July 10, 2004    Psychology

Love, Friendship, and Dependency

The people who claim they love you, are often the same people who take it out on you when they are in a bad mood. And, you might ask, “Out of the billions of people in the world, why do they have to choose someone they love?” I suppose in some ways it makes sense, because it can be argued that they love you because they can abuse you. If someone gave me $1,000 dollars every month for no reason, I suppose I would “love” him. If someone picked up every piece of trash I threw up in the air, I would “love” that person too. Why not? The problem is the use of the word “love” in these cases. Our idealized image of “love” is selfless, i.e., disinterested love, which is different from the use of the same word “love” in the examples above. I would use the word, “dependency” for those. It just so happens that in English the same word is used for both. The confusion stems from the fact that outward appearances in both cases are hardly distinguishable.

For instance, parents are often scared of the pain of losing their children, which drives them to be over-protective. Consequently, they make parental decisions that are not necessarily good for their children. This fear can easily reach a point of paranoia where children are not allowed to do anything on their own. They would rather ease their own paranoia than do what is right for their children. They perceive this as “love”, because outwardly there is not much difference between this and truly caring about their children.

When we are young, because we are still insecure and fearful of life, we tend to see friendship as a form of support system. And, we are not satisfied with just having a support system; we also want to secure it. We want some sort of assurance that it will last forever. We are thus very much interested in verifying the degree of commitment, sincerity, and trust by testing the limits of our friendships, which in turn puts undue stress on them. For this reason, friendships of our youth tend to be emotionally tumultuous.

If you love or care about someone, you naturally would want to offer help when he is in need. Offering help, in this sense, is an effect/symptom of your love for him. Someone who has a naive notion of friendship reverses this process and sees this as the cause of friendship. He thus believes that friends are made by offering help, and that friendship is defined by the means of helping each other.

What may not be immediately obvious is that this support system is rewarding in both directions: when we help others and when others help us. Naturally, having someone who is willing and capable of helping you makes you feel secure, but having someone who needs you can also make you feel secure existentially. If he needs you, it is less likely that he would leave you. And, if he needs you, it means that your existence has a meaning. In order to feel better about your own existence, you need other people who need you. In this sense, what often appears to be a selfless, unconditional act has hidden selfish motives. In order to feel good about ourselves, we often help others who should not be helped, thereby perpetuating the very problem that causes them to suffer: the sense of helplessness.

A naive friendship of this nature, therefore, is a system of codependence. For this reason, needy people tend to attract each other, like drug addicts. It is no coincidence that heroin junkies insist on sharing needles even if clean needles are available to them. Testing their loyalty to each other is just as rewarding to them as the artificial sense of security the drug can offer. Codependent people become preoccupied with defining the word “friend”. It cannot just be someone whose presence they enjoy; he must be defined as a “friend”. How many people they can call “friends” becomes a piece of knowledge that gives them a sense of security and confidence, like collecting trophies.

Among a codependent group of people, the members become very vocal about how they would do anything for each other. “He is my best friend, and I would do anything for him.” Be that as it may; some people are capable of doing “anything” for total strangers too, as witnessed by certain heroic incidents like the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in 1982 in which Arland D. Williams, Jr., on the verge of drowning into the icy water, repeatedly offered the rescue line from the helicopter to others, which resulted in his own death. Such unconditional act of love has nothing to do with defining someone to be one’s own “friend”.

If you are only capable of having codependent relationships, you become scared of others who do not need anything from you, because you have no way of feeling any confidence in that relationship. If they don’t need you, you can’t feel good about yourself. You feel like you don’t exist in their eyes, like you are a disposable camera. You desperately try to find something you can help them with. You deliberately look for problems in them. Naturally everyone has problems, but whether they want to share them with you is a separate issue. Everyone has his or her own ways of dealing with their problems. But you insist that they share them with you in order for you to feel secure about that relationship. So, you measure the value of a friend based on how helpful you can be to him as well as how helpful he can be to you. A “friend”, in this sense, becomes a mere drug for your own ego; something to make you feel good about yourself with. You cannot fathom how someone could be a friend if he doesn’t need you and if you don’t need him.

This invites all sorts of misunderstandings in friendships because every friendship, in this case, is an unspoken contract of codependency. I agree to help you with this, so you agree to help me with that. This contract allows both of them to feel better about themselves, but naturally, no such contract could be clearly communicated. Discrepancies in expectations are unavoidable, which often jeopardizes the contract. And, if you cannot afford to lose that contract of support, you try to salvage it desperately. You get hurt in the process, which makes you want to never speak to him again, and vice versa.

People who build friendships without any dependency do not have these problems. There are no commitments, contracts, or expectations. To a codependent person, such a friendship seems shallow, because there is no drug-value in it, because it does not make his ego feel better or secure. He might ask: “What’s the point?”

All of the arguments above apply to the concept of family as well. Family functions are rarely organized for the sheer desire of the members to see each other. It is more likely to be motivated by a sense of obligation as a member of the support system. The limits of your commitment to your family are constantly tested by the various members of your family in the form of family functions. Some people go as far as to force you to accept help from them, to be indebted against your will. They do things you did not ask for, and claim that you owe them one.

In a friendship or a family relationship based on dependency, you become blind to the true nature of who your friend or family member is, because needs come before everything else. It is analogous to the way alcoholics are incapable of truly enjoying a glass of fine wine. In order to truly enjoy anything in life, you cannot be attached to it. If you cannot understand a relationship without mutual need for help, you have not experienced the true beauty of human relationship. And, I know how sad and lonely that feels, because I have been there myself.