ERP 325: Can Prodependency Improve Our Understanding Of Codependency In Relationship? — An Interview With Dr. Robert Weiss

By Posted in - Podcast June 21st, 2022 0 Comments

People who care for loved ones suffering from addiction or mental health issues are frequently labeled and even pathologized as part of the problematic and addictive cycle. Dr. Robert Weiss would like to honor, validate, and acknowledge the love and effort of these people who choose to stick around and help their loved ones get better, whether or not they are doing it correctly, because the truth is that most of us are not trained to assist someone who is dealing with these issues.

In this episode, Dr. Weiss gives context for codependency and its significance around addiction, as well as the new concept of Prodependence, a less stigmatizing way of looking at and treating addicts’ loved ones that is rapidly replacing this model.

Robert Weiss Ph.D., LCSW is Chief Clinical Officer of Seeking Integrity LLC, working with sex, porn, and substance/sex addicted men. He is the author of 10 books, including Prodependence, Sex Addiction 101, and Out of the Doghouse. His Psychology Today blog, Love and Sex in the Digital Age, has over 20 million readers to date, and his podcast, Sex, Love, & Addiction, has more than 600,000 downloads since its inception in 2019.

In this Episode

12:17 Dr. Robert Weiss and his incredible passion for educating people.

14:13 Why Dr. Weiss disagrees with the codependency model.

23:15 Codependency versus Prodependency, particularly in intimate relationships

29:37 Recognizing people’s love and effort in caring for loved ones with addiction and mental health issues.

39:30 Understanding why some people become addicted to alcohol, drugs, or whatever substance they prefer.

46:48 Why is it vital to change one’s perspective when working with loved ones?

53:45 How to connect with Dr. Weiss

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Do not be ashamed to care for and support loved ones who are struggling with addiction or mental health issues.
  • Love them as much as you can, but remember that seeking help is often a helpful option.
  • Reach out to your family, community, and professionals for assistance.
  • Be more understanding. Do not pass judgment on how others care for their troubled loved ones, even if you believe they are doing it incorrectly. Instead, point them in the right direction or encourage them to seek professional assistance.

Mentioned

Prodependence: Beyond the Myth of Codependency, Revised Edition (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Connect with Dr. Weiss

Websites: seekingintegrity.comsexandrelationshiphealing.com

Facebook: facebook.com/SexandHealing

Twitter: twitter.com/robweissmswtwitter.com/SexandHealing

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/sexaddictionspecialist

Podcast: Sex, Love, and Addiction

Blog: Love and Sex in the Digital Age (*Psychology Today)

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Dr. Rob Weiss, it’s so nice to have you on the show. Thank you so much for making your valuable time accessible for us here today and to share your wisdom with us here.

Thank you, Dr. Jessica. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it.

Yeah. And you have a recent book out addressing prodependency, and I think it could be really helpful for listeners to understand what you’re helping people get around this topic. But before we turn to that, I know that you do so much in the world of mental health, especially as it relates to addiction. Would you like to just share a little bit about you?

I got in therapy for a long time and working also on my own addiction recovery for a very long time. I’ve been licensed for 35 years. I think that’s right. I’m just ancient. I was quite young when I started. Just to say it, I have an incredible passion for educating people and giving them the opportunity to grow. I’m one of those therapists who, I don’t understand why if you go to a doctor’s office, they tell you exactly what’s wrong with you but if you go to therapy, it’s kind of a mystery. 

I’m really into inclusive education for the people that I work with so they understand that we’re both tackling the problem together. The more I can get out there and say, “Hey, here’s what the problems look like and here’s how you can address them.” That’s kind of my mission.

I’ve read some of your recent book and I think you do, just to your point now of helping people feel educated. You do a really wonderful job weaving in history and the development of different theories and kind of societal cultural movements and how that might inform our perspective. So, I think you do a great job in curating that and really distilling that down. 

Please say more. Say more of all the good things about me. We could just listen to you telling me how great I am. I really appreciate that.

I think it’s really a gift because sometimes when we are trying to tackle these huge topics, like you’re saying, some of it feels mysterious, or some of it is not conscious, or we’re looking at an aspect of it and we don’t see the bigger picture. And so, someone who has been in the field and has been walked through the fire themselves, and they can help with the landscape of this. 

One of the things I really am very fond of and share a similar passion around is the attachment frame and the attachment understanding and what’s happening there. So, are you open to sharing a little bit about how that fits with just your approach, especially as we turn towards the topic of codependency?

When you’re talking about attachment, do you mean in terms of my own life or my own experience that brings me to these beliefs or are you talking more in a general way about how I feel about love and connection?

I think more the latter, but I’m also interested if you want to speak to your own experience. I know for myself; my own journey has been very prompted by my own experiences in relationship that then got me into studying, and my dissertation, and all the practice. I do my very best. I raise my hand all the time saying I practice these principles and I’m definitely seeing my own evolution in it. I’m in it and I’m on the path with everyone else. 

