Did greedy doctors invent sex addiction to grab a piece of the divorce lawyers’ action? I only ask because commitment anxiety is rising, and not just adultery is being diagnosed as a disease. Fidelity, too, is suspect. Are you married, cohabiting, eyes for no other? Might you be – whisper it – co-dependent?
I am married and I am independent. Or so I thought. However, my spouse and I depend on each other. So the increasingly common term ‘co-dependence’ worried me. It sounds vague. But my dictionary says that a co-dependent couple features one who is an addict, and another who is addicted to their relationship with the addict. So me and my husband are okay. But then it struck me the definition is slippery. What if the addict is addicted to the relationship? And what if a co-dependency therapist had advised Victorian poet Robert Browning? Would he have eloped with ageing, invalid opium addict Elizabeth Barrett? Would we have their great love story?
‘In a codependent society,’ warns therapist Robert Burney, ‘everyone has to have someone to look down on, in order to feel good about themselves.’ Sounds like human nature. By this measure, love between any two imperfect or unequal individuals is unhealthy, and caring is suspect (caring could be ‘looking down’ in disguise). Is there such a thing as a relationship without any power imbalance? Isn’t one of the benefits of a relationship that you don’t have to be best at everything?
Burney is not the first to view love with a surgeon’s suspicion. ‘My love is as a fever, longing still/For that which longer nurseth the disease.’ In this sonnet Shakespeare described a disorder called romance, which traditionally occurred outside dull marriage (which was for babies, money, and dynasties). Only in the seventeenth century did married love come to be regarded the summit of human fulfilment. In our crowded world, such a belief is less tenable.
Twenty-first century romantics must commit to their job, friends, home, kids. Even had we the time, it is harder to be confident about prioritising one relationship. Fear of monotony, worry about monogamy, have increased our faith in other people’s right to talk us through our lives, and tell us how to live them. But if we over-diagnose our emotions, our love stories may end before they’ve begun.