By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.
When yet another check bounced, the sixth in three months, Lenny became worried. He knew that he was not very interested in balancing the books, personal or business. He always left that up to the bookkeeper anyway. The business seemed to be doing well, so whenever a personal check bounced, Lenny always covered it promptly from savings or taking another draw from the business. But this time, things seemed to be getting worse. Lenny wondered if he were slipping up at work, in ways that could cost he and Linda their livelihood. So he asked Linda to meet with himself and their CPA to take a look at the budget. After giving the couple the usual advice on how to tighten the financial system, the CPA pointed out to Lenny that his business accounts were always up to date. Never once in seven years had he bounced a check. Yet in the personal account he shared with Linda, checks bounced every month. Since Lenny was the one responsible for signing the checks at work, he took a closer look at what Linda was doing with their personal account. To his surprise, Lenny discovered that Linda was writing checks for $20.00 or $30.00 over the purchase nearly every time she shopped. Recently one check written on a twenty dollar purchase, was written for $120.00. The problem was getting worse! Lenny confronted Linda privately and in a tearful discussion learned that she was using the money to support a drug addiction. Because the couple is very successful in their business, and have plenty of money to spend, Lenny hadn’t noticed the excesses his wife was spending on her leisure activities. Only when the checks started to bounce more often did he become concerned. His concern about the erratic spending, lead him to discover that his wife was deeply troubled. The story doesn’t stop here, because Lenny and Linda have much work to do to clean up the addiction problem. This isn’t just Linda’s problem though. Lenny needs help in converting his concept of kindness. Lenny knew each time a check bounced that it had been written by Linda. But he took care of it without bothering her. He reasoned that she didn’t have the financial sense that he did. She was good with the customers and vendors so he managed the day to day business stuff.
He thought of himself as helping Linda by taking the financial burden off of her shoulders. You can see however, that he was not really any help. He only helped Linda ignore her growing dependence upon drugs. Lenny’s help is really co-dependence. An individual is co-dependent when they inadvertently or even consciously encourage the addicts dependency upon their drug. You can be co-dependent with drugs and alcohol or any other immature or unwise behavior that leads to serious dysfunction or life threatening consequences. In other words, co-dependency refers to an attitude, not necessarily chemical dependency. If you are ignoring or sanctioning the dysfunctional behavior of a loved one, such as Lenny did with Linda, you are co-dependent. This is no kindness to the one you love. The reason it is so easy to confuse kindness and co-dependency is that they are essentially the same behavior within different contexts. To be kind means to give unconditionally, to share, to show that you care for another person. When the giving, sharing and caring is reciprocated by a healthy individual, the condition is kindness. However, when the kindness is not reciprocated, when you find yourself giving and giving and giving, it may be co-dependency. Lenny found himself taking care of Linda’s bounced checks over and over and over again, without any commitment from Linda to change. This is co-dependency. Kindness does not always require reciprocity. You may feel that you want to give unconditionally on occasion. At the holidays, we often feel that those who have should contribute to those who have not. However, giving should not involve sacrificing oneself, especially if it doesn’t help and if it even makes matters worse. Because Lenny and Linda made plenty of money, it did not seem like a sacrifice to cover the bad checks. However, Lenny’s self esteem was beginning to suffer. He thought that he was becoming forgetful and that he could sabotage the success of their small business, thus risking their retirement.
It hardly makes sense that helping Linda means that Lenny should sacrifice his self confidence. Remaining a kind person while at the same time breaking co-dependency may seem like a difficult task. I have certainly had many people complain that I am asking them to be mean when I suggest breaking the destructive co-dependency pattern. If you love someone who is in trouble, why can’t you help them? The key word here is help. Was Lenny really helpful by continuing to cover Linda’s bad checks? If you are doing all of the work toward solving a problem, what is the other person learning? If the other person is chemically dependent, they learn from your kindness to continue their troublesome behavior. But if you stop helping in a co-dependent way, you may offer your loved one the chance to show you they can solve the problem themselves. Lenny controlled the situation by paying for the checks but he didn’t resolve it. Since there was plenty of money, the problem was not hitting the pocket book, but Lenny’s conscience instead. This is usually your first clue that you are in a co-dependent relationship. For some reason you accept the responsibility while your partner gets off the hook. Instead of control, however, consider another form of kindness, respect. If you respect your loved one, then trust that they can take responsibility for their faults and clean them up. In other words, show the chemically dependent person that you respect them enough to let them show you what they are made of. If they have the right stuff, they will clean up their own act. In fact, the very act of turning the problem back to the person who created it, frees both of you to take responsibility for your own actions. So how do you tell the difference between co-dependence and kindness? Well, one feels bad and the other feels good. One covers up the real problem, while the other brings the problem to the surface. One destroys self esteem, while the other encourages self esteem. Since you have a choice, the choice seems pretty simple. Choose positive self esteem, honesty in solving problems, and taking and giving appropriate responsibility for one’s actions.