You said something about me so I will say it back to you. One of my strengths is really trying to take complicated concepts and theories and breaking them down so people can understand them. When I write books, nine times out of 10, a therapist will say, “Oh, I got a lot out of that.” And then someone who just picks up the book will say, I got a lot out of that. And that’s really my intention. 

There are people that we both know who write books that you can read about three pages at a time, then you have to put it down and digest it. And then the next day, you can read another three. That’s not the audience I’m interested in speaking to. I want people to be able to readily bite off, chew, and work with the ideas. 

When it comes to prodependence and codependence, this is in the book. I mentioned to you that the book is dedicated to my mother. And of course, being in your 60s that seems a little bit like, “Oh, my God, this guy’s dedicating a book to his mother.” Book number 11, by the way. I just want to say because I am truly a crazy person and I write a lot. 

One of the things that happened to me, my mom was mentally ill, or she was. And so, I went through the 90s with the rise of the codependency movement. When I went to the NAMI, the adult support for mentally ill. NAMI, the groups. Back in the 90s, at least at mental health, it’s not so much the case now. Mostly, you just see it in the addiction world but this concept of codependency was all the rage. 

And so, when my mom showed up at three in the morning soaking wet with no purse in her hand at my house, and she was from another state, and I didn’t know how she got to my house. I didn’t know. She was just raving because she was so ill. I brought her in the house. I took care of her. I made sure she had something to eat. I gave her something warm. I gave her some medication. I put her to bed. The next day, we went to the hospital. 

But when I went to the mental health support group, which as I said, at the time was so filled with this concept of codependency, basically, the message I got was, “Well, your mom is going to have to figure it out for herself. If you just rescue her every time she comes to your door, she’ll never take her medication. She’ll never figure. You’re really enabling her illness. You need to detach.” That was basically the message of codependency is you need to step back from your mom, that it’s not your life, it’s her life, and you need to take responsibility for yourself, and let her struggle. 

Number one, I was never going to let my mom struggle in that way. That wasn’t going to happen. Nor do I think people feel that way about their children or their deeply beloved partners. I don’t think we just detach because we think it’s the right thing to do, although many have. And so, it never sat right with me even back in that day. I thought I’m never going to leave my mom standing out in the rain at three in the morning. That’s just not going to happen. 

I’ve come to understand now that one of the reasons that really doesn’t work in a concrete way is if you take families of the mentally ill and you tell them, “Oh, you’re not fully responsible. They have to take more responsibility. They have to push themselves. They have to get out there.” They may be able to do that, or they may end up homeless, or they may end up on the street, or they may not make it. 

And so, this whole concept of detachment and you will not become the best YOU you can be until you let go of person situation, whatever is needed to control, is needed to manage. That just never seem right to me. In the addiction world, I consistently continue to see this, where people who are deeply loved and are attached to people who are so important to them, whether it’s a parent, or a child, or a loved one, partner, they are routinely counselled that their deep involvement with this troubled person is making their trouble worse. 

In fact, on the other side, if I’m helping them, it’s preventing me from growing because I’m spending too much time focusing on this person when I could be focusing on my own growth. That message does not resonate with the people who love troubled people. This is the message of codependence, which is focus on yourself, detach, you won’t grow unless you are letting go of that person and focusing on yourself and they’re not going to grow while you’re helping them, supporting them, and all of that stuff. 

That’s just not my lived reality with people who struggle, especially when you love someone who struggles. In fact, it’s counterintuitive to think that I would want to walk away from or distance myself from a troubled loved one. It’s even more counterintuitive to me to think there’s something wrong with me for wanting to help the people I love. But in essence, that’s a big part of the message of codependency and it just never sat right with me.

I think this is why I really appreciate your voice because what the message that you’ve encountered around the codependency movement and also currently it sounds like the strong message as it relates to people who are addressing an addiction and their loved ones that just this absolute detachment, that it’s so pure, and it’s not accounting for the relationship, the bond, the attachment system that’s at play. 

And so, I think it’s incredibly important that you’re bringing voice to this because it’s not that some of that perspective, like you say in your book, right, that we might want to look at certain tendencies or certain strategies that we have that we can improve upon. It’s not to throw it all out but when we have that absolute message, you’re saying, I feel concerned like it doesn’t resonate. I’m not going to abandon. I’m not going to cut off or sever ties with a loved one or those bonds, like that’s not realistic. 

And Jessica, I’m not going to stop helping them because I think my help is useful and needed. What we know about the addictions and mental health is when loving family members are involved, people do better. So, I don’t know if codependency was ever about complete detachment but it was certainly about distancing yourself from the troubled person and focus on yourself.

And then, the pathology that also is layered on top of that.

Well, the pathology is, and thank you for bringing that up, is there’s something wrong with me for putting so much focus on this troubled person. If I didn’t have all of these own issues, which I don’t even know about my own trauma, my own background. If I am unaware of that, then I’m playing out all my own trauma into this troubled relationship. I’m rescuing and enabling and nagging and raging at them because it’s really about my own issues. 

