There is a phenomenon therapists often see in couples counseling when one partner gets “better” in some way, but then, paradoxically, the relationship actually deteriorates rather than improving. This can happen when a partner recovers from depression or learns to manage their anxiety more effectively.
Often when there is one partner with obvious “issues” such as addiction, the other partner falls into an enabler role, and a codependent relationship can result. When one partner is no longer struggling with this issue, the relationship structure must change entirely. Sometimes, the relationship does not survive this shift.
Some couples, however, are able to navigate this change and develop a healthier and more interdependent — rather than codependent — relationship.
In my practice I find it useful to recommend books and movies to help clients learn more about relationship dynamics and psychological issues. To understand the dynamics of codependency and how relationships change when one partner is in recovery, my favorite movie to recommend to clients is When a Man Loves a Woman with Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia.
Note: This post will contain movie spoilers. You can also choose to watch the film first and then return to this article.
The movie begins with a married couple, Alice and Michael, living a fun and carefree life. The couple is kissing and Alice is drunk. We have yet to discover that Alice is an alcoholic. That becomes evident when we later see her hangover, how she hides bottles, and how she is unable to parent their children effectively. When she slaps her daughter one day when drunk and falls over in the shower, she is taken to the hospital and the couple has to openly confront Alice’s alcoholism for the first time.
Alice goes to rehab while Michael cares for the home and children on his own, all while maintaining his job. This “superman” type of personality is one I have seen in people who have partners who struggle with issues or disorders that cause them to be less adept at dealing with life’s daily routines and challenges. There is a tendency for the superman partner to act as an enabler or martyr and do “everything” in the relationship. This allows the other partner to remain in a childlike, irresponsible role. We get the impression in the movie that even before Alice was in rehab, Michael tended to take on the superman role. He was the person she could always count on.
When Alice returns from rehab, she is sober and acts much more confident. She takes on more parenting and begins running the home. Michael struggles with allowing her to take this initiative. They argue over parenting. Alice is not “fun” anymore and does not depend on Michael in the way she used to.
Michael and Alice try couples counseling where the therapist mentions that Michael took on a codependent role and centered his life around compensating for Alice’s alcoholism. Michael struggles with this feedback, doesn’t like therapy and, ultimately, moves out.
Eventually Michael and Alice come to a new understanding, and Michael goes to a support group for the spouses of alcoholics, something like Al-Anon. At the end, Michael and Alice are shown to have a new understanding, and potentially able to repair their marriage.
Unfortunately many relationships end at the stage where Michael moved out, and a new understanding is not possible. When a relationship has been based on one partner being “the good one” and the other person being “the problem” (even if this is not explicitly stated, which it rarely is), it can be nearly impossible to move into a new dynamic where both partners are equals.
Partners need to make decisions together. When one partner becomes stronger and more confident, the couple needs to reconfigure the relationship for it to survive.
If the description of this movie sounds like your relationship or the relationship you saw between parents when growing up, watch it and look for the codependent dynamic between Alice and Michael. Watch the movie with your partner and use it to spark a discussion about the dynamic in your own relationship.
If you watch the movie and it speaks to you, reach out to a therapist, or give couple’s counseling a try. It is difficult to redesign your own relationship dynamic after one partner changes in a significant way. A therapist can help you and your partner explore new and healthier ways of being together.