Today I’m chatting with Joe Borders, LMFT, a sex-positive LGBTQ therapist and specialist in working with teens, couples, and addiction.
Joe has a private practice, with locations in Sacramento and Roseville, CA, and is very active in the Sacramento community and online. His blog is filled with information and was created with the intention of providing references and resources for the community.
More and more frequently I’m hearing how individuals are gaining awareness around their struggles in their romantic relationships with feeling loved, connected, giving too much to others, saying ‘no’, and more, labeling these behaviors as ‘co-dependent.’
The term ‘co-dependency’ is used frequently, and sometimes misused, so I wanted to talk with Joe to learn more about co-dependency, relationships, and how he helps couples break through the addiction/co-dependency cycle in therapy.
Adriana: Tell me a bit about you… what guided you to become a therapist?
Joe: My parents are therapists, so in some ways therapy has always been a part of my life. For a while I rebelled and studied computer programming in college. Eventually I decided to become a therapist because it feels like a very real thing to do. We all tend to look at reality as an objective set of facts, but in truth reality is subjective, with each individual experiencing their own version of reality. I also believe that our interactions and attachments to each other are what make us human, give life meaning, and help us to feel whole and fulfilled in life. Being a therapist means I get to walk with people in their journeys of discovering/defining their realities and seeking love and connection from the people who are dear to them.
Adriana: One of your specializations is addiction and co-dependency… tell me more about your work with people struggling with co-dependency? How would someone know if they were co-dependent?
Joe: This is a hard one in some ways. I usually avoid using the word co-dependency with people right away and make sure to explore any negative connotations they might have with the word. In my experience a lot of people fixate on the word “dependent” and think co-dependent means that they are excessively needy and can’t live without a particular person they’re fused with. This can be the situation in severe cases but in general, codependency more so refers to an unhealthy pattern of relating with others that tends to be very altruistic. People who struggle with codependency tend to put the needs of others above them. They suppress their own needs in relationships; feel uncomfortable asking for things and/or saying how they feel. It usually revolves around an internalized belief that they are un-lovable and/or will be a burden to others if they ask to have their needs met and/or openly express their emotions. In a sense, this does make the co-dependent person dependent on others because he/she’s self-esteem and sense of well-being is closely tied to how his/her partner feels. Codependency is very hard to summarize briefly!
I think it can be helpful to look at how codependency happens to better understand it. The word co-dependency originated in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous and substance abuse treatment. It was said that the person who is addicted to the substance is “dependent” on it. Anyone who has loved an addict will be able to tell you that it is very easy to get roped into the drama and chaos that the addiction causes. In these relationships the person who loves the addict often finds themselves making accommodations, over extending themselves, and walking on egg shells to avoid trouble. The word co-dependency came around because in this sense the addict is dependent on the substance and the person who loves them is dependent on it by proxy (co-dependent).
Co-dependency doesn’t always have to come from being raised in a family struggling with addiction. It typically comes about in one of (or a combination of) four ways: 1) you were made to feel responsible for your parents and/or family in general growing up, 2) you weren’t allowed to be imperfect (every child messes things up), 3) you were shamed for your emotions, and/or 4) you were a victim of gas-lighting, which essentially means that your parent(s) or other important person invalidated and made you question your emotions and perceptions to the point that you might have thought you were crazy. Any one of these things, or a combination of them, can result in a person who carries shame and the internalized belief that he/she is a burden. The saddest part about this that I see in therapy is that people who really struggle with codependency want nothing more than to feel the closeness of good, positive relationships, but they really struggle with just being in the moment and being themselves when they are around people. Especially people they care about. I often use this analogy: for the codependent person, saying something like “I don’t feel safe and I need you to hold me” or even something as simple as “no” can feel like what any person would feel like if they were trying to run across a freeway. Technically you can do it….but there’s a deep nagging sense in your gut that you really shouldn’t and you’ll likely get hurt.
Adriana: What are some of the warning signs you see for individuals that may be in an unhealthy or co-dependent relationship?
- Extreme altruism. When I work with people who don’t like the word co-dependency, this is what I refer to it as instead.
- Rigid roles that leave one person appearing/feeling stupid or less than the other.
- Sugar coating everything or tiptoeing around a lot.
- Enabling behaviors like rescuing your partner from having to deal with the consequences of their actions.
Adriana: What are some ways that a couple would benefit from therapy for this issue?
Joe: The ultimate goal of couples’ therapy is to re-establish closeness and connection. If the couple is able to hold each other in their vulnerability and tolerate occasional distress in session, then couples therapy revolving around co-dependency can be very rewarding. It creates a stage for the couple to challenge their fears and assumptions, and to express withheld emotions.
There is a parable I heard somewhere that fits well here:
A man and a woman are married for 40 years. Every day the man stops at the store and picks up a loaf of bread. When he gets home he breaks off the end of the loaf for himself and gives her the soft middle part of the loaf. After 40 years of doing this every day he thinks to himself “I work really hard and have given her the best part of the bread all of these years. I deserve the better piece.” When he gets home he gives his wife the end of the bread instead of her usual middle piece. She responds saying something to the effect of “Oh, after all of these years, you’ve finally given me the best part of the bread! The end is my favorite. Thank you so much!”
If couples therapy revolving around codependency goes well, it looks a lot like this. “I held these assumptions about you and I, and molded myself in some ways to accommodate. Now I see that none of that was necessary and you were here all along.”
Adriana: If you had a few minutes to sum up your best tip for couples what would it be?
- Choose your battles.
- When you’re hurt, say so.
- Do your best to communicate your emotions and when you feel dropped
- Do your absolute best to control the urge to fight or flight and when you do get there, say it.
- It can feel hard sometimes, but really the key to a good relationship is to be vulnerable. It is much easier to say “I hate you!” than it is to say “when you did that I really felt like I couldn’t count on you and it made me feel scared.”
I love that… vulnerability is the key to a lasting relationship.
I want to thank Joe Borders for his time. To learn more about couples work and therapy with Joe Borders, LMFT, check out his website and blog. In fact, his most recent blog post is about queerbaiting is very interesting read!
Adriana Joyner, LMFT, is a Sacramento area therapist specializing in helping people lead authentic lives. Adriana’s most passionate about supporting individuals exploring their gender and sexuality, and advocating for the LGBTQIA community. Her office is located in Gold River, CA located off Highway 50 at Sunrise Blvd. For more information or to schedule a consultation, please call (916) 547-3997 or email firstname.lastname@example.org