If your discovery of your husband’s sexual addiction took place more than three years ago, chances are you ran into the words “co-dependent” or “co-addict” pretty quickly. I first came across these words (being applied to me) in my counselor’s office. Other women are introduced to them in their “support” group meeting.
Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to share stories of the 2014/2015 survey respondents—and some of my own, and others' observations. We’ll look at where the co-dependent label is off, what factors might cause these so-called "co-dependent" traits, and how many clinical treatment and support groups operating out of the “co-dependent” model have been failing women and couples.
Co-Dependent: History and Meaning
In Beyond Betrayal I give a thorough run down of the evolution of the term “co-dependent” and how it came to be used on the wives of sex addicts. Suffice it to say, when compulsive sexual misbehaviors were determined to be “addictions,” addictions counselors assumed partners of sex addicts must exhibit the same behaviors of partners of other types of addicts. In other words they must be enablers. They must lack healthy boundaries.
The evolution of the term "co-addict" is more interesting still. At the 2015 IACSAS Redeeming Sexuality and Intimacy conference, Dr. Stephanie Carnes explained its origins. Stephanie Carnes is the daughter of one of the pioneers of the sex addiction treatment field, Dr. Patrick Carnes. Dr. Carnes had, himself, been a sex addict. At one point he married a sex addict as well. He felt it would be correct to refer to himself as a co-sex addict or “co-addict” for short. It’s very unfortunate that no one caught on for a couple of decades that most partners of sex addicts were not in the same boat as Dr. Carnes. Most of us didn’t have a sexual addiction.
“Co-addict” was understood to encompass not only the idea that the partner had her sexual addiction, but that she also had an addiction to dysfunctional relationships. This is where the terms co-sex addict and co-dependent begin to blur. Co-dependents are also assumed to be attracted to unhealthy relationships where there is some form of abuse.
Thanks to the work of researcher and therapist, Barbara Stephens, the “co-dependent” view of partners has been increasingly made to give way to the “trauma” model.
No other shift in thinking to date has benefited wives of sex addicts more. As one survey respondent explains:
I do have co-dependency issues, yet it didn’t matter how hard I worked on those issues I was not getting better. It took a diagnosis of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and addressing those issues first to begin the healing process… The co-addict model sent me deeper into depression and I never felt like anyone could see or understand my heart or my motives — I genuinely wasn’t trying to control my husband, nor was I being judgmental and trying to make him pay, I was simply TERRIFIED and I needed comfort and reassurance at some level from somebody… The co-addict model kept saying, ‘pick your own self up by your bootstraps and get over it. Get over yourself!’ I couldn't figure out how to pick myself up nor could I find my bootstraps. And how do you begin to ‘get over’ a catastrophe that you supposedly helped to create and are now suffering the consequences of. It was more than I could bear…’
It is such a tragic irony that women are labeled co-dependents (who must change their ways) for their lack of boundaries around their husband’s addiction and co-dependents (who must change their ways) for setting boundaries. I’ve often wondered if the co-dependent label doesn’t free women from their abusive husband (though sometimes it supports his abuse) only to put them into the power of an abusive support group leader/counselor/member of the clergy, etc. Whether or not that’s the case, I am certain that this kind of treatment often serves to compound our trauma.
Next week I’ll look into the issue of boundaries a bit further. What do they tell us about co-dependence? Trauma? What do these tell us about where women need help and support? Why do we get beaten up for having boundaries and beaten up for not having them?
In the meantime, enjoy part 3 of Compassion... on today's theme, co-dependency.