July 30, 2016

Love the One You’re With: A Credo for Codependent Enablers.

Flickr/Bruna Schenkel

In the mid-90s, when I would hear Luther Vandross singing Love the One You’re With, I interpreted the message as settling for a boyfriend I didn’t want to be with.

If you heard these lyrics, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” wouldn’t you think the same thing?

Now, 20 years later, I hear it differently.

Two incidents brought this home to me.

In the first incident, a good friend of mine recounted a story about her sister, who met a guy online 18 months ago. Shortly thereafter, they agreed to make the relationship exclusive. Fast-forward to present time, she now wallows in the throes of whether to continue seeing him due to her discovery of his online search to meet new partners—not once, but twice. The first time she caved to his pleas to stay together. That was six months ago.

Now it’s happened again.

My friend is waging her own battle. After years of working on herself through counseling and introspection, she can spot the shards of broken trust almost instantly. She loves her sister and doesn’t want to see her hurt. Throughout her sister’s life, she’s witnessed her trials and tribulations (e.g., divorce, bankruptcy) and can barely tolerate seeing her make another heartbreaking choice. The urge to protect her sister throbs from deep within.

Making Their Business Ours.

This situation sparks two questions for me: What propels us to counsel the ones we love or intervene in their lives, especially when we haven’t been asked? What’s in it for us?

The second incident regards my brother who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease not long ago. It sure seemed plausible to insert myself into my brother’s life when he told me the diagnosis. I didn’t want to believe it was true, so I hustled around the Internet and found a physician not far from where he works who practices medicine using alternative approaches. I believe in and use alternative health care. In place of prescriptions, I use supplements and essential oils. Alternative care providers have worked for me. I was certain they would work for him, or at best, supplement the care he would get from conventional medicine.

My brother had two appointments with this alternative care physician. The second one ended disastrously. The doctor prescribed a list of supplements for him to purchase without explaining, even after he asked, why he needed to take them and what they could do for him. To add insult to injury, he confused another’s test results with my brother’s and read him the wrong results. This inexcusable error abruptly ended his foray into alternative medicine and catapulted him back into the conventional, medical world. I ended up scraping the proverbial mud off my face.

What propelled me to insert myself into this scenario? I wanted to spare him pain, augment his care and ensure his longevity all sound good. After all, I love my brother—maybe I could save him. In retrospect, I am shocked by my egocentricity of pushing him into an arena with which he was unfamiliar and not inclined to explore; this reflects more on my fear for his well-being than it does in believing in his own judgment to care for himself.

It’s Not Ours to Do.

Shortly after my brother’s fiasco with alternative care, I found myself in my own doctor’s office describing the whole sad tale. My doctor gave a thoughtful response. She explained that by attempting to take control of—or insert ourselves into—the care of another, we thwart that person’s growth.

We come into this life to learn certain lessons. Each of us has our own set. Probably the best way to be of service is to focus on our own.

This is a tough credo to live by, especially if we are codependent enablers. Helping others gives us focus, purpose and meaning; yet it can be a great distraction from doing our own work. It can delay our own growth.

Why I Need to Love the One I’m With.

After that conversation, I concluded the best thing I can do is to love myself first and then my brother. I am the one I’m with. By loving myself first, I invite my deepest feelings to be heard. If I had listened to what was going on inside me instead of rushing to find an alternative care physician for my brother, I would have acknowledged my fear for his well-being and confronted mortality inching ever closer—not necessarily his, but my own. Those feelings emerge as a tangled web of loss, grief, fear and death.

By giving myself time to get acquainted with these unpleasant intruders, I can calm myself and assess the situation with greater clarity. I am better able to listen to my brother and hear whatever he has to say. Letting him adjust to his own diagnosis and honoring his decisions on how to handle his care are the best form of love I can give.

The same goes for my friend and her sister: if she were to acknowledge the uncomfortable feelings her sister’s choices elicit, feel them and ultimately befriend them, it’s likely her angst would transform into acceptance. She would remain a witness to her sister’s struggle rather than be her rescuer.

Side-stepping and back-stepping are integral parts of the growth process for us all, and sometimes all that stepping goes on and on, seemingly without end. We do it all the time, often unwittingly. The challenge is to identify and feel our own discomfort when facing the struggles of those we love.

Our biggest responsibility is to ourselves—in other words, love the one you’re with!



Author: Bev Hitchins

Image: Bruna Schenkel/Flickr 

Editor: Renée Picard

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