The Codependent Next Door
I just finished the Shrink Next Door on Apple TV starring Paul Rudd as Dr. Ike Herschkopf, the narcisstic therapist who takes advantage of his patient Marty Markowitz, played by Will Ferrell. Although it's a blatant example of toxic therapy and abuse of power, it's also a cautionary tale about codependency.
Dr. Ike was a predator and opportunist of the highest order, betraying the trust of his clients for his own gain. He used manipulative and controlling tactics on vulnerable people and fleeced them for millions of dollars. He was clearly an unethical and dangerous person.
In the update on Marty at the end of the show, it says Marty never went to therapy again, as if therapy was the real enemy of the story. I hope that's not what people take away from the show because I think there's a deeper lesson here about the dangers of codependent relationships.
There are many definitions of codependency, but one definition says, "Codependency refers to any enmeshed relationship in which one person loses their sense of independence and believes they need to tend to someone else."
Codependency was first used to describe dysfunctional patterns of behavior exhibited by family members of alcoholics, but has since been used to describe many relationships where someone loses themselves or suppresses their own needs to take care of someone else. There's often a circular relationship between someone with great needs (an addict or someone with a chronic mental or physical illness) and someone who needs to be needed. Codependency is often passed down in families by witnessing unhealthy relationship dynamics.
I grew up in a ministry household. In fact, the definition and example of ministry I internalized was more like codependency. Putting others needs ahead of our own was not only normalized, it was prized and affirmed. Codependents often take the form of martyrs and they can become workaholics as they find their worth and value in meeting other people's needs. Codependency is when the need to support others goes beyond the point that is healthy.
A codependent person loses themselves in a relationship, thinking they need the other person to function. Marty thought he needed Dr. Ike and lost himself in the relationship. The roles of therapist and patient were blurred so much that Marty's therapy sessions became more about Dr. Ike and his needs. By the end it became apparent Dr. Ike needed the relationship (and therapy) more than Marty did.
I think it's common for codependent people to go into service fields where they are encouraged to focus on the needs of others. This is generally praised whether in the mental health field or the nonprofit and ministry world. Workaholics who lose their identity in their job and develop poor boundaries are often seen as more committed. The codepent worker feels like everything depends on them. This becomes a trap that is hard to separate oneself from.
I've been in a few codependent relationships with people and jobs, where I sacrificed more than I should have. Letting my own finances suffer while I rescued a nonprofit from deep financial debt to sacrificing personal boundaries to help people in need to giving away my power and money to an opportunist like Dr. Ike who took advantage of me.
In codependent relationships there are usually "givers" who lose themselves to meet someone else's needs and "takers" who leech onto the giver and suck them dry. Codependent relationships could be between a parent and child, spouses, or any relationship. In the Shrink Next Door, Dr. Ike started out as the giver but then became the taker. He convinced Marty that he needed Dr. Ike's service while taking everything he could from Marty.
In a classic codependent move, Marty willingly gives up his house and bedroom to sleep out in the drabby guest house. The codependent person makes unnecessary sacrifices which enables the toxic behavior of the taker.
To those who provide therapy or are in roles where there are power imbalances, it's also important to check ourselves that we are not, intentionally or unintentionally, using the people we serve to meet our own needs for validation. We all have a shadow side which requires we work on our own predatory parts so that our genuine need to help doesn't morph into something gross or exploitive of others.
The real lesson in the show, in my opinion, is not to avoid therapy but to not give our power over to someone else who may only be out for themselves, to examine our relationships to make sure we aren't giving an unhealthy amount (which is hard when we've been taught that's what love does), and to develop healthy relationships that are mutual where we are encouraged to give and receive.
Marty lost 27 years (and millions of dollars) in the codependent web of his relationship with Dr. Ike. If we can see the patterns earlier and start to stand up for our own needs, then maybe it won't take us quite as long to break free.
(photo credit Apple TV+)