I have a major objection to women being told that they have codependency issues in recovery groups where no context is given to demystify the true cause of this so-called mental illness, which is patriarchy, pure and simple. In fact, women are specifically told NOT to worry about why they are codependent, and condescendingly instructed just to focus on the individual task of self-transformation. “‘Why?’ is not a spiritual question,” say our sponsors sternly, and then, with a rubbery smile, “it sounds like you’ve been doing that stinkin’ thinkin’ again!” Why is, of course, an important political question, but we are told we must keep our groups free of political discussions to prevent controversy. Which means, of course, that women must be kept ignorant and quiet about their oppression as a class, lest men in the group be offended or “hurt,” or (God forbid) women actually consider taking power in the public sphere. So many women are in such a vulnerable, desperate state when they go into 12-step recovery and psychotherapy after decades of suffering in silence from the system of male domination that they often accept this abuse just because they have had it so much worse. It makes me sad and angry that people these women come to trust, sometimes the very first people they have ever met who are actually willing to listen to them, give women only just enough validation that they still continue to hide and protect the man behind the curtain.
I belong to a codependency group on facebook where one woman expressed that she felt pathetic about being “diagnosed” as codependent. How sad is that – we are forced to take on a set of personality characteristics in order to survive in a man’s world, and then we are shamed for having those traits. We are not pathetic, we are oppressed! If anyone is pathetic, it’s a group of people who systematically overpower, control and enslave another group of people in order to meet their own narcissistic needs, greed and selfish desires. It is no coincidence that the psychiatric industry would rather have us on anti-depressants (created by the 300 billion dollar pharmaceutical industry) prescribed by male or male-trained psychiatrists (paid $150 an hour), and visited by male police officers (salaried $90,000 a year) with tasers and guns (400 billion dollar arms industry) in our homes when emotion-phobic, deluded and male-identified friends and relatives determine we have a “mental health crisis.” Rather than expose to us the shameful system of male-domination in its entirety, men take the opportunity to re-invest in our suffering for a profit. We are divided and conquered, misinformed and misled for decades, and then told that the way out of this mess is for each of us to grab ahold of a flaming ladder of ignorance, sold to us at a premium by the same assholes who threw us in the pit to begin with.
One of the challenges in making it clear that male domination is at the root of codependency is that there are also men in codependency recovery. So how could men be the problem? The reality that men are also oppressed by this system is mistakenly understood to be proof of the non-existence of male domination. Men are subjected to the structural violence of other men through capitalism. They are ordered around by mostly male bosses, their time and energy is extracted by a male-controlled government or a corporation in exchange for a relatively measly paycheck, and the meeting of their basic needs is withheld until they satisfy the techno-industrial earth-destroying machine’s lust for their labor. Most men are not part of the 1%, the ruling class that dominates 99% of the world’s wealth (or whatever the statistic is); but most of the 1% are male and so most men in the world are also subservient to other men. Capitalism is a pyramid scheme promising males privilege over other males, all of whom have privilege over women through patriarchy. This is true even though not all men are world rulers, or because some women have higher socio-economic status than some men, or because some women are CEOs and some men aren’t. A system built on domination and subordination would never, and could never, have been created by females in the first place, and every man on Earth within this system has power over at least one woman, or easily could, whereas the reverse is not true. Men exploit other men, as well as women, because that’s what men do. The nuclear family is a creation and microcosm of patriarchal society as a whole. Everyone in the family has a role within it to enable capitalism, thus the family system oppresses and grooms everyone in it – females most of all, but also male children. It doesn’t matter whether the wife or the husband makes more money or cheats or whether the wife as well as the husband beats or sexually abuses the children or whether a single mother emotionally incests her only child who happens to be male. The system still serves the larger system of male domination because it is a unit of the capitalist system which is the economic structure of patriarchy. So that’s where male codependents come from. Male violence.
In my experience, some women want to see the man behind the curtain, and some just aren’t ready, even when they have not been brainwashed specifically by the victim-blaming culture of 12-step programs. More often than I would like to admit, I’m still not ready. We are so used to blaming ourselves for our own misery, because that’s what men have intentionally gotten us to do, whether through traditional patriarchal religion or the rising popularity of the “it’s all your fault because negative thinking” new age movement (patriarchy’s way of oppressing women through post-it notes that it ingeniously convinces women to affix to their own bathroom mirrors). Some of us take masochistic pleasure in obsessing over our so-called “character defects” simply because we aren’t aware of any other choices. If we could just be good enough, and could believe in ourselves enough, they wouldn’t hurt us anymore, right? And if we could just recover enough from our dysfunctional family “issues,” we would be deserving of the new lives and perfect futures that await us in the beautiful world just outside of the meeting room…. Right? This is another part of the victim-blaming dynamic of 12-step groups – the whole premise is that there WAS a dysfunctional system that affected us as children, or within a marriage, and that we now somehow have the option of escaping those dynamics entirely. The psychological traits of codependency are cultivated within us because of the trauma bonding that requires us to accept a role in our own subjugation in order to believe we live in a just world. This process starts when we are children and are psychologically and materially dependent on our caretakers – children have a stronger need to believe their parents are sane than to love themselves, even if the adults they live with are abusive and otherwise completely bat-shit crazy. But even after the dysfunctional family system and its effects on us are externalized, recognized and despised for what they are (oppression, if anyone dares mention the word to us), we are still living in a patriarchal society and so behaviors of codependency such as people-pleasing, approval-seeking and self-sacrifice are still required of us in order to pay the bills. This hurts us whether we are doing it sincerely and eagerly, or detached and cynically. So much for “recovery” as a once-and-for-all healing process.
Unfortunately, patriarchy is everywhere, and we can only gain power in our lives by accepting a more privileged or tolerable position within the system. I can be free from my abusive father by marrying a less abusive man who nevertheless dominates our children by pressuring them to be sports heroes and who financially supports patriarchy by following the World Cup. Or I can get a job and work for some guy who profits from the exploitation of mine and others’ labor. Or I can start my own business and receive the blood money more directly. Or I can claim to be the picture of anti-patriarchal perfection as a lesbian separatist while collecting disability insurance from a government that works on behalf of multinational corporations to systematically exploit women both in my home country and overseas. We must not rest under the illusion that to escape some part of our own oppression is to escape, change, or resist the system of patriarchy in its entirety. Not because we are to blame for benefiting from system, but because nobody is to blame for their subjugation within it. We are all part of the system in some way, though not by choice, and to convince ourselves otherwise is to tighten the chains binding our lives and those of our sisters in slavery to men. Codependency can not be fully overcome as long as patriarchy exists, because someone in the system will always be forced to value another person’s feelings, thoughts, values, goals and priorities above their own in order to survive. And let’s be clear: not just someone, but some woman.
Where to go from here? Attend codependency recovery groups (if we can stand to do so) and take every opportunity to highlight the bigger picture of male domination woven throughout each of our problems as women? Start our own groups that explicitly connect codependency with patriarchy, and for that matter, all psychological diagnoses with the structural forces that cause them? Write books and articles on the subject? Become psychotherapists and bring a radical feminist analysis into the office? Whatever we do, let’s remember that solidarity with all women requires us to have an analysis of the entire patriarchal system, and not just the parts of it that hurt us personally and individually. Not all women are feminists, and many will drag us through the dirt behind the vehicle of their own oppression, as we have likely done to other women before we began to awaken. If and when we confront other women, as we must continue to confront ourselves, the language of codependency will do us little good unless we also create opportunities to collectively challenge the material reality of patriarchy. We are facing much more than a bad psychological habit occurring within an apolitical vacuum. All women have been hurt by men, whether at home, at school, at work, on the street, or in jail. On the basis of each of our individual experiences, and through awareness of their connection to the larger system of male domination called patriarchy, we can all come to understand and support the struggles of all of our our sisters. Whether the instrument of our sisters’ oppression or our own be a fist, a knife, a gun, a voice, a locked door, a price tag, or a pair of handcuffs, may we stand alongside one another in fiercely determined resistance, knowing that any woman’s oppression is our own, that any man’s power is every man’s power, and that one woman’s liberation comes only through the liberation of every other woman.