause” of his rages. We tried harder to be perfect so he wouldn’t get mad at us. When he beat the countertop til his fist bled, she bandaged it. And when he kicked out the upstairs door, she glued it back together with Spackle and paint, cooing, “This is what a good wife does.”

No. That’s what a codependent idiot does!

After I grew up, there were new angles to codependency.

“Could you go get the towels out of the dryer,” Mom would ask, “and fold them?”

“Okay,” I responded catatonically, setting down my book and rising from the uncomfortable futon.

“You need to have a good attitude!” she snapped. “I don’t ask for much and you live here too. You make laundry too, y’know!” Apparently, being blank wasn’t okay. I had to be happy, be cheerful, be overtly positive about tasks.

It took awhile, but I finally figured it out. She felt guilty! Guilty for asking me to do, well, anything! She needed me to be happy about doing housework to assuage her false guilt. It wasn’t enough to do a task blankly. A “good attitude” was required. Secretly, I began gritting my teeth into a horrible macabre grin behind her back. “Why thank you!” I would say to the dryer, “for this wonderful privilege of folding towels!! I couldn’t be more thrilled!” It helped relieve the anger I felt about The Hell of Perpetual Happiness I was forced to reside in.

Fast forward a few years and I’d rather die than ask anyone to do anything for me. The guilt of asking anyone to work is more than I can bear. I would gladly cook, clean, wash and launder for the entire World so they don’t have to lift a finger. My coworkers accused me of “hogging all the work.” They were right.

Codependent Personality

Socially, codependents feel they need to overcompensate so people will like them. We put on an ingratiating, overly-cheerful persona when we’re around other people. Maybe we even do it around our own families. It’s exhausting, isn’t it!? Friendship just takes too much work, IMHO.

When I was first married, my husband noticed how I worked myself up into a lather before my parents arrived for a visit. “You act  super happy, super agreeable, super nervous when they’re around,” my husband observed. Well, that explained why I could never relax when I lived with them.

But his observation about my mother was even more interesting. After they visited, he turned to me and exclaimed, “Is your mom on dope!?!”

“NO!!” I was horrified. “Mother has never and would never touch drugs. She doesn’t even take Tylenol!”

“Well, she’s so happy, so bubbly, so over-the-top, I just wondered,” he said with a twinkle. Then it struck me. It was all an act. A codependent act she put on for socializing. She’d even put it on in her own home with her own child. That explained all the times she put a moratorium on talking, on conversation in our house. Maintaining that false persona was just too exhausting. She needed to recharge her batteries. When I moved out, we both dropped our hippy-happy-dippy personas. The last time we spoke, I barely recognized her voice. She sounded so calm, I was sure something was wrong!

Grit Your Teeth, Bite Your Tongue and Don’t Move!

How I wish I had a magic nostrum to share with you that’ll stop codependency cold. I have yet to leave codependency behind me. It’s the Last Frontier standing between me and, well, serenity and happiness. But my husband has helped by calling me out when I’m codependent. The only way I knew to be a wife was to cook, clean and codependent him. That was the model of “wifing” I’d been given. Fix everything. Advise everything. Find everything. Shield your husband from life.

Michael liked my cooking. He liked my cleaning. He hated my codependency. So I’ve learned to shut up, sit down and just ignore all his gruntin’, cussin’, narratin’…and the incessant searching for the things he’s lost by “putting them in a safe place.” I want to scream! I want to tear my hair out! I want to lecture him! But no! I sit quietly and catatonically while my Inner Codependent has thirteen purple kittens and a conniption fit. Usually, I just leave the room to shield myself from the triggers.

And guess what!?! He doesn’t need my “codependenting”! Sooner or later, he always finds what he’s lost. He fixes what’s broken. And all goes merrily again. For all his drama, he’s actually as happy as a little lark.

So when codependence overwhelms you and you’re just itching to rescue everyone, here’s what I do.

  1. Sit down.
  2. Shut up.
  3. Hold very still.
  4. Wait ’til the feeling leaves you.

Give it time. The codependency fit will pass eventually.

If the victims start nagging you to rescue them, just say something like, “I’m confident you’ll figure it out, Dear. You’re smart! I have every faith in you.” They may be miffed, but they’ll enjoy the flattery. And guess what!? For all their drama, they will figure it out for themselves. As it turns out, no one actually needed you to “rescue” them after all!