Co-dependence: When do two wrongs make a right?

Co-dependence: When do two wrongs make a right?

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ImageI’m trying a new way to deal with effronteries. When someone does me harm, I have an old habit of compensating myself with the grant of retaliatory superiority. I automatically think, “This proves that I’m different from (and better than) them. I hold to the high standards better than they do, and I’m therefore entitled to chew them out for not meeting a standard. Unlike them, I’m perfectly capable of remembering the high standards . . . at least whenever others fail me personally by not meeting them.”

My new alternative is to compensate myself with credits through equality: “I’m the same as (and not better than) them, and therefore there will come a time, probably soon, when I’m going to need to be forgiven too for not meeting the high standards. Their mistake buys me a gift card, a credit toward forgiveness for the same or similar error of mine at some future date.


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If I forgive her now for forgetting to bring the crucial item, then I’m entitled to be forgiven next time I forget to bring the crucial item. If he arrives late, then I can arrive late some other time.

Or to put it another way, as someone who doesn’t want to subscribe to a double standard, when I throw a fit over someone’s error, I’m basically signing up for a fit of equal value next time I make a similar error. If I don’t throw any fit, then I shouldn’t be subjected to one when my turn comes.

My natural response has been “You’re only as good as your last mistake to me.” This new response I’m cultivating is “I’m only as free as your last mistake to me.”

I like this new approach, but I do notice how it can lower standards. If he’s late, I’ll be forgiven if I’m late sometime, which means he’s further forgiven for being late . . . and pretty soon no one shows up on time. If every time someone drives drunk he goes unpunished and his victims earn permission to drive drunk with impunity, pretty soon we’re all driving drunk.

So which is it? Do two wrongs make a right or don’t they?

One answer is that it depends upon the particular wrong. Sometimes, when people don’t meet a standard, the standard ought to be changed because it’s not a good one. Suppose they gave a war and nobody came. Suppose during WWI people said, “Look, let’s face it, none of us want to meet the standard of patriotism that demands that we sacrifice our lives for this war. If you don’t go, I won’t give you a hard time-and then when I won’t go, you won’t give me a hard time either. Let’s boycott it together, OK?”

But imagine if we did the same about a more necessary war like WWII. Suppose Germany had given that war and nobody in England or the United States came? What would the world be like now?

I think there’s a real dilemma here (see Letter vs. Spirit): To forgive him for failing to meet the standard strengthens your bond to him while weakening your bond to the standard. Conversely, not forgiving him strengthens your bond to the standard while weakening your bond to him. When should noncompliance with some standard lead to punishment, and when should it lead to a changed standard?

There’s an old term for my new and admirable approach to effronteries. It’s called co-dependency. I figure if I show love in the face of failing, I’ll get love back, and the specialists on co-dependency argue that that’s just how enablers conspire with drunk drivers, wife abusers, and other addicts to lower the standards to unacceptable levels.

It’s true, that is how good standards are eroded, but it’s also how bad ones are. Many a bad law is eventually eroded by rolling standard lowerings. I have good friends who are gay. If I show tolerance to gays for not living by society’s (outmoded) standards, I’m freer too, and that’s a good thing. Yet there are surely some people still who are certain that accepting your friend’s homosexuality is the co-dependent enabling of sinful behavior.

I’ve long been bothered that the term “co-dependent” got used up on the argument that this particular pattern of behavior is intrinsically bad. For one thing, it would have been a great term for making explicit the fundamental characteristic of love–two people mutually dependent upon each other. For another, a lot of times forgiving people for lowering their standards is just the ticket, and it would be useful to have a name for that desirable action–but in common usage the implications of “co-dependence” are always negative, so to use it is to condemn whatever behavior it applies to.

I hope you’ll forgive me for using co-dependent sometimes more broadly and less pejoratively. If together we slouch toward a looser definitional standard on that term, we can get over the distracting question of whether it’s always good or bad to hold someone to a standard, and focus instead on the more important question of whether the particular standard in question is a good one or a bad one.