A letter from Rowland to a woman seeking guidance.
Thank you for the privilege of listening to your life-story during the last
couple of days.
Here are the key issues for you as I perceive them:
You are grateful for many/most aspects of your upbringing, and your parents
have done a conscientious job of launching you into the world. However, you
still feel that you have not yet 'left the nest' in terms of your mother's
expectations of you. As you have described it, you are wrestling with a
somewhat classic case of co-dependence.
Codependence or codependency happens when two (or more) people relate in a way
which reinforces mutually harmful behavior patterns. These are relationships
of mutual need: situations in which one person feels a need to be needed by
You have described your mother's relationship with her mother. They meet
regularly, but your mother complains about this 'obligation' from time to
time. It seems not to be a joy for her. And your mother has given you the
clear message that she is disappointed when you and she don't meet regularly.
She says you're busy, and she understands, etc. but all her non-verbal
messages are loud and clear: she is disappointed, hurt, and maybe angry.
In short, you feel that you are imprisoned within a 'perpetual childhood'
situation. Your mother won't let you go. She doesn't know how to give you the
space you need to breathe in your own air, to live your own life, to be an
adult. Even early in your marriage you were chided by your father for not
reporting to them by phone (from interstate). They wanted you to postpone your
marriage - all these are messages of being 'tied to apron-strings', an
unwillingness to let you go.
Now, as a parent myself I can hear myself saying: 'But I did let my adult
children go. This is all in their minds. Why do my children have to gang up on
me in this way?' Etc. Etc. In your case, I understand that the two of you -
you and your two brother - have come to this understanding quite independently
of each other. You have both had to resort to counselors and medication, and
havc had different varations of 'mid-life crises'.
Monica, you have had a less complicated relationship with your father. But he
was very busy in the church, and you rarely had one-on-one talking time with
him. He and your brother sometimes called you 'sourpuss!' and you don't
remember that with complete delight! (We males respond at this point: 'Just
grow up. We were kidding. Don't take it all so seriously!' When will we ever
Now a warning: many relationships break up when one member of the couple goes
into 'recovery'. This can be because of a number of reasons, as the
codependency literature explains:
+ Problems which were basic to the relationship, may have been previously
medicated away through the use of chemicals, overwork, or food. In your case
you felt you had to be medicated to deal with your 'depression'. And I suspect
that some of your 'busy-ness' in the church might be related to all this too.
Your mother may respond to your busyness by feeling you're too busy for her. I
am saying you're too busy because you're running from unresolved issues, and
not giving yourself time for reflection, reading, relaxation etc.
+ Another reason why there is a crisis during recovery is that, as long as
there was an addiction, everyone knew their role. One person was the addicted,
acting out, contrite, messedup one. The other person was the responsible, in
control, judgmental, long suffering martyr. (The martyr will send you messages
like: 'I did the best I could. I love you anyway. Please get over it quickly.
I hope you know I'm suffering too through all this').
+ Codependency is all about having needs met in inappropriate ways. It is the
expression of 'need-love' rather than 'gift-love.' When one of the persons
involved ceases to meet the other's 'needs' there is a radical adjustment
needed in the relationship. Boundaries must be redefined. Adult-adult
resolution of differences replaces adult-child conversations.
But there is hope. Here are nine rules from the experts for surviving the
process of recovery. They are not guarantees, but they can help both of you
through this painful process.
RULE #1 -- You cannot change anyone else. Give up thinking that, if only she
or he stopped doing this or that, then you would be happy. It is not true. You
can do nothing to control, manipulate or coerce another person to acting in a
way you think should make you happy. Simply give it up. No blaming.
RULE #2 -- You can change your behavior. Your emotions, reactions, thoughts,
feelings, all are not completely under your control. But your behavior is, and
your behavior is all you are really responsible for. Change yourself.
RULE #3 -- Changing your behavior, over time, may lead to a change in
attitude. It is strange how that happens, but some things you thought you
could never stand, seem to lose their importance if you stop feeding them by
acting on them.
RULE #4 -- Both of you must go into recovery. You are not responsible for
anyone else's needs and addictions, but if you want this relationship to have
a ghost of a chance you will have to get specific support. That may mean
therapy and/or support groups. The two of you are going to have to learn new
ways to communicate, argue, and problem solve together, and that means you
can't do it on your own. Get help. Sometimes a period of 'space' from each
other is required first.
RULE #5 -- Your childhood wasn't as rosy as you fool yourself into thinking it
was. The two of you learned some dysfunctional ways of relating from your
parents. These old beliefs are entrenched, and very hard to change. That is
why you need feedback from people other than your partner, or your family. Too
often you are reacting just the way your mother or father taught you to react.
Learn the truth. Monica, you're doing that - talking to a psychologist, coming
to Melbourne for a retreat etc.
RULE #6 -- You need to learn how to stand up for your truth in a way which
will not degrade, humiliate, put down, or attack another person. You do this
by owning all your thoughts, feelings, and reactions as your own, not as
something caused by someone else. Don't shame others.
RULE #7 -- Count to twenty before you explode. Then, just before you let fire,
ask yourself if you might not get further with this issue if you didn't first
talk it out with a third party, before destroying what's left of the
relationship. Hold back.
RULE #8 -- Try using the phrase "I interpret what you are doing as..." rather
than the old stand by, "You make me feel. . . ". So, "You made me so mad when
you slammed the door!" becomes, " I got so mad when you slammed the door
because I interpreted that to mean that you were mad with me!". The other can
respond, "Yes I was mad at you!", or can respond, "Hey, the wind blew the door
closed!" Own your feelings.
RULE #9 -- Take care of your body, your mind and your spirit. Eat healthily,
exercise moderately, soak in a bath, get a massage, be gentle with yourself.
This is a highly stressful time for both of you. So don't try to be perfect.
Codependent relationships are often ruled by Duty (good works done without
great delight or enthusiasm), the 'Perpetual Child Syndrome' (sometimes
involving gifts given with - often unspoken - strings attached), Secrets
(nothing negative must be said to anyone else; this should stay in our family
- or even in sections of the family), Favouritism (different ways of relating
to different children) etc.
Monica, part of your growing through this will be an increasingly confident
assertiveness, where you will speak your mind without acrimony or fear to
anyone. You will define healthy boundaries between yourself and others.
You are getting help. That is good. You'll get there. Your mother (and your
father) needs to talk to someone about all this too - and down the track you
will talk together with a facilitator. Your parents no doubt have their own
painful histories, which it is their business to face. It is a pity in some
ways that you are in the same church. My own view is that churches are
communities of people struggling with the process-of-redemption. They are
where we can be real. If, for example, someone asks about your changing
relationship with your mother, all you have to say is 'Yes, it is changing,
and it's going to be better; and I'd appreciate your prayers for us.' Nothing
more than that, except perhaps to one or two close friends.
May God's grace, mercy and peace go with you.