By Diana Denholm, PhD, LMHC
Caregivers for a seriously ill partner or family member often wear a Big C on their chest. It doesn't stand for cheerleader, caregiver, or cancer, although what the Big C represents has the effect of a cancer in its ability to weaken and destroy. The Big C stands for codependence and codependent behavior.
Aside from the initial anger about our loved one's diagnosis, codependence is the single biggest cause of our deepest discomfort. It is the cause of our irritability, our anger, our excess work, our stress, and our critical and guilt-ridden feelings toward ourselves. Codependence is at the center of our fights (or verbal shutdowns) with our loved one over what they should or shouldn't do, and the conflicts and confrontations we have with relatives over our loved one's care.
In short, codependent behavior is toxic.
Codependency, which is also called "caretaking" or "enabling," means doing for someone what that person should be doing for themselves, which allows (enables) the person to continue their weak or inappropriate behavior.
Here are four codependent behavior patterns we caregivers often fall in to, and what we can do instead.
1. Knowing what's best for our loved one and insisting on making that happen.
We know what's best for our seriously ill loved one, and we try to get them to do everything our way.
We genuinely think it is our responsibility to be in charge of how they act, what they do, and how everyone else interacts with them. We want it our way, and we work very hard to make this happen.
If this rings true, realize that ultimately, it is the ill person's disease and their responsibility to decide the course they and it will take.
2. Pleasing everyone, but not yourself.
Sometimes as a caregiver we do what others want us to do rather than what we want to do. Usually that's easier than arguing about something. When we're rewarded with praise and positive responses, it feels good.
If this rings true, then it won't be long before we're silently steaming and suffering. Walking around with this kind of resentment will not be helpful to us or our loved one. The alternative? Learn some basic communication tools to help you and the seriously ill person you're caring for come up with solutions you can both live with. My new book presents a handful of communication tools that have been highly successful in such situations.
3. Reading your loved one's mind.
Another sign of codependence is when we try to do the other person's thinking for them, or we know what's in their mind and why they act as they do. We assume things that aren't necessarily correct. We partly do this because it's a time saver, and partly because we know they won't think of or come up with the right information. We plan everything, and we anticipate their needs in terms of food, everyday functions, and how they should go about their routines.
If this rings true, you may find yourself using indirect and ineffective communication--such as, "Honey, did you really mean to leave your socks on the floor?" or "Isn't it time to eat something?"-- when what we really want is for them to pick up their socks or eat. To avoid falling into this trap, learn how to be direct. Ask questions only if you want to know the answer--not because you are looking for behavior change.
4. Being pleased that the ill person depends on you.
Some caregivers, consciously or subconsciously, make themselves needed and indispensable so their loved ones will remain dependent on them, and them alone. This dependence ensures the caregiver's place in the ill person's life, offers a sense of stability and job security, gives a feeling of importance, and shows the world he or she is really working hard to save their loved one.
If this rings true, ask yourself who is benefiting more from this image: you or your loved one?
By learning how to recognize and alter some of the most common types of codependent behavior, you will actually help your loved one feel stronger and more independent and capable.
The benefits of working on your codependent behavior will also help you, the caregiver, decrease your workload, your anger, and your stress. It opens the way to having fewer arguments, better communication, and a more peaceful environment in the home.
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Diana B. Denholm, PhD, LMHC, has been a board-certified psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For 11 years, she was the primary caregiver to her husband during a series of grave illnesses. More detailed guidance, support, and resources are in her new book, The Caregiving Wife's Handbook: Caring for Your Seriously Ill Husband, Caring for Yourself (Hunter House, December 2011).