“Co-dependency” emerged as a buzzword in my profession more than a decade ago, and became a catch-all phrase for a dysfunctional congregation. The concept springs from studies observing the long-term effects of alcoholism on the alcoholic’s family members. The insights garnered from those studies soon generated an explosion of pop-psychology books that also bloomed into a garden of organizational-psychology concepts.
To boil it down and oversimplify for a 500-word column, the idea is that the alcoholic has an oversized influence on the rest of the family system and becomes the sun around which all the members orbit. The relationship expectations the non-alcoholic members of the household learn are thoroughly cooked in a stew of adverse behaviors from the alcoholic. But when one learns to relate to an alcoholic as if it is the normal state of affairs, it deforms his or her relationships with people outside the family that are not alcoholic. In fact, there is a high incidence of people from alcoholic families who grow up to couple with or marry an alcoholic. The reason for this, it is theorized, is because the craziness generated by living with the alcoholic becomes normalized for family members, and those relationship norms do not work well with people that weren’t formed in the crucible of an alcoholic family. In short, we are attracted to what we know.
Eventually it was recognized that a workplace or organization with an alcoholic CEO, pastor, or other leader, develops dysfunctions similar to an alcoholic family. As the academic sociology of “congregational development” came to realize, the behavioral dysfunctions of an alcoholic pastor several decades in the past continues to exist in the present unless some major intervention has taken place. Now, the Mental Health field has come to recognize this is true for families and organizations well beyond the problem of alcoholism.
As Mental Health America, one of the oldest such organizations, has published:
“Co-dependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence. Originally, co-dependent was a term used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals. Today, however, the term has broadened to describe any co-dependent person from any dysfunctional family…A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied…They become “survivors.” They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves. They don’t talk.” (mentalhealthamerica.net)
Increasingly I sense that America has become a co-dependent nation centered around a president with a serious mental health problem. We suffer fear, anger, pain, and shame, and talk less and less about it for fear of tumult or in order to detach. It is clear that even when this president is finally gone, the effects of his presidency will ripple far into future generations. Not only do we need a major intervention, once it happens we will need our best healers sharing their art.