Saturday, September 03, 2005

Co-dependency, Enabling, and the Gulf Coast

House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of federal assistance for hurricane-devastated New Orleans: “It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's seven feet under sea level.”

I’m going to ask some knotty—and to me, absurd—questions in the blog. As I do, you may become hopping mad and decide to click your mouse to somewhere else. Please remain with me!

Let’s begin with some definitions:

Co-dependency: There are many definitions used to talk about codependency today, although the original notion of codependency was developed to acknowledge the responses and behaviors people develop from living with an alcoholic or substance abuser. Perhaps the simplest and most straight forward definition I have encountered comes from Biology Online: "A relational pattern in which a person attempts to derive a sense of purpose through relationships with others."

Enabling/Enabler: A person who facilitates/supports the behaviors of an alcoholic or drug addict, usually passively.

Dennis Hastert’s comment above could be interpreted as suggesting that, if the government assistance New Orleans to rebuild, then it is acting as an enabler to allow people to maintain the self-destructive behavior of living in a city that is doomed to further destruction. Or, another way of saying it: the people of New Orleans and the people of the United States would be in a co-dependent relationship. And that is bad.

Hastert isn’t the first to make this comment. Below are excerpts of an email discussion between some of my long time friends:

“The sad part is, we will spend billions of dollars to rebuild infrastructure in and around New Orleans only to face the absolute certainty that it will, within the next several years, be destroyed by another huge storm. I say use the money to buy up these properties then displace that population. I, for one, am getting a little bit tired of paying for everyone's stupid decisions. I can make enough of those on my own.”

“You bring up a good point… New Orleans, Key West, and San Francisco have soaked up a significant part of the population that the rest of the country might not want. If New Orleans ceases to exist, and the other can’t absorb those displaced, then they have to go somewhere like Louisville or Lexington or Grant County. As for a city being located in such a situation, remember who put it there in the first place.”

I’m making the jump from these comments to the concept of co-dependency because the assumption those who promote the theory of co-dependency is that it is a kind of addiction—a relationship addiction. It has been used to describe almost any relationship with another person or group that is demanding or requires sacrifice. From this standpoint, assisting the people of New Orleans now and in the future rebuilding of the city can be—and seemingly is—considered to be “co-dependent enabling.” This is “unhealthy” because the "co-dependent" purportedly neglects their own personal needs to meet the needs of another. One author described a codependent as "being totally concerned with others and neglecting [himself], accepting their problems as [his] own ..." Thus, a codependent is "guilty of excessive compulsions" to fix the wrongs of another or to be controlled by another.

I want to challenge that idea. I want to challenge the entire co-dependency movement because:

....the codependency movement...does not recognize or confront the social and economic realities in people's lives. It does not distinguish the dependencies that are healthy and desirable (loving and needing others) from those that are economically imposed (such as not having the financial resources to leave a violent marriage). It speaks of self-esteem as if it were air in a balloon, something that can be inflated and deflated with sheer willpower, unrelated to anything that people do, to their experiences in the world, to the context of their lives. --Carol Tavris

As a theologian and a Christian, I must ask "where in the Bible are we cautioned of the damage done by too much love?" Are we not instructed to love God and others as ardently as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39?) If a tornado hits Louisville or Lexington or Grant County tomorrow, would we not want and expect help from others, even if it could be considered our “fault” that we made the decision to dwell in a place where tornados are possible?

I, for one, would rather be considered “co-dependent” than to turn my back on any person or city or nation in need. And I don’t think that I am alone in this decision. Nor do I believe that only Christians follow Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee’s question of “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matthew 22:36) when he responds:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-38)


  1. I was able to spend some time in the New Orleans area a while back, and to me the real pity is the loss of a culture that stretched back 200 years. The Cajuns are unique and wonderful people, and now they are scattered all over America. You can build new houses and casinos, but I'm afraid the culture is shattered forever. If you rebuild New Orleans, I think what you'll have is a coastal Las Vegas.

    Changing topics, the way enabler/codependent was explained to me, it was behaviors that allow the partner to continue in his self-destructive habits. I know a woman who supports her alcoholic husband. He doesn't work, isn't looking, and just sits at home all day and drinks. She loves him, she cares for him, but is she really helping him?

  2. Thanks, Thomas, for your comments. I fully agree. I know a therapist from New Orleans who has Cajun ancestry. He has told me about his family’s history and various Cajun customs. The loss of those traditions would be a terrible detriment to American culture. And what about Bourbon Street? I have no idea what condition it is in. The buildings and the stories that go with them could not be recovered if it has been destroyed.

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! The menace of a new New Orleans as a coastal Los Vegas is a nightmarish vision that I wouldn’t like to see come true.

    I concur that the idea of codependency and enabling allows/facilitates another’s detrimental behaviors. I think that is the idea of those who suggest Federal aid not be given to rebuild New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities. They suggest that it is reasonable to assume that another devastating hurricane may come along at any time, even within the year. So why waste money rebuilding something than is only going to be destroyed sooner or later? The people, they suggest, should be relocated elsewhere, where there is less chance of natural disasters.

    Of course, to me, that is absurd. I don’t believe that there is any place on earth safe from catastrophes caused by Mother Nature. Many folks are still awaiting the California coastline to plunge into the Pacific. Yet, I read that there is new construction going on along the coast in ever more precarious locations and folks there aren’t relocating elsewhere.

    BTW, Thomas, I have looked at your blog and find it most enjoyable! I’m adding it as one of my “Good Blog” links.

  3. Thank you! I'll do my best not to be a bore.

    Back to New Orleans, it occured to me that it's been there for nearly 300 years. Maybe one city-levelling catastrophe every 300 years is an acceptable risk level.

    Historically, the bigger risk to cities has been man-made catastrophes. I think wars have levelled many more cities than Mother Nature.

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  5. I really don't think that those who would withhold funds to rebuild the Gulf Coast have a leg to stand on. Dennis Hastert’s comment has already angered enough folks that he'll be eating crow at least until the next politican says something as abusrd.

  6. i dont understand why mr Hastert doesnt want to help the poeple when they are in trouble