Further Reading

Mom's codependent, and I don't know what to do

Dr. Peele:

I think my mom may be co-dependant...she won't go to therapy and I feel like her psychologist. What can I do to get her some real therapy?


Dear Violet:

Sometimes, people won't go to therapy, and their families must be their therapists. Indeed, the best therapy involves the family in order to make sure that, once therapy is over or even as it continues, that the person's issues are addressed. Since most people live and deal daily with their families, if these do not support new ways of acting and being, then anything therapy may suggest will quickly be subverted. In fact, the family can be viewed as the genesis of the person's problems (this is the view of family systems theory associated with Salvador Minuchin). And, do keep in mind, people have lived for centuries without therapists, and it is not at all clear that we are a lot better off psychologically then the generations before us.

I once had a woman who came to me for therapy who you could call codependent — she went from man to man. She was actually consulting me it seemed in order to find out how best to latch onto one of these fellows! And she had a daughter, perhaps like you, who was attractive and serious and seemingly much better tuned in than her mother. I worked with them together at times, in order to build the mother's awareness based on the daughter's insights. The daughter had herself quickly resolved to leave an abusive relationship.

Obviously, I don't know much about your situation — is your mother married or in a relationship (to your father), is she fairly promiscuous; how old are you and what is your romantic situation? How well do you communicate, with your mother and family and in general? Here are some techniques for being helpful:

  1. speak to your mother in terms that are meaningful to her (i.e., along the lines of what will make her happy);
  2. communicate as gently as possible (preferably largely by asking innocent or helpful questions, without barbs or trying to score points);
  3. help her to take small practical steps (e.g., going places where she might meet reasonable people, developing interests she has, conducting dates in a reasonable manner, without making it seem like each date is the second coming).

Of course, if your mother is hurting you through her behavior, it may be hard for you to play a dispassionate role in her life. Does she have any other relatives (such as a sister) whose help you might be able to enlist?

If you know your mother fairly well and are concerned about her, and are in fairly good control of your own life, you may be able to help your mother considerably. Of course, I don't want to lay a heavy load on you if your are too young — although that seems already to be happening. Just as with therapy with drug addicts, if you can work helpfully with your mother she might become more amenable to entering formal therapy — just watch out, you might start wondering whether the psychiatrist or psychologist she finds is as effective as you are!


P.S. There is a movie out now about a girl and her mother — the mother is a love addict who sometimes ignores and hurts her daughter. But the two have a loving and mutually supportive relationship. Unfortunately, the film is only showing in some small theaters. It is called Tumbleweed.