Codependent Enabling: Stages of Decline

People trying to save or help their addicted loved ones are in a similar position to a pastor trying to save his congregation from sin. They often use similar tactics. After a time of this helping, the addict comes to resent the reforming efforts of the loved one, who is after all supposed to be his parent or spouse, not his counselor, sponsor, or pastor. The helping loved one begins to sense this resentment deep down, and to feel that if the addict recovers, he will probably leave, and the relationship will probably be severed. To avoid feeling this fear, the enabler keeps playing the helping games that in strengthen the addict’s dependency on the enabler.  This makes things worse.

The really good pastors remain in their minds rather independent of their churches. They know who they would be, how they would live when they move on. There is an old English term for a pastor who is dependent on his congregation.   The wordvicarious comes from the old English word vicar, referring to a rector (pastor or priest) who wasn't paid enough money to buy his own food and shelter, so he depended on his congregation to feed and house him. He couldn't work anywhere else until they or the bishop released him to. He was taking care of his flock, but he was also depending on them for everything, and he had lost touch with who he would be without them.

Vicars therefore live for and through the congregation, to the neglect of their own personal life. Some are afraid to offend their congregation, and so they tell them whatever they think the people want to hear.  Often they feel they have to raise the congregation up spiritually or financially before they have a right to live their own lives.  Other vicars are tyrants, controlling their flock through preaching that lays down the law in stone, with fire and brimstone.  The controlling types we therapist call active-dependent, and the comforting approach we call passive-dependent.  Whether active or passive, controlling or comforting, vicars live vicariously for and through those they help.  So if you want another word for this process of codependency or enabling, you could call it vicarity.

Now as addictions progress and take more and more of the addict’s freedom and life, addictions go through stages. Likewise, as the loved ones keep trying to help by pouring in more and more love, they are also losing their freedom, their strength, and their life. In the later stages, like the addict, they find they have suffered great losses – finances, freedom, self-respect, health, faith, and relationships with family and friends. At these later stages, the exhausted codependent enabler is like a vampire. Trying to suck the poison out of the addict as if he had a snake bite, she is in effect joining the addiction as she sucks more life, freedom, and self-respect out of the addict. She feels most alive, not when she is living for God through her body, but when she lives for her addict, through his body.  A key sign the enabler is out of control is a loss of good lifestyle balance between work, rest, and play.  Toward the end, burned-out enablers need a sabbatical rest.

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt