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Co-dependency and You

Co-dependency refers to an emotional and mental dysfunction which, just like addiction, can cause disastrous effects on the quality of life.  Almost everyone knows how substance abuse can destroy careers, families, reputations and finances. Yet what is much more insidious and harder to decipher are the effects of co-dependency.

The best definition of co-dependency which I have found is from Melody Beattie’s book “Codependent No More,” which defines the condition as “the tendency to allow the behavior of other people to affect how we feel and the obsession to control that person’s behavior.” The term is most often applied to those whose lives have been affected by alcoholics or addicts. Although growing up in alcoholism is the classic context to develop co-dependency, growing up or living in any dysfunctional situation, whether it is with alcoholism, with mental illness, or with a raging parent, is enough to participate the disorder.  Co-dependency starts as a coping strategy for dysfunction and becomes a way of being.  Ironically, in many cases, when the addict or alcoholic gets clean and sober, the ruin and devastation of their addiction on others (especially family and friends) comes to light. These “innocent bystanders” have lived their lives in the foxholes of addiction, trying to patch up the lives of their loved ones suffering from addiction with no thought of their own mental and emotional health. Unfortunately, the innocent victims of alcoholism and addiction face as rocky a road to mental and emotional recovery from addiction as the addict.

Addiction truly is a family disease. It not only infects the addict, but also the innocent bystanders, the spouses, the children, fellow workers and anyone else who assumes responsibility for the behavior of the addict. When an addict “sobers up”, (s)he is well on the road to recovery, while the other victims of that disease are still reeling from the nuclear winter of the addict’s behavior. These survivors may be dealing with post-traumatic shock disorder, passive-aggressive disorders and other behavioral problems often associated with co-dependency. They are in need of help as much as the addict.

Co-dependency is a disorder made for lawyers because we tend to be (and often believe we need to be ) obsessive about details and because we try in the courtroom and at the bargaining table to exercise control – to control others.  These lawyerly preoccupations lend themselves to the way co-dependency functions.  Co-dependency usually operates below our level of awareness.    The co-dependent’s sense of well-being depends upon something external to the person.  This external thing upon which one is dependent may be an idea or image, but usually it is a person.  How I feel depends on someone else – clients or spouse or children.  If I need another person to feel okay for me to be okay, then I need to take care of them.  Co-dependency then becomes the unhealthy and obsessive belief that I have responsibility for another person’s behavior and that it is my responsibility to protect them from themselves. Worst of all, co-dependency is the unhealthy and usually unconscious belief that I must be another’s savior and that it is my responsibility to control how they live their lives. In co-dependency, one’s feelings about oneself are tied up in whether, for the moment, the other person is managing or failing, or is happy or sad.  Co-dependency is the belief that the behavior of others will affect how I see myself.  When we allow the actions of other people to control how we feel about ourselves we suffer from co-dependency.

What in the world does this have to do with the practice of law? Hopefully nothing, but at times, perhaps everything. Do you lie awake at night obsessing on how to control your client’s or the opponent’s behavior? Do you lie awake at night obsessing on how to win your case or at bare minimum, how not to lose? Do you lie awake at night obsessing on someone else’s behavior? Do you obsess on these things during the day? Do you find yourself advising your clients on the most mundane decisions about their lives and feeling hurt if they don’t follow your advice? If you have, say hello to co-dependency.

This is not to imply that concern, compassion and planning equals co-dependency. It doesn’t. First, concern, compassion and planning do not involve the loss of sleep, loss of quality of life or strained relationships at home or in the office. Second, concern, compassion and planning do not involve allowing client behavior to effect how you view yourself.  However, co-dependency, on the other hand, usually results in all of the above, along with loss of self-esteem, and a disastrous effect on your personal life.

There are some simple rules that must be followed to avoid a co-dependent relationship with your client (or others).

First, we need to balance our personal, professional and family life. Your spouse is not really interested in your clients and their issues if (s)he never sees you and doesn’t have the opportunity to share quality time with you. There is the potential for your children not to respect your hard work if you keep missing athletic events, school plays, and are never available. We need to learn to draw healthy boundaries between our work, our families, and ourselves. As a rule, do not let your clients call you at home unless it involves death, incarceration or Super Bowl tickets. Leave your work issues at the office and your family issues at home. If you let your clients ruin your day, you need to consider firing your client or seek advice on how not to let your clients affect the quality of your personal life.  There is nothing stated in the Rules of Professional Conduct that requires you to feel like a failure if a client didn’t get everything they wanted. If any relationship is causing you to be miserable, it may be because you have become co-dependent.

A term often used for co-dependents is “an arrogant doormat”. Co-dependents tend to create dramas in their life to test whether they have control over the person who is the object of their co-dependency. If their little test works, then the co-dependent is the “best darned lawyer in the world”. If the test fails, as it usually does, the lawyer mentally becomes “the doormat” and the reason that object’s life is so miserable.

Second, you have to carefully communicate to your client your role in his or her life. You should not assume the role of social counselor or therapist unless, in the height of co-dependency,  you enjoy spending countless hours for which you will not be compensated agonizing over how your client and the opposition should behave. Furthermore, if your client does not behave as you would like them to, you always have the choice to withdraw. You should not give your client the power to make you feel angry, afraid, embarrassed or a failure.

Third, you are allowed to say no. If your client leaves you, praise Allah and be thankful. Success sometimes means letting go. The only difference between General MacArthur and General Custer was MacArthur knew when to surrender.

Finally, have a sense of humor. Clients do some pretty silly things.  Be grateful that their problems are not your problems. We do not have to accept unacceptable behavior by anyone. From my experiences I have found that I do not have to be miserable when my client, or anyone else, is miserable. I have found that I do not have to get angry when my client, or anyone else, is angry and I do not have to believe my client, or anyone else, if they criticize me. I do not have to feel worthless when my client or, anyone else, does not take my advice or behave as I have advised them to behave. That is their choice.

We are lawyers, not gods. When we allow ourselves to take the role of gods, the only outcome can be misery. The true sign of mental and emotional health is the ability to be grateful for what we have, live each day as if it is the last, to have and be friends, to believe and trust in a power greater than ourselves and to live a life of service to our fellow man. If you conclude that you may be suffering from co-dependency, there is an abundance of help available. There are organizations such as Al-Anon and professional therapists that specialize in recovery from co-dependency.  As they say, the only thing you can lose by getting help is your misery. It will always be returned, free of charge, if you want it back.

– by Gray Robinson

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