If I looked at myself and worked on myself says codependency, that I wouldn’t be so invested in the outcome of whether they’re well or not, or trying to be a part of it. That seems just intuitively wrong to me. I understand how it came about, and why, like you said culturally, but in terms of actually working with people who love someone who’s troubled, codependency is not the right message. And it is why I named this book and this whole piece of work prodependence. The word doesn’t exist, by the way, which is really interesting. The word being positive toward dependence. 

Everyone wants to jump on codependency but the reality is you and I know as professionals that when people lean on each other, when they turn to each other, when they can depend on each other, that they’re both more likely to grow. This idea that I need to detach and separate and on my own I’m going to be more successful at personal growth. That actually isn’t true. That was very much an 80s concept. In the 90s, there was [Aston, Life spring, and landmark 0:22:25] and all these things that were a personal development and working on this was very much of the period. 

But as you know, we don’t look at mental health now in terms of being fully the best me I can be. We look at mental health as being part of that, but also, how can I be the best husband, the best family member, the best coworker, the best member of my community that that all also speaks to my emotional health. It’s not just about me detaching and working on myself. And that message in codependency is, I think more anti-dependent, which is “Don’t lean into each other.” “Don’t depend on each other.” It’s in the books. They wrote language like that.

Yes. It also feels really striking that, particularly if we’re in Western cultures, there’s such a cultural emphasis on individualism and not really necessarily recognizing the relational paradigms. In addition, just that how we’re on this bigger cultural backdrop of the individualism that I think supports some of these messages, and I think a lot of the new science, even if we look at polyvagal theory or attachment research, it’s really helping us understand how much we benefit from connection, and our health, and our well-being on every level and every facet, we are better in connection. 

And healthy dependency.

And healthy dependency. 

I don’t have to be all I can be if I’m with you. If I have some more vulnerabilities, you could fill in those with your strengths. If I have some strengths you don’t have, we’re better together. We’re not going to necessarily be whole on our own but together we can be. I’m not saying we have to be enmeshed and constantly focused on each other but I do think the strengths of one person can complement the strengths of another and that’s healthy dependency. 

Part of the problem is that the idea of dependency, like you said in Eurocentric culture is not how we look at things. You got to pull yourself by the bootstraps. You got to do it on your own. You got to prove yourself in the world, all of that kind of stuff. That’s important. But then, I want to go home to someone who loves me. I think the message that codependency missed is that other people and my home life are the foundation of my life. 

For me, I’ve been more successful, more healthy, more engaged and a happier person in my 20-year marriage than I ever was by myself. One of the things I wrote about in prodependence was that many years ago, a therapist said that to me. She said, “Oh, you know what, you’ve been in your relationship. You seem much happier and calmer and more focused.” I thought to myself, “Oh, but aren’t I supposed to be doing it on my own? Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Maybe I’m leading them into them too much.” 

And now, I realized what she was saying was, “You have the best of both.” You’re developing yourself. You’re working on yourself, but you have someone to lean in to. The world is a tough place. We do need that home, and that environment, and those loving people to keep ourselves safe from some of that tough stuff out there.

Absolutely. I can also hear some of the criticisms of even the attachment research or the EFT, the Emotionally Focused Therapy around, “Oh, it’s all about safety and connection, connection and safety.” Well, it is also in that framework. We live our individual lives. We’re required to stand on our own two feet. We do want to look at what’s happening for us and what’s going on in the inside, and really how to do our individual work but it’s not in complete separation of the acknowledgement of the relationship. So, it’s both. 

It’s both. 

Yes.

You mentioned culture, researching things, and being interested in things other than just psychotherapy or addiction work. I did a lot of research. I did my PhD dissertation on codependency. I learned a bunch of stuff. I learned at the time that it was developing that feminism was at its peak, and that women didn’t want to depend on men. They didn’t want to look up to men, and they didn’t want to push men out of the way so they could achieve. They did and they needed to but that doesn’t work for intimate relationships. You don’t want to be shoving someone away to be on top. You want to be leaning in. 

And so, while that message might have worked for women in the tough world out there, where they had to compete with men and didn’t have equality, in intimate lives, I actually think it produced a lot more divorce, a lot more separation, a lot more do it on your own, and didn’t really encourage people to see the value in what they get even in a troubled relationship. 

I do want to say something else about that because you brought up culture. It’s interesting because we believe what we believe, we see what we see. If we go just a little under the surface, there is no culture other than basically Western European culture that believes that the individual needs to go off by themselves and achieve. 

If I am working with an African American population, or a Native American population, or an Asian population, most often, those cultures, if you said I’m going to go off and work on myself and detach from my troubled person and become stronger, that would be called selfish because in almost every other culture other than ours, you lean into the community. You don’t lean away by yourself. You let everyone take care of you and everyone take care of each other. To distance yourself would be that there’s something not right about you. 

