Co-Dependency is a catch all term we throw around in our society having a general idea of it's meaning. This allows us to avoid recognition of how we fit within it. Co-Dependency involves two people being dependent on each other (to what ever degree that may be) in order to create an identity based on that dependency. What this means is that we end up in roles that we fulfill within the relationship in order to allow the relationship to function although it's dysfunctional. It's dysfunctional because the roles (the dependency) prevents us from being who we truly are; who we were created to be by our spiritual creator given our own likes, dislikes, interests, gifts, talents, faults, weaknesses, thoughts, feelings, ideas, values, perspectives, etc. The person in control of the relationship who is "molding" the other person is not their spiritual creator. They are simply operating to control the other person's identity.
There are six different roles that may be fulfilled within a dysfunctional relationship or family system. Those roles include the Addict, Primary Enabler, The Family Hero, The Scape Goat, The Lost Child and The Family Mascot.
The Addict enters into a relationship with the Primary Enabler. In the role as the Addict, this person typically brings with them a lot of guilt and shame that stems from life experiences prior to the relationship. To deal with or get relief from the guilt and shame, the Addict turns to a substance (i.e. nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, drugs, etc.) or behaviors (I.e. eating, shopping, gambling, video gaming, etc.). The more the Addict turns to the substance or behavior to escape the guilt and shame the more the addict feeds and develops an addiction. As the addiction intensifies, the Addict creates greater levels of damage within their life. The more damage created the more the Addict relies on their Self-Deceptive Defense System (see blog post on this) in order to avoid recognizing the harm they are inflicting on everyone in their life through the addiction.
The Primary Enabler is the person who enters the relationship loving the other person so much that they want to "help" or take care of them. As the Addict faces difficulties in life, the Primary Enabler typically feels sorry for the Addict and takes on their responsibilities in their effort to take care of the addict. In doing so, the Addict breathes a sigh of relief, relaxes and allows the Primary Enabler to fulfill their responsibilities all the while feeling loved. At the same time, the Addict turns to a substance or behavior to get relief from the old guilt and shame which is actually being compounded by their irresponsibility, through not fulfilling their own responsibilities. The more the Primary Enabler takes care of the Addict, the more the Addict turns to the substance or behavior to get relief from the guilt and shame which fuels the development of their addiction to the substance or behavior.
The more the Addict escapes, the more the Primary Enabler has to do to "help" the Addict. At some point, the Primary Enabler begins to build resentment for all the weight s/he carries. The more the Primary Enabler has to do the more resentment s/he builds. The higher the level of resentment, the more effort the Primary Enabler puts into "helping" the addict realize that they have a problem. The way the Primary Enabler goes about this is through the use of various Power and Control Tactics. As a result, the Addict will feel controlled and have the perspective that the Primary Enabler is controlling. This means that the Addict gets to see the Primary Enabler as being the problem rather than seeing their behavior and the addiction as the problem! These dynamics are a HUGE set up!
While the Addict and Primary Enabler are developing these dynamics, they often will add children into the mix. As children enter the picture, the Primary Enabler and Addict both operate in ways that set each child up to have to conform to roles in order to allow the family to function. These dynamics occur subconsciously. This typically is not what the parents want to create but it is however exactly what occurs.
The Family Hero is the child who is viewed as being the "good" child; the one who follows the rules without question, the one who does what they are told in order to reduce the level of conflict between the Primary Enabler and the Addict. As the Family Hero gains approval from both, the Family Hero gains a sense of control over the level of conflict and, in turn, seeks to do what ever they can to be "good" in order to maintain control over the level of conflict. Whenever the conflict occurs, they perceive that they did something "wrong" or not "good" enough so they try even harder to be "good". Through this pattern, the Family Hero develops the need for perfection. When this child enters school, s/he seeks to become the teachers "pet" doing what ever they can to be "liked". This child does what ever they have to do in order to excel at everything that they take on such as academics, sports, extra-curricular activities, business ventures, etc. This is the one who brings a "good" appearance to the family so the family places a high value on this child. The Addict and Primary Enabler put tremendous pressure on the Hero to excel in order to increase the appearance of the family as being perfect. As the pressure builds it creates major anxiety (fear) for this child. The more The Hero seeks perfection the greater level of anxiety. The higher the level of anxiety (fear) the greater their need for perfection. As a result, The Hero ends up developing a compulsive drive to perform.
The Family Scape-Goat is the child who is viewed as being the "bad" child; the one who thinks independently, questions everything and refuses to do that which doesn't make sense to them. The Addict and Primary Enabler find themselves exhausted by the one fulfilling this role; they are already exhausted by their own dynamics so these dynamics compound it and zap what little they had left. Tagged at an early age as being "bad", this one learns that they can gain a sense of control by creating conflict. This one also decides that if they are going to be blamed for everything that happens then they might as well do "bad" things and have fun doing "bad" things. As a result, The Scape-Goat views their self as being a "bad" person and fulfills that role to the hilt because they believe they do not deserve anything "good". The Scape-Goat develops the need to sabotage themselves to prevent "good" things from happening and self-harm in various ways.
The Lost Child is the one who can not deal with all of the chaos ensuing from the above dynamics and roles. This is the child who escapes through isolation. The Lost Child, often times the "middle" child, is lost in the shuffle; s/he works hard to be quiet to avoid drawing attention. The Lost Child will find space to create as their own whether it be their bedroom, in the woods, in a closet; private space where they can get away from everyone and avoid the chaos at home. In this role, the Lost Child disconnects from others in the family and, therefore, is unable to develop the skills needed to connect with others in the world outside becoming loners. Regardless of their intellectual abilities, they tend to develop the belief that they are incapable and are often tagged by others as being the least likely to succeed. (This was my role within my Family of Origin.)
The Family Mascot is the humorist; the one who uses their sense of humor to lighten the air at home. The atmosphere is so heavy that you can feel it but when the Family Mascot uses their humor the heaviness is lifted to some extent. The Mascot gains a sense of control over the heaviness of the atmosphere at home so they learn to use their humor. Their sense of humor will also appear to affect the mood of the Addict and the Primary Enabler; this encourages the Mascot to utilize their humor all the more. As the Mascot enters school, s/he becomes the "Class Clown" seeking humorous attention. In doing so, they neglect pay attention; they learn to neglect academics. They tend to be well liked by others for their sense of humor but as they age chronologically, they lag developmentally; they become immature and not so well liked.
All of these roles are debilitating; they require each person to give up their own sense of self. If they have any desire or inkling of figuring out who they are then they are threatening the family's ability to function; the structure of the family depends on each person fulfilling their role. When one person leaves the family, the family must shift the roles around to find a way for the remaining members to fulfill those roles. This means one person may end up fulfilling two or more roles or members may switch roles out of growing tired of the one's they've felt stuck within.
A Healthy family involves each person having the freedom, love, support and nurturing needed to discover their true selves and to pursue their own lives based on their true selves while supporting each other on their own life paths.
To learn more about these roles, visit John Bradshaw's website at www.johnbradshaw.com. He identified these roles through years of research working within the addiction arena. He has authored many books which I encourage anyone willing to read.