EMDR therapy in processing a harmful codependency

Many people who come to my office because of relationship difficulties say that they recognize codependency in themselves, in which a person lives in a poorly functioning relationship and focuses instead of himself or herself on the life, problems and needs of the other. In an insecure relationship, codependence manifests itself as, among other things, the relationship beginning to take control of life and the unequal dominance of the relationship deepens. At the same time, it becomes more difficult to set your own boundaries and the frustration, for example, of the possibility of a troublesome spouse changing feeling difficult, is increasing. Gradually, the feeling of loneliness in the relationship also increases. In his book Codependency as A Burden Ben Malinen aptly describes the concept of codependency as an external dependence, in which one's own value and sense of happiness depend on feedback from the other, which the other is unable to provide. Codependency takes time, consumes energy and significantly impairs quality of life. When entering therapy, the feelings of anxiety and helplessness of a person suffering from codependency are often already apparent on a daily basis.

In EMDR work on codependency, it is important to focus on the self rather than the partner. Thus, in these cases, we don’t necessarily start by neutralizing the often dozens of disturbing memories that have arisen for a codependent from a difficult relationship, but by working on the interactions in which the codependency is entangled. The key is to focus on yourself: how I deal with these situations.

My client case is a 51-year-old woman (I call her Riitta here) who has been married to her husband for decades and they have two adult children. The man has been unfaithful to his wife numerous times, which is also known to Riitta. The man has poor control over his life, he takes considerable financial risks, uses too much alcohol and lives life to the fullest in all aspects of life. Riitta has left and returned to the relationship several times. In separation situations, the spouse appeals to love and wraps Riitta to himself by saying he will have nothing left if Riitta leaves. Riitta believes in the man and feels that she is the supporter of her husband's healthy life, the so-called voice of reason. Time and time again, and after a while, the relationship goes back to normal.

In EMDR therapy done with Riitta, the recent divorce conversation between the couple was chosen as the target memory, in which the man reassured Riitta of the importance of her in his life after a new case of infidelity was revealed. I asked Riitta to focus on the most wonderful moment of the target memory and to choose the unrealistic positive thought about herself associated with that event, one that maintained her codependency. Riitta said “I am unique and loved”. The target memory evoked feelings of anger, love, sadness, and despair on both the mind and body levels, and she felt that the intensity of the dysfunctional positive feeling associated with the target memory was an 8 on a scale of 0 to 10.

Mutual stimulation with a visual stimulus was initiated while Riitta focused on the target memory and associated an unrealistically positive idea of herself with it. This quickly led her to discover that she had experienced a narcissistic insult in several situations of infidelity, and with his argument about Riitta’s uniqueness and importance, her husband offered the right medicine for it. She found that she was pleased with her spouse’s apology gifts, which often followed difficult situations. Riitta found herself lulled to the idea that in the target memory she felt emotionally that she had not been abandoned after all, even though the voice of reason told her that her husband had already abandoned her many times with his infidelities. With repetitions of a series of stimuli, Riitta’s thought led to the realization that she felt power from resolving the matter by getting back into the relationship. With the repetitions, Riitta’s idealization of herself (and her spouse) in the target memory weakened and her inner awareness of the negative aspects of the relationship increased. Riitta described the experience by stating e.g. “This involves the illusion of omnipotence” (BLS)… “I fight against the completely impossible”…(BLS) “I have been told that I cannot take care of him if he does not want treatment and yet I do not believe”…(BLS)… “I demand, I nag, I speak monologues, I’ve certainly done it for hundreds of hours ”...(BLS).."when a person seems sensible, speaks logically, I can’t know if it’s madness or sanity”… (BLS)… ”I have that wish every time that now he’s in his right mind" ...until she realized, “are we not focusing on me at all”… (BLS)… “Riitta, how are you? ”.. (BLS)… “oh you have sorrow ”… (BLS)…

Gradually as the processing progressed, Riitta found that she did not have a realistic idea of how things are… Riitta continued processing “I should just understand that he is constantly with another woman and that's it” .. (BLS) .. “This isn’t done to anyone “… (BLS)… "this is not my responsibility” (BLS) .. “if a man wants to live a double life, then I don’t have to agree to it” (BLS).

As a result of an hour of EMDR work, the intensity of the dysfunctional positive emotion in the image associated with Riitta's target memory decreased from eight to zero, or neutral. Her perception of herself became more realistic and she was able to limit in her mind the husband’s behaviour. She now became aware in a new way of her codependency and her experience of her own dignity, and taking responsibility for her own life increased.


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