Driving home from his last landscape design consult, thirty-three year old Craig’s stomach was in knots wondering if Sophie would have gotten over the row she had with her mother the other day. He felt bad for his wife who had tried and failed to arrange a family dinner, taking out her frustration on him. His temples began throbbing and his breathing became quick and shallow as he felt the overbearing sense of heaviness that came over him when he approached his front door.

Craig’s mind began to work on ways he could take care of his mother-in-law’s objections and persuade her to attend the dinner. That would solve Sophie’s problem which in turn would be an immense load of his shoulders.

As Craig opened the door, twenty-seven year old pet store owner Sophie was on the phone busily trying to fix the spat between her sister Trudy, and brother-in-law Max. She was totally absorbed with giving advice and ignored Craig’s entrance. The conversation between them was one sided, with Sophie promising to have a serious talk with her rotten brother-in-law.

Co-dependency Fills Empty Emotional Holes.

One part of Craig was relieved that she was distracted by her sister’s crisis, but another part of him felt empty, ignored, alone and unimportant. Now he had no choice but to face his own worries about cash flow and debt in his business. It was too much to deal with, so he put it off to another day.

A couple of days later Sophie spoke to Max about his laziness when it came to helping Trudy with their kids. She felt good about sticking up for her sister. It made her feel strong and fearless. Meanwhile Trudy was busy trying to reconcile the row between her mother and Sophie over the family dinner party. She tried to cajole her mother to reorganize her schedule and fit in, and she also worked on Sophie to be more flexible. Trudy felt good about being the peace maker.

Co-dependency Creates Helplessness Among Family Members

The day before the family dinner party Sophie asked Craig to get candles and flowers on his way home. She talked about the menu and the preparations but when she wanted Craig’s opinion on dessert he seemed far away. He was withdrawn and irritable when she pressed him to participate. He said he couldn’t remember the choices she had put forward about the wine or the desserts. Sophie was irritated with him for being so vague and uninterested. She prodded and poked him to get some reaction – to bring him into the present moment. Craig got furious and blurted out how stressed out he was about his business.

Stunned, Sophie dropped her party ideas and gave her full attention to her husband. She got his account books out, re-calculated his budget and cash flow by sitting up all night to fix Craig’s problem. His anxiety and empty feelings were replaced by gratitude and relief. Sophie felt special, important and a champion of his wellbeing.

The evening of the dinner party all the family gathered at Sophie and Craig’s house. Sophie was panicked at not being ready because she had worked on Craig’s books all night. She was lamenting the event as a failure as she fussed around attempting to make everything perfect. Her mother Beth noticed her discomfort and heard the gloomy forecast. Beth took Trudy aside and together they went to the nearest store and bought several platters of party food including cakes and pastries for dessert. Sophie was relieved and thrilled, while her mother felt like a hero.

Co-dependency Starts to Become an Unwelcome Burden

Three weeks later Trudy went to pieces over her husband’s continued lack of help with the kids, and the pattern continued except that Sophie began to resent having to rescue her sister month after month.

Craig went on bailing out Sophie when she and her mother fell out. Both he and Trudy became resentful of having to mediate and make the peace which never lasted anyway.

Sophie’s initial burst of heroic pride in helping her husband with his business finances became a huge burden that she took on angrily as Craig kept getting in to the same jams with his cash flow.

Co-dependency Involves Preventing Growth and Efficient Emotional Coping

This family rescue one another, feel heroic and then expect other family members to reciprocate. They do things for one another in a way that creates dependency and prevents learning, coping, adapting or growth.

What’s going to happen to this family when Trudy and Max decide to go to counseling and get help with parenting?

How will the family cope with this act of self-care among two of its members?

Read part two of this story and learn how the family fared. In the next part of this story I will also tell you how support rather than care taking is the key to avoiding the trap of co-dependency.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Raymond is an expert on making and sustaining healthy relationships so that individuals can grow without losing their attachments to loved ones.

She helps couples and families negotiate the stresses and strains of intimacy that set off the negative push-pull-push cycle.

Her new book "Now you want me, now you don't! Fear of Intimacy: Ten ways to recognize it and ten ways to manage it" will be out in summer 2014.