M3GAN and Codependency
Clinging to Relationships to Avoid Coping (SPOILER ALERT)
No, I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital.
Like a Teddy Ruxpin with a single cassette, I may seem as if I’m about to tell the same story about a recovering codependent. Like the film M3GAN, however, this B side is a reminder that uncomfortable feelings (like sadness and loneliness) are normal. So, instead of a lesson in leaving, we’ll look at how clinging to unhealthy relationships is really a giant avoidance strategy.
M3GAN is the latest innovation in artificial intelligence, a doll programmed to be a child’s best friend. Gemma, roboticist and M3GAN’s creator, leads a life consumed by her work. When her sister and brother-in-law are tragically killed in a car wreck, she becomes the caretaker to her eight-year-old niece, Cady.
Although she tries, it’s clear that Gemma’s work life has created a blind spot in her capacity to provide adequate emotional support. So, she decides to accelerate the production of her latest AI, M3GAN, and pairs Cady with its software so that she becomes its primary user. This, of course, is done in the name of pacifying her niece so that Gemma can carry on with work. M3GAN is programmed to protect Cady, both physically and emotionally, at all costs. Of course, like all evil doll films, as brilliant as I found the script to be, it is yet another tale of a doll becoming self-aware and horrifically going off the rails. A good time, though!
Throughout the film, Cady is visited by a court-ordered child therapist named Cella. She tells Gemma that she fears Cady has formed a codependent relationship with the doll. M3GAN has become a substitute for coping and Cella thinks that Cady will never move on in life as long as she has her.
In the second act, Gemma takes Cady out for a hotdog and attempts to talk to her about this concern for her mental well-being. Cady has brought along M3GAN and they get caught up in playing “thumb war”. She becomes so preoccupied with the doll that she gets annoyed with Gemma for insisting she not only eat her food, but simply pay attention when she’s talking. When Gemma tells M3GAN to power down, Cady gets angry and very defensive.
To get Cady to engage in healthier social interaction, Gemma drives her to a children’s day camp. When they arrive, Cady refuses to get out of the car unless M3GAN can come too. The camp advisor and a reluctant Gemma agree, so long as the robot sits with other toys the children have brought. To avoid getting into too much detail, Cady encounters a bully that harasses her. When M3GAN shows up, because she is only programmed to play with Cady, the bully abducts her and throws her to the ground, essentially abusing her. M3GAN suddenly springs to life, rips the child’s ear off, and shoves him into oncoming traffic just outside the woods. When the police come, Cady covers for her and claims it was an accident.
When her neighbor winds up dead shortly after, Gemma begins to suspect that M3GAN is responsible for these two local homicides; and has a chilling conversation with the AI to support her suspicion. She is also unable to access the robot’s surveillance data during the time at the camp.
Gemma then decides to temporarily disable the doll, binds her with layers of bubble wrap and duct tape for good measure, and puts her in the hatchback of her vehicle. On the way to Gemma’s workplace, Cady puts up a wild kicking-and-screaming fit because her dear robo-pal, M3GAN, is in the trunk. She thrashes about in protest, exemplifying the emotional maturity of a toddler, and kicks the back of Gemma’s seat. Of course, Gemma has not yet spoken to Cady about her suspicion.
In the next scene, Gemma is talking to her teammates about the doll being potentially dangerous and about her murder suspicions. As they discuss, Cady is in their product showroom beside them (set up like a children’s activity room with a large window) having her therapy session with Cella. Cady suddenly becomes erratic and throws objects about the room, demanding to see M3GAN. When Gemma enters and tells her to calm down, Cady rears back and strikes her across the face. It feels this entire scene is executed purposely to reflect the emotional side of withdrawal.
Cady’s behavior reminded me of how Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) practitioner and coauthor of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors, Scott Waltman, describes what happens when the rug we depend on emotionally is ripped from under us:
Codependency breeds dependency…Imagine a person feeding an animal that would typically find its own food. Over time, that animal will stop hunting or foraging and become reliant, in an entitled way, on the human to feed it. If the human caregiver stops feeding the animal, it could become angry, which might be dangerous. The caregiver may then needs to extricate themselves from the situation. Fear of the fallout often keeps people from leaving, though. The challenge is that the longer the person stays, the more severe the fallout becomes.
