Updated: Jul 27, 2019
I’ve mentioned several times that I recently decided to rework the 12 steps. This time, my sponsor and I are doing it differently. We’re using the The Codependent’s Guide to the 12 Steps as a guide. In short, this means that I am shifting my focus from my once-unhealthy relationship with substance, to my currently-unhealthy relationship with - well - relationships.
I’ve never before identified with the term “codependent.” I suspected that someone could not be both codependent and independent, and never once in relationships has independence been an issue.
Or rather, it has - but not in the way you think. Case in point: I once cheerily remarked to an ex, “You wouldn’t want me to be less independent! That’s what you like about me.” He looked at me skeptically: “That’s what you like about you.”
All this to say: I figured that if I wasn’t acting classically dependent on my partner, the term "codependent" couldn’t fit. My sponsor, however, has humbly (and wordlessly) reminded me that codependence can take many forms, and even the most proudly “independent” partners are sometimes pretty codependent, too.
A few weeks ago, after working my fifth step, my sponsor shared with me the following passage from The Codependent’s Guide to the 12 Steps:
“Not revealing myself in my relationships is turning out to be the ultimate way I try to control them. If I don’t tell you how I feel, what I want, what I think, then maybe you’ll like me. If I become who you want me to be, if I don't rock the boat, if I don’t own my own power, then you’ll like me. Then I can control the course of the relationship. That is an illusion. When I don’t reveal who I am, my relationships become superficial, and my real self will ultimately emerge, anyway. By the time it does, I will feel resentful, angry, and needy. It doesn’t work to put our lives on hold for anyone.”
When my sponsor first sent me this passage, it was a punch to the gut. I had been a bit narrow to imagine that "codependent" meant docility, deference. I pictured the modern-day Cult of Domesticity: feigning interest in football on behalf of my partner, pretending to be a little less Type A in order to put him and his friends at ease. When I heard "codependence," I pictured author Gillian Flynn's description of the "Cool Girl" from her book Gone Girl:
“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be."
Ostensibly, Flynn’s Cool Girl was never me. I don't like chili dogs, and I purposefully forget the rules to football whenever I’m assaulted with them. Even as a practicing alcoholic, I always refused beer.
But the Cool Girl is engaged in something deeper than that. Maybe she's dependent, maybe not. But if we take the passage from The Codependent's Guide at its word, she is almost certainly codependent, too.
The Cool Girl doesn't just pretend to like the things she doesn't. She pretends to be the things she isn’t. And, despite appearances, it isn't for her partner's behalf; it's for her own. She withholds information, withholds herself, to retain control of relationships. She forgoes intimacy to avoid vulnerability. She hides from her partner in plain sight.
I’m guilty of the same thing. Hiding from my partner was particularly easy to do when I was drinking. Taking a drink was like taking a giant eraser to my personality. Especially in the beginning, it always felt better to be liked than to be known. No, they don’t know who I really am. But they certainly seem to like the alternative.
Each relationship ended the same way. I always end up feeling bafflingly well-liked, and yet largely unknown. Anonymous. Assured that he liked the artifice, and too scared to show him something real. "Resentful, angry, and needy," just like The Codependent's Guide says I will.
One thing about the Cool Girl passage doesn’t sit well: It's full of blame. If you’ve ever read Gone Girl, you know that the protagonist is framing her husband for her own murder. So yes, blame is central to the plot. She blames her husband for her own sense of anonymity, for her own loss of self in the relationship. Metaphorically, she already feels erased by him. Is it too much to ask that there be legal consequences?
At the end of a relationship, I am often preoccupied by questions about him. Did he deserve it? Did his behavior discourage me from being more myself? These questions might facilitate self-righteous coffee dates with girlfriends and drop-kick me into a defiantly single phase, but they're a little short on insight. Twelve Step literature is rigorously insistent that we address our own flaws, keep clean our own side of the street. We are responsible for our patterns, and we are also gloriously empowered to break them.
In breaking those patterns - in doing something different - there is a trade off. I must be willing to let go the illusion that I could control my happiness or security by sculpting another person’s opinion of me. I must be willing to move towards vulnerability, uncertainty. The possibility of rejection, being alone. I am not actually right for everyone, but rather for a small and far-flung sample of humans who do not just tolerate or accept my eccentricities, but who love me for them. I must be willing to reveal a little more of myself, and therefore be certain of a little less.
It won’t make me the cool girl, and it certainly won't up my mate value in Wisconsin. But at least I don’t have to pretend to like football.