NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Exploring the Secondary Gains of Codependency

In prior posts to this psychotherapy blog, I've defined and explored codependency from the vantage point of relationships where there is substance abuse in the family as well as in other codependent relationships (see the link to one of those earlier articles at the end of this article). In this article, I would like to explore the secondary gains of codependency in relationships.

Exploring the Secondary Gains of Codependency

 What do we mean by "secondary gains" in codependent relationships?
When we talk about the secondary gains in codependent relationships, we're usually referring to the hidden benefits that are derived from engaging in codependent behavior. The reason I described them as "hidden" is because these behaviors are often unconscious and are often not seen for what they are by the people involved in codependent relationships.

However, at times, some people are aware of it, just below the surface of their awareness. And, even though they might be complaining about another person's dependence on them or how dependent they are on someone else, both people involved are usually getting something out of maintaining the codependency--even when they don't realize it. These so-called secondary gains might not be psychologically healthy, but often both people involved want to maintain the status quo on some level.

A composite vignette, which represents a combination of many psychotherapy clients with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, might help to illustrate the secondary gains involved with maintaining codependency:

When Edward started psychotherapy, he talked about feeling exhausted by all of the demands that he felt people in his life placed on him--his adult son, other relatives, coworkers, his boss at work, and even his ex-wife. He talked about wishing that he could get away from everyone and everything so that he could just rest. He felt physically and emotionally depleted.

We started Edward's psychotherapy sessions by exploring his relationship with his adult son, Tom, an unemployed 25 year old man who lived at home with Edward. According to Edward, Tom was an honor student in college. 

Everyone thought that Tom showed a lot of promise and they expected that Tom would be successful in whatever career that he decided to pursue. However, after Tom graduated from college, he never pursued any work. Instead, he moved back in with Edward and he spent most days playing video games and watching TV. Tom's girlfriend got tired of waiting for him to make a life for himself, so she broke up with him. Since that time, Tom dated a few women, but he was not focused on relationships.

Edward expressed his sadness, worry and disappointment to me that Tom was just "loafing around the house" instead of "trying to do something with his life." However, as we continued to explore the dynamics in Edward's relationship with his son, Tom, another picture began to emerge next to Edward's account of his concern and disappointment. As this other picture emerged, it became apparent that Edward relied on Tom for his emotional needs and vice versa.

After his divorce, which occurred while Tom was in college, Edward stopped seeing friends, he didn't date, his social life just stopped. His life consisted of going to work and coming home and doing more work. He held a position as a senior vice president of a large company, and he worked long days. Most of his social contact was with clients that he entertained during the week. He also spent weekends immersed in his work. By most people's standards, Edward was a workaholic.

As we continued to discuss Edward's relationship with his son, Tom, we explored how, over time, Edward began to depend on Tom emotionally to fulfill his social needs: After the divorce, Edward began to visit Tom at college a couple of weekends out of the month. He considered Tom to be his "buddy" and expected Tom to forgo other social events at his college when Edward came to visit him.

When Tom was in his senior year, Edward told him that there would be "plenty of time" to look for a job and, anyway, Edward earned a lot of money, so he could support Tom until he found the "right job." Throughout college, Edward paid for Tom's tuition, an expensive apartment off campus, and he gave him generous amounts of money every month so Tom never had to work or be concerned about money.

Over time, as we traced back the development of Edward's relationship with his son, this other hidden picture began to emerge along side of Edward's concern for Tom's idleness. It wasn't that Edward was not concerned about his son. Rather, both pictures were true: Edward loved his son very much, he wanted him to be a success and, without realizing it, he also wanted to have a mutually dependent relationship with his son.

Initially, Edward had some difficulty with seeing both sides of this picture. If we had a split screen movie available to us and we could project on it the two sides of Edward's feelings and his actions, this is what we would see: On one side, Edward was the encouraging father telling Tom that it was important for him to do his best and go out to make a life for himself. On the other side, the side that Edward was not aware of, Edward was the father who tended to make life too easy for Tom so that Tom never had to venture out on his own. If we looked closer at that side of the split screen, we would also see that Tom was deriving secondary gains to keeping Tom dependent upon him because, underneath it all, Edward felt lonely and he was emotionally dependent on his son.

As we explored both sides of this so-called split screen image of Edward's relationship with his son, Edward was only able to see one side--the side where he encouraged Tom to go out into the world and make his own way. He would often say in those early psychotherapy sessions with me, "But I tell Tom to go out and get a job all the time. I want him to have his own life." 

While it was certainly true that Edward did tell Tom these things and even made efforts through his many business contacts to get Tom a job, Edward also behaved in ways to keep Tom dependent on him: He continued to be very generous with money, he never had any expectations of Tom doing anything around the house, and so on. So, it was a picture filled with ambiguity as Edward gave mixed messages to Tom.

Denial is a common reaction in codependent relationships. None of us like to think of ourselves as holding back another person for our own emotional needs, especially people that we love. So, Edward's denial was no different than many other people in similar situations. However, gradually, over time, as Edward learned to become more psychologically-minded and developed more emotional insight into his relationship with his son, he began to see how he had created a codependent relationship with Tom.

It took a while before Edward could tolerate the feelings that this engendered in him so that he could let go of his denial and look at both sides of the picture. However, once his denial began subsiding, he also started to see how he also created codependent relationships with the other people. He began to realize that he couldn't fulfill his emotional needs by controlling his son with money and attention. He also realized that, often, his behavior was not consistent with his words.

There was no quick fix for Edward in his psychotherapy sessions. Over time, he began to change his behavior so that, even when he felt the urge to keep Tom dependent upon him, he learned not to give into it. He worked hard in psychotherapy to find fulfillment in his own life outside of his relationship with his son and in his work. Gradually, he began to socialize more, develop new interests, develop new friendships, and he even began dating. He started delegating more of his work to his subordinates and not taking work home.

Even though he was going out more, he had new found energy. He was no longer exhausted and emotionally depleted. Also, as his message and his behavior became more consistent with Tom, Tom learned, gradually, to become more independent. He started working at a job where there was potential for moving up in the company. He also began forming healthy relationships with other men and women his age, so he was not as emotionally and financially dependent on Edward any more.

Over time, Edward also learned to change the codependent dynamics in his other relationships. By the way, not everyone in Edward's life was happy about this change because they had come to rely on this dynamic as well. However, Edward learned to focus more on himself and not on trying to please and control others. Over time, these other people had to accept it if they wanted to remain in Edward's life.

Most of the time, progress in psychotherapy is not linear--like a straight arrow that keeps going upward. Usually, when people start making progress, their progress is more like a spiral--a few steps forward and one or two steps backwards. 

It takes time to change ingrained ways of thinking and behaving. The roots of codependency often go deep in a person's history and those issues must be overcome as well. It was no different for Edward and other clients. But, on the whole, when he left psychotherapy, Edward had learned a lot, on an intellectual as well as on an emotional level, about codependency and watching for the pitfalls of the secondary gains associated with codependency.

Getting Help in Therapy
The secondary gains of codependency and other behaviors are often difficult to see when you're in the middle of a codependent relationship. 

It requires an ability to look at the whole picture and not just one side. Overcoming denial can be a challenge, but it also often leads to emotional breakthroughs.

If you think you might be engaging in codependent behavior, you could benefit from seeing a licensed psychotherapist who has expertise in codependent relationships.

About Me
I am a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and EMDR therapist in New York City. 

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.