Gemma and Cella are in shock. Even Cady is a bit taken aback by her own behavior. However, instead of resorting to anger, Gemma asks to be alone with Cady so they can talk. Cady apologizes and expresses once again that she wants to see M3GAN. This time she said she needs M3GAN to keep from feeling deep sadness about what happened to her parents. It was Gemma’s response that prompted me to write this article:
“You’re supposed to feel these things…because you will get through them.”
Often times, we treat people as a means of masking what we cannot face. When we cling to relationships that we know are toxic, those things we cannot face are likely to be low self-confidence, a crippling fear of being alone forever etc. So, to avoid unpacking why we feel these things, we trudge on and try to make it work. This historically leads to us to being alone and sad anyway, despite what we tell ourselves. We rationalize the situation by telling ourselves that staying with this person is better than being alone. As famed psychiatrist and senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy, Dr. Bruce Perry, once said, “We prefer the misery of certainty to the misery of uncertainty.”
CBT practitioner and author of 365 Ways to Be More Stoic Tim LeBon supports this statement when he said,
However toxic this relationship appears to be, at least this person is partially ensuring that their worst fear does not come true. The person who fears they are unworthy, for example, feels of some value to the person dependent on them. So, they stay in the relationship.
No one wants to admit it for fear of being perceived as inadequate or weak. However, it most likely won’t.
The Fear of Being Alone is Common, and Okay
If no one has told you yet, it’s okay to experience the fear of being alone. A lot of us feel this way, in fact. No one wants to admit it for fear of being perceived as inadequate or weak. However, it most likely won’t. Even still, if someone were to think that, then they are most likely practicing avoidance in their own lives. Who cares?
It actually takes a lot of courage to admit and explore this feeling. Once you do, you’re already on your way to alleviating the feeling. If you don’t, and instead suppress the feeling, it will reflect in all of your relationships romantic or otherwise. This is because we will naturally resort to hopping from person-to-person in an endless quest to have someone relieve this deep-seated fear of abandonment. Relationships acquired this way leave us feeling lonely again, This is because the high that comes with being showered with external validation fades. Even when we consider ourselves “single”, we will always keep someone on the line that can provide us with quick reassurance that we’re worthy.
When Cady gets perturbed that Gemma wants to talk about her concern for her mental well-being, it reminded me of the tendency to get defensive when our behavioral patterns are called into question. We’d much rather just carry on because we’re getting emotional satisfaction from the partnership no matter how unhealthy.
I believe it’s in this same scene that she also gets upset because Gemma reminds her that M3GAN is not a real person. That is to say that their relationship is manufactured and not genuine. None of us want to hear that. For codependents, though, we tend to think that we can manufacture new people from whatever they are now. We get defensive and choose to be hurt when others don’t perceive this apparent unhealthy relationship as anything but wonderful. No matter how awful their score sheet may appear, we become incredibly defensive when our significant others’ integrity is called into question in cases like this.
Life partners are not robots programmed to serve or a series of safe bets.
“It shouldn’t be this hard”
In relationships, it’s natural to look to a significant other to meet unmet emotional needs. These unmet needs may be basic in nature but are most often met healthily by someone who is emotionally equipped to meet those needs. When we force relationships, we’re not looking for someone emotionally equipped to fill this unmet need. We’re just assuming that anyone should be able to meet this need because “it shouldn’t be this hard” and because “we’re not asking for much.”
Even needs as basic as validation some people simply cannot meet because, well, they’re looking for the same thing. Two halves don’t make a whole in a relationship. It’s taking two voids and making a gaping one. This leaves both parties feeling emotionally unfulfilled in the end. Life partners are not robots programmed to serve nor a series of safe bets.
Why We May Feel the Need to “Make it Work”
As infants, our main motivation for standing upright and walking is simply because we’re emulating our parents. The same goes for relationships. When we have a history of trying to force relationships to work, it’s usually with the same type of person and/or the same type of relationship dynamic we witnessed as children.
If you grew up in a chaotic environment caused by a parents plagued with turmoil in a long, drawn-out “trying to make it work” atmosphere, you naturally look for chaos to mediate. You look to “fix” people because your parents were cutting each other down in efforts to shape each other into that thing that will fill their personal voids. Or, you had to take on a parental role (parentification) before you were emotionally mature enough to, providing counsel to the emotionally tormented parent or affected siblings.