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“Codependency doesn’t apply across cultures.”

One of my criticisms of codependency is it doesn’t apply across cultures. I was actually teaching in a Native American tribe in Northern Canada. People call me. They say, “Come speak.” I do. I gave the talk about codependence and they said, “This is the first time we’ve heard someone speak in a language that reflects our culture. Codependency never sat with right with us because we don’t let people go off on their own. We come together.” 

And so, I think there are reasons why we embrace things that don’t necessarily apply to everyone. And codependency has become one of those things.

Yes, thank you. And it sounds like it’s being informed by this power over when you talk about dominance, or the individualistic perspective. It’s this idea that I’ve got to win or I’ve got to achieve, but it’s individual achievement. And so, that’s not a win-win. It’s not a sense of, again, that bond and that relationship, and we’re looking at the shared space between the two of us. 

I do think it’s worth noting for people who are listening. We’re emphasizing a lot about relational. It’s also important to say how we do the caring is important, right? I’ll even, again, raise my hand in previous years, my attempts to nurture or care or help might have been unskillful, or might have been based on my own anxieties or many, many different things that we can acknowledge, okay, there can be better ways, or we can be aware of what we’re contributing to that shared space together that is worth looking at. Right? Do you want to speak to that?

This is really the crux of the issue for me with codependency is that if I love someone, and I put myself aside to help them, from the perspective that you and I are looking at it, I would call that person a saint. I would call them an angel. Who takes time out of their lives to help people they love? Those are wonderful people. 

If I had cancer and you came to care of me, people would say you were a saint. But if you’re taking care of me and I’m an addict, then you’re enabling and rescuing. And so, it seems like in the emotional and mental health arena, when people are caregiving, there’s something wrong with them. But when you’re caregiving in the medical arena, you’re a gift. 

That never really made any sense to me because I know why I take care of the people who are physically ill that I love, because I love them. I know why I want to take care of the people who are emotionally ill or addicted, because I love them. 

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“One of the things that really goes completely against my belief system is blaming, shaming, or asking anyone who is a caregiver to question their caregiving.”

One of the things that really goes completely against my belief system is blaming, shaming, or asking anyone who is a caregiver to question their caregiving. There is no way on this God’s earth that I would ever say to someone, why do you keep taking care of them? Or what’s wrong with you that you keep walking into that situation? Or, if you just looked at yourself and knew yourself better, you would back away. I know why they’re there. They’re there because they love those people, and they want them to be well. 

But to your point, can I help people in ways that aren’t helpful? Sure. Can I help people in ways that aren’t effective? Absolutely. I often say in this conversation, I don’t know many people who went to high school and learned about addiction treatment. And yet we have the wife of an alcoholic who’s losing her mind trying to help her spouse or whatever that is. And then, she goes to get help. And they say, “Why didn’t you do it right? Why did you enable? Why did you rescue?” 

She’s doing the best she can to love that person and try to get them well. Maybe she needs to come in my office and I’m going to say, “You did a really good job. And good for you because you loved and you hung in there, but maybe all the ways you did that weren’t effective. So, why don’t you and I sit down and see how we can really help in a more useful way?” 

I don’t have to take you apart for why you stayed, or why you want to help, or what’s wrong with you for staying in this troubled relationship because from an attachment perspective, I already know. It’s because you love them. I have a story but I know you have a question so why don’t I hold on to my story, because then I’ll talk forever.

I’ll comment and then you prepare your story because I do think his story is really helpful. First of all, I just want to say that I can feel myself breathe more easily when you talk about this approach. I can just imagine that many listeners can feel themselves relaxing that it honors the relationship. It honors the bond and how essential that is and critical that is, and it gives space for improvement. So, it’s both/and. It’s like an integrative approach.

Improvement in the actions that you’ve taken to make them more effective. There’s nothing wrong with you’re staying there, you’re loving them, you’re doing anything you can. Who wouldn’t do anything they could just to rescue? I use those words on purpose. To rescue and save someone they love. 

How could it ever be wrong to want to dedicate your life to healing someone you care about deeply? I don’t understand how they could ever be wrong. You may do it in the wrong way. It may make things worse. But to me, that means you just need help making it right, but you don’t need to be blamed for making the attempt or for hanging in there. 

One of my little stories is that we often accuse caregivers of “You’re doing all the research. You’re doing all the work.” When I work with a partner of an addict, they’ve read every book. They’ve been to every website. They’ve joined every group. They absolutely are experts in addiction, and we would say, “Well, what’s wrong with them? Why are they spending all this time focusing on that person’s problems? What about them? That’s codependency.” 

I’ll tell you I gave a prodependence lecture recently. I saw a guy in the audience. He had this big purple backpack. I mean, it was big. He was like a therapy student. I was signing books, and he came along to the line and he said, “You know, I think I know what you mean.” I said, “What are you talking about?” 

He said, “Well, you see this backpack on my back that’s full of books?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Three weeks ago, my father was told he had cancer. I absolutely love my father. And so, I have gone out and read every book on cancer, gone to every website.” I thought, well, that’s what every partner of an alcoholic does. That’s what every partner of a gambling addict does. They get every book, they go to every meeting, because they want to help. Not because they want to obsess about it. They want to make it better. And so, I validate all efforts to love and help, effective or not, because you showed up and tried to make it better. And you’re not a specialist. So together, we can take your love and my specialty and now we can go in and try to help with the problem.

Yes. I also imagine, Dr. Rob, that it also allows for acknowledgement of the stress, the crises, the trauma that exists that perhaps in the pathology model and the disease model, that it just all gets personalized, if you will.

Well, I think the goal of all of this is for the caregiver to do a better job of helping and taking care of themselves. But codependency says, what’s wrong with you for doing this way and why don’t you know better? If you were healthier, you wouldn’t have done that. 

I’m saying, “Of course you did that. You love them. You care about them. Who wouldn’t?” Maybe you need help doing it more effectively. But let’s not blame you for the profound attachment and love. Let’s celebrate that you were willing to give of yourself. You quit your job. You stopped going to the gym. You did all those things just to help them? Wow, you’re an amazing person. That’s what the message is missing. 

Why would you blame someone for any effort that they made to try to love someone who’s troubled? I want to put a special message out there for those who are listening. I’ve given this lecture a lot of times. I have two books on prodependence that are out right now. 

As I said, I sign books. So, I sat in a lot of book lines, and usually sat there chatting with the other authors, because most people don’t even come along. Or they bring a book that they’ve had on their shelf for three years and they say, sign it. 

So, lots and lots of people seem to be interested in prodependence. I have had people come up to me on our book line and buy five copies, and say, “I’m going to give this to every member of my family because to this day, we feel like it was our fault that our nephew died. We feel it’s our fault because we were told to detach, to step away, and we did.” And then, they died on the street of an overdose. 

I can’t help but think this mother says, this aunt says, “If I had just stayed involved in maybe a different way, they wouldn’t have died out there, or they wouldn’t have gone away in the way they did because we would have remained connected. They would have had someone to lean on.” 

I don’t want to be the person who said, “You know, you need to let your kid really go out there and struggle.” And then, their kid doesn’t make it. I don’t want to be the one who has given them that message. I think way too much of that has gone around. 

So, to all of the family members who are listening who have cared for an addicted or mentally ill loved one, God bless you for doing everything that you could do to help that person whether it was helpful or not. I hope that you are at peace with the fact that everything you did came from love. Why else hang in there? And please be at peace with yourself because the other message I want to give is a confusing one for people who love addicts, but I want to say this clearly. 

There is nothing that anyone can ever do to make me drink or use or act out. You can make me miserable. You can make me unhappy. You can make me, I don’t know, want to hurt you. But I can go for a walk. I can read a book. I can divorce you. I can go to a therapist. The decision to drink, the decision to gamble, that is mine and mine alone. 

Their codependency puts a lot of emphasis on the family member as part of the problem. You’re contributing to the drinking. You’re enabling the problem. I really don’t think that anyone has chosen to harm themselves or destroy themselves because of something someone else did. If I want to drink, I’m going to drink. And if I can blame you for it, even better, because then I’m not responsible. 

I do think in some ways, codependency, and I’ve seen this with some addicts, has given them a reason to keep using. Well, if my wife is just so codependent and nagging and enabling, then I would have stopped a long time ago. No, you would have stopped a long time ago if you wanted to stop a long time ago. So, this whole idea that the family member is somehow responsible for the addiction because they’re not doing it right, I think makes people walk around with a tremendous burden that doesn’t belong with them.

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“The whole idea that the family member is somehow responsible for the addiction because they’re not doing it right, I think makes people walk around with a tremendous burden that doesn’t belong with them.”

It also sounds like the approach that you’re referring to allows for attunement in your role as the therapeutic practitioner, the therapists to really attune to them, acknowledge them, see them, see their efforts and their intention, and validate that and also give support for them and their well-being and their need to get their stability but also just honoring and acknowledging the intention to really want to care and love their significant other.

Or son, or daughter, or mom, or whatever.

Exactly. Exactly. There was something you spoke about in your book that I feel like could be helpful. I know we’re not talking about the person that has the struggle but we kept repeating over and over again about how the person that’s using whatever their preferred substance is not for pleasure. Right? Can you speak to that message just because I think that is helpful for somebody that might be really grappling with a loved one who is struggling with addiction or serious mental health illness?

I’m not an alcoholic, so I’ll give you an example. I’m not an alcoholic. And so, if I go to dinner and have half a glass of wine or a glass of wine, it’s to mix socially. It’s to relax. It’s maybe to be a little giggly or relieve some stress. If I go have another glass of wine two weeks later with friends, it’s for the same reason. I keep going back to the alcohol when it suits the situation for some social lubrication, to relax, and all that stuff. But that’s not why an alcoholic drinks.

An alcoholic drinks just to feel okay. So, while we’re sitting at the same table and they’re doing the same thing I’m doing, they’re doing it for different reasons. I look at them and I’m thinking, “Well, I don’t want another glass of wine. I’m relaxed and having fun with my friends. Why are you on your fourth one?” Well, it’s because they’re not drinking to relax and spend time with friends. I mean, that’s the idea of it. But they’re really drinking so they can escape reality, they can manage to tolerate things inside of them that they don’t know how to tolerate. 

I go have a bad day and I go for a walk or a run and I rest and watch a bad show on Netflix. An alcoholic has a bad day and they go drink. So, drinking drugs, alcohol are their means of escape, their means of trying to feel better in someone who doesn’t know how to calm or soothe themselves in any other way. But if you don’t have that problem, you think, “Well, what’s wrong with them? They’re doing the same thing I am, but they just won’t stop.” 

To us, it appears like they’re doing it for the same reason we are, which is a pleasure but they’re not. The pleasure, as you know, for an addict went away a long time ago. They’re still, as we say, chasing the high. They’re still seeking the pleasure at the beginning but what they’re really doing is escaping reality over and over and over again.

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“To us, it appears like addicts are doing it for the same reason we are, which is a pleasure, but they’re not. The pleasure for an addict went away a long time ago. They’re still chasing the high. They’re still seeking the pleasure at the beginning but what they’re really doing is escaping reality over and over and over again.”

Right. Trying to alleviate. 

Is that what you meant?

Yes, trying to alleviate that pain and that distress and that it’s the best avenue and the best strategy that they’ve known in their life is to escape or to try to alleviate that. And to the person that is in love relationship, whether or not it’s any type of family bond or significant other, loved one, that it’s really painful to want to reach, want to support, and perhaps they won’t let you in, or they won’t turn towards you. I mean, that’s just where this can feel really crazy making. 

So, what you’re really speaking to when, let’s say the person that’s labelled codependent is in your office or the loved one, that that can really acknowledge what feels so incredibly maddening, that it’s like all of their effort, all of their intention, and they still can’t make it better. They still can’t reach. 

In love, that’s why you pointed to the person that you love that is struggling with this addiction or illness is trying to escape and they’re trying to manage their distress in the best way they know how but they don’t trust. And this is the attachment system that I love so much. They don’t see that as a safe avenue to receive you, let you in, open up, or turn towards you for comfort and support.

Well, addicts are seeking to escape. And so, they don’t want to get closer to someone. They want to escape and disappear. But you said something that really struck me which is, you know, I have been in situations where people I love are really physically ill. I’m sure you have. 

I have bed sad and I’ve cleaned up sheets, and I’ve done every break on to the pharmacy but I can’t make it better. I cannot physically make them better. And watching someone I love suffer is one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had knowing I would do anything to help them feel better but I can’t. 

I think that is no different than the experience of someone who’s married to an alcoholic. When you see their anger, their rage, their nagging, they’re just looking at someone they love saying, “How do I make this? How do I get things to be better?” 

They’re watching the suffering go on in their family, and they can’t. So, if we do see behaviors and actions that are not ones I think, you know, if you do see somebody yelling or throwing things, or you know, whatever it is they’re doing. 

Destruction. 

Yeah. I think they’re so frustrated. Why aren’t they listening to me? Why don’t they understand how important this is? If they would just let me help them then it would be better. And of course, they don’t understand that they can’t help, that the disease is what it is. 

They can help by being there. They can help by making them safe. They can help in whatever way therapists and treatment centers advise. But ultimately, you can’t fix it or take it away. I think that’s hard for anyone who loves someone and sees them struggling. 

So, again, I say to you, partners and family members, you’re amazing. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that whatever you did to try to love a troubled person was wrong. You may not have done it in the best way but it wasn’t wrong, and you’re not wrong. 

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“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that whatever you did to try to love a troubled person was wrong. You may not have done it in the best way but it wasn’t wrong, and you’re not wrong.”

I’m sorry, I’m going to blather on. I work in a lot of treatment centers and a lot of addiction programs. I’ve seen family members who’ve worked for years to try to get their loved one into treatment. And then they finally do, you know, that alcoholic or that sex addict, whatever it is. They’re in treatment. And then, they take a big sigh of relief. And then they’re brought into the family program where they think, “Well, now I’m going to get support for all that I’ve been through. I’m going to really get thanked and appreciated for the effort I’ve made and all that I’ve given. I’m going to be able to rest.” 

What happens is they walk into that room, and this is really directly related to codependency, and they’re taught, “There’s something wrong with you. It’s called codependency. It came from your family. You’re acting it out. Let me give you five lectures to help you understand the problem with you. And then, let’s start working on your problem.” 

I have seen family members say words that I can’t say right here and would prefer not to say in anger because they say, “Wait a minute. I’ve given up three jobs. I’ve stopped exercising. I’m taking care of me, and the kids, and our in-laws and there’s something wrong with me for giving too much? Well, I got to tell you. We have a family. I’m the only one who’s helping here so don’t tell me there’s something wrong with me.” And that is, you know, the crux of the problem is that loving people are not being treated in loving ways. 

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“The crux of the problem is that loving people are not being treated in loving ways.”

And you’re right, Dr. Jessica, since we’ve adapted this in a number of treatment centers like Seeking Integrity where I work. I do see partners immediately relaxing. They walk into that family group. And I say, “I’m so glad you’re here. What an incredible struggle it must have been for you. You’re so brave. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, how courageous you are to stick by this person as troubled as they are.” They look at me like, “You get me. You understand the pain I’ve been through and what I’ve been trying to do.” 

They don’t have to think about anything. They don’t have to look at a model. They don’t have to look at their past. They just feel understood. So yes, you’re right. The work goes faster and they feel more like I get them.

No kidding. No kidding. As we were talking about the crisis that we were able to stabilize and there’s a place of ground. And then from there, perhaps we can look at growth because it just feels like such a fine line. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of finding that sweet spot, right? 

The sweet spot as I kind of feel it inside myself is, “Oh, I want to show up. I want to love and I want to help. I want to still keep my oxygen mask on, so to speak.” Sometimes when somebody’s drowning, like, we’re going to compromise sometimes. Not everybody is going to choose to do that. 

Well, you’re going to jump in after them. You’re going to jump. You’re not going to think about anything except getting them out of the water. You don’t think about, “Am I doing this in the right way?” when my house is on fire, you just get everybody out of there. You worry about whether you’re injured in the process later.

Right. And so, in the recovery that once we have that stability, and that safety, and that ground, then we can start to look at my well-being, your well-being, and how do I relate to you in a way that I show up, but maybe do have some boundaries or do catch myself in ways that aren’t helpful or productive?

I’m so glad you said that because I’m not saying that all caregivers are perfect. In fact, what I know about human beings is when we’re under stress, we are less likely to be our best selves. We are likely to maybe bring in some strategies that we grew up with or things from the past. 

If a child is a bed wetter and they they’re doing really great and they’re no longer wetting their bed, and then grandma dies, they may start wetting their bed again. And so, under tremendous relationship stress, I may start acting in ways that aren’t healthy for me or for other people. But when this person that I love is just beginning to heal, that’s not the time for me to look at it. 

I don’t like the fact that therapists feel this need to make sure that someone understands what’s wrong with them. Some family members just want things to get better. Not all of us want self-improvement. Some of us just want things to go back to the way they were. That’s fine with us. So, I think therapists do have a little bit of an obsession with, “Oh, I can make them grow. I can help them if they just look at this, if they just look at that.” 

I say timing is everything. If I acted ways in our relationship when you were really sick that I don’t like about myself, then when you’re well, maybe I want to go back and look at that or maybe I don’t but don’t blame me for acting that way because who wouldn’t under all that stress? 

I just wrote a whole new version of prodependence because it’s been a few years and I just wrote a guide for therapists to do this process and how to do it and I had a lot more ideas. So, I rewrote the book. One of the things that I had to put in the second version was people kind of thought, well, should I stay around for anything? I mean, I do love them and I care about them but what if they’re hitting me? What if they’re hurting the kids? And the answer is no. I never said stay around no matter what. You do have to protect yourself and your family first in that way. So, there’s a lot about how do you keep yourself in the game and know what the boundary is? This is our word, right, the boundary. 

I don’t set a boundary because I want you to change. I set a boundary so I can be safe. I don’t leave you in the hope that if I leave, you’ll stop drinking. I leave you because this is an abusive situation and I don’t want to be abused. You may wake up and say, “Oh, I really love them and I want to get help.” or you may not. But of course, we have to take care of ourselves first in that way. At the same time, I really encourage the giving, the loving, and the nurturing. 

And so, that brings me to my story. This would be sort of the most heinous sort of codependency story that I can create, which is that I’m a woman, I’ve got two kids and a drunk husband. He has lost three jobs. He’s gotten two DUIs. And most recently, he’s been picking the kids up and he’s been drinking while he was driving with the kids. And so, I really need his income. I really need him to help me with the kids. But God, I can’t deal with someone who’s drinking during the day. So, I make a decision. 

When that man comes home, at the end of the day, I put an ice-cold bottle of vodka on the dining room table. And I say, “Honey, if you come home sober at four o’clock every day, you can have that bottle. A new one will be waiting every day.” And you know, for a year and a half, that woman said her husband kept his job, he didn’t have a DUI. And he didn’t pick up those kids drinking. For a year and a half, she had the ability to manage her house and have everything go okay. He drank at night. 

Eventually, though, he was unable to hold on to that and he returned to drinking full time, and then she had to come get help and deal with it. But I thought, you know, from a codependency perspective, bringing that bottle home is enabling. You must be really as sick as he is to want him to keep drinking and you’re buying him bottles? You are really troubled. 

I look at it completely opposite. We have this idea in our field called harm reduction. I think that’s what this woman is doing in her own home. She can’t fix the problem but she can’t keep the paychecks coming in. She can keep her kids from getting driven into a tree. She can keep herself from having to pick up her husband at the police station. She got to do that for a year and a half. It wasn’t the ultimate solution but good for her. She managed to have that time, more or less worry-free until it stopped working.

So, this idea that you would say what’s wrong with you for bringing those bottles home? Don’t you know you’re making it worse? To me, that’s a perfect example of what doesn’t work in codependency because I would say to her, “What a great idea. What a good job you did.” It didn’t solve the problem but what a great idea. 

I think that is the sort of message that people can hear much more. That wasn’t my best idea but I did best. I think that’s a much easier message for someone to hear than let me look at what’s wrong with me for making that decision.

Absolutely. And there’s principles there that are reinforcing and validating, right. I love just you’re distinguishing the difference between a boundary to try to attempt to change or control versus a boundary that’s super clear around like, here’s a limit around my need for safety and my well-being and I’m going to be consistent about that because I’m aware I reached a threshold. I’m going to honor that. I’m much more motivated to keep it because it’s authentic and real. 

I think what you’re speaking to and being able to validate the wisdom in that is helping acknowledge the health in that in some of those aspects, and then being able to help assist in the development. Thank you. It’s a great story. It’s also just really revealing in a lot of the things that we’ve talked about. I know we’re winding down our time here today with you. Would you like to encourage people to connect with or learn more about?

Sure. So, I do a bunch of things. I do have a very popular podcast called Sex, Love, and Addiction. It’s really about intimacy disorders in relationships. It’s about cheating and infidelity. It could be sex addiction, or could be just compulsive cheating, chronic cheating. It’s really about what happens in relationships and coupleships when there’s a betrayal of trust. How do I repair that? How do we ever have sex again? How do I deal with my anger when you’ve betrayed me? All those kinds of things is what the podcast is about. 

I’m very easy to find. If you type in my name, Rob Weiss, and you put the word sex in, or you put the word addiction and you’re probably going to find me only in a good way. I’ve run a treatment center for a number of years. It’s called Seeking Integrity. At Seeking Integrity, we treat men who have intimacy disorders in such a way that they’re engaging with a lot of compulsive sexuality or multiple affairs or chronic cheating. They’re really about to lose everything important to them. We take those men into treatment and we help them begin to understand why they’ve been running away from home for so long and what we all really need is to find our way home. That was good, right? 

Yeah. 

But that’s what I say to addicts. You know what you’re missing is you keep running after something out there. But don’t you know the real gift is right here at home? You can find me there. I want you to talk to you about this, Dr. Jessica. I decided a long time ago that what’s really brings meaning to my life is giving things away. 

So, we have a website called SexandRelationshipHealing.com. I have gotten a whole bunch of committed therapists who volunteer their time. We run about 15 groups a week that are support groups. We don’t charge for them. They’re completely free. So, a betrayed partner who’s dealing with infidelity can come sit and talk about his or her problems because there’s separate groups for men and women. 

A gay man can go and find a group for himself. A man has been cheating for years and doesn’t know how to heal his relationship, he has a place to sit. I mean, 12-step meetings are useful, but a lot of people aren’t ready or they don’t want to go. So, I get lazy therapists. And I say you have an hour of your time; you get in there and host a group once a week. It’s been really a gift to me to see people grow and develop on their own steam in their own way. 

I guess I want to say one more thing, Dr. Jess, is that, you know, we’re very fortunate. I mean, we have the resources to become who we want to be and do what we want to do. But when I do the podcast, when I ask people to volunteer on sex and relationship healing, I understand that most people probably listening to this may never go to therapy. They may never be able to afford it, their insurance company may never pay for it, they may have to be working three jobs, they may never make a 12-step meeting because they don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable in that environment. But I always want to have a place where people can go to learn. That’s why we do this. You don’t get paid for this. I don’t get paid for this. But so many people have the opportunity to access information that they never would have been in any other circumstances. And so, that’s really at this point in my life, what the work is about. So, thank you for giving me the opportunity to sort of spread the word and give some stuff away.

Yes. I will make sure to have the link to your website, your treatment center, the educational sex, relationship, and addiction, your podcast, as well as a few links to some of your books that would be relevant to today’s conversation. I know you do a lot of guest posting on Psychology Today, and you’re in a number of other places. Thank you so much for what you offer people.

Well, it must be working doctor just because you heard me. I’m not going, “Hey, hey, hey.” You came along and said, “Hmmm. I agree with that. Let’s talk.” And that’s all I want is to open the conversation. So, a blessing to talk to you, a real gift. I appreciate the invite. I hope I can come back. 

All right. Thank you again.

You’re so welcome. Thanks for the invite.

Signing Off

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching