A couple of weeks ago at our house, this happened, for about the umpteenth time:
Partner: “I am seriously hungry. Can you please help me? I’m not doing well.”
Me: “Yes, totally. How about a PB&J?”
Partner: “Yes, anything. Thank you.” And he slumped down in the chair, exhausted.
I made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, let him eat a few bites, and then I said, “I don’t want to be your mom, but I will if I have to. I want you to start eating better and not letting your blood sugar get so low that you feel like that. It’s kind of a trend lately and I don’t like it. If you can’t take care of yourself, I will help you. But I wish you would take care of yourself. ”
[I’m pretty blunt with him these days. He’s the same with me, mostly.]
He said he knew it was a problem- both the not eating enough through the day and also it becoming a trend where he needed help. We’re working on it together now and because it’s a small thing, it’s shifting pretty quickly.
Here’s the thing, though: I know a lot of people in relationships feel like they ‘mother’ their partner and they don’t like it.
If you like mothering your partner, and they like it in return: awesome! Please ignore this post. But if you’re having trouble with this, read on.
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‘Mothering’ someone who is not your child (and sometimes this will apply to your grown children, actually) is a form of what is called ‘co-dependence.’ Co-dependence is a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction (to alcohol, gambling, shopping, etc.), poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.
If you’ve ever seen one of those sitcoms where the female partner in the family handles the schedules and dinners and kids and all the details while the male partner gets to be funny and dopey and have very few responsibilities (Home Improvement, According to Jim, and Everybody Loves Raymond come to mind) you know what ‘mothering’ looks like. The wife is always picking up after the husband’s dumb mistakes and making him seem like a better person to everyone- even sometimes to his kids.
If you live life with someone like that, and you’re not into it, it can be a real drag on your energy, your self-care, and your relationship with your partner.
Here’s the thing, though: I’m not going to tell you that co-dependence is entirely bad. It’s only bad when you start to resent your partner for it.
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The intensity of co-dependence exists on a line- like a see-saw.
On one end, there is complete co-dependence- neither of you can do anything without help or support or permission from the other one. You’re so thoroughly entwined in each other’s lives it may almost feel like you can’t move without the other person.
On the other end is complete independence where you don’t need each other very much and make decisions or take action without talking about things or seeing how they will impact each other.
In the middle is balancing area that can be described something like ‘caring about someone enough to feel badly when they don’t feel happy.’ But you’re also not directing their life, nor are you decimated emotionally when they’re having a tough time.
I drew a thing.
The thing about relationships is, there are places where all of these types of co-dependency might be useful. It might be useful to not really give a f-ck what your partner wears on a daily basis, as long as you don’t find it off-putting or it lands them in jail. It might also be really nice to be a bit sexually intertwined sometimes- really into each other’s happiness and pleasure.
But I think most of an enjoyable, good enough relationship is spent in that middle zone- which means a little bit of co-dependence might actually be a good thing. When our happiness is a bit dependent on our partner’s happiness (and the reverse must also be true, I believe) then we can work together to reach goals that help us enjoy life as individuals and a couple.
Of course, if the co-dependent actions aren’t balanced or correctly used for different situations, we can end up with some deep resentment. And resentment is a relationship killer. So that emotion is your guide as to whether your level of intertwined-ness or co-dependency is workable or not. Watch that line carefully and start talking when the see saw begins to tip in a direction you can’t work with.
[Important aside: co-dependence and manipulation can go hand in hand, on both sides of the partnership. If your connectedness is heading towards, or based in, manipulation, you may need deeper help for your partnership.]
Just like most of relationship work, there are shades of gray in terms of what is useful and what isn’t. And co-dependence can be bad, yes, but it can also be skillfully used to join the best wishes for ourselves and our partner into mutual effort…and joy.