…you can’t open the door to the right one when you’ve got your hands full.
Signs You’re Forcing a Relationship
1. You feel that being with this person saves time in the hunt for the right one
The idea that hurrying up and just finding someone to settle with actually costs quite a lot of time. When we desperately feel like we need to make a relationship work, we’re expecting the other person to grow into our ideal person. As you’re spending your energy practicing fruitless effort after fruitless effort, time passes...a lot of it.
In that time that we could have exercised patience, focusing on what we could control in finding someone, we would have found our match. When we spend time on trying to bend and shape someone into what we need, it creates the illusion that “all the good ones are gone.” When, really, you can’t open the door to the right one when you’ve got your hands full.
2. You try to reignite old flames
There have been relationships that have been rekindled and led onto a lifetime of happiness. However, if you’re trying to spark a flame from a lighter that’s spent it’s gas, refueling it is going to be a time-costly effort too. If we’re headed backwards only because “they know us here”, thinking this person may be a safe bet for a relationship, rest assure they are not. Stop romanticizing the good times, remember why it didn’t work, and let it go.
3. You end relationships prematurely because they’re “going nowhere”
Healthy relationships, like other things that grow, have a germination period. As a 30-something myself, I get it: dating new people can feel like a job interview. This is only because we’re not willing to step out of our comfort zone. We don’t want to get to know new people and go through the process of earning their love and trust. It is important to be mindful of this dread, though, because it signals that you yourself are not whole. If you cannot be okay with the idea that this person may not be the one, then you’re looking for love in the wrong place. Happiness begins with ourselves.
The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depend upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily.—Plato, The Republic
4. You refuse to see red flags and get overly sensitive about counsel
In our forced efforts to build love and trust in a relationship, hearing anything but what serves our case may make us angry. How dare they! However, in the forcing of love and trust in a relationship that isn’t working, we often sacrifice the love and trust we have with the people that have already earned it—namely our friends. Our desperate need for this relationship to work out may lead to us to only sharing the parts of the story that support our narrative. We label which parties in the scenario are the “bad guy” or the ones “acting crazy”. Isn’t the idea that you’re holding each other up from a healthy relationship with someone else crazy?
The bottom-line is that there really isn’t a bad guy. It is what it is and if there’s red flags before the relationship even kicks off, it doesn’t get better. You may be better off not risking a good friend because if it doesn’t work out, just being single isn’t as bad as having lost your friends on top of it. Choosing to be sensitive when it comes to any negative evaluation of your relationship can make it impossible for others to communicate with you. So, you may become a lot lonelier than you were before the relationship began.
I deserve a healthy relationship that does not exhaust or drain me financially or emotionally. Fulfilling relationships do not require my doing that.
How to Overcome Clinging to Unhealthy Relationships
There are many CBT strategies I’ve outlined in my article about Codependency and Stoicism. However, there is one exercise that I did not include that pertains to our need for control in relationships. When we try to make it work with someone who we know isn’t good for us, we try to control their perception of us. While we can influence their perception, we ultimately choose how we each view situations. No one else can force a perception on us or force us to behave in a way we want them to, or feel the way we want them to for that matter. It never works and the one forcing the perception becomes consumed by frustration and grief.
Try to act as if what belongs to others are your own (perceptions, actions, will), then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with the divine and men. — Epictetus
To focus on letting go of trying to control the uncontrollable, it helps to take a piece of paper (or create an online document) and create two columns: A and B.
In column A, list everything you want this person to see or do. For example:
I want them to see that a relationship with me will be good for them.
Then, in column B, write why, realistically, we have no control over this:
Just because I want them to feel this way doesn’t mean I am right. I must be accepting of other people’s viewpoints, decisions, and feelings, just as I expect others to be accepting of mine.
Codependent thought patterns may also have us believing that we need to go out of our way to provide for others, even at the expense of our own needs. Love bombing is a prime example. In the second row, write the belief that you must go out of your way to take care of fully-capable adults.
So, column A here might read:
I feel that I must go out of my way to prove that I am the one who will take the best care of them. This will ensure that they will love me the way I deserve to be loved.
The more healthy and realistic view in column B might read:
I deserve a healthy relationship that does not exhaust or drain me financially or emotionally. Fulfilling relationships do not require my doing that.
Finally, many of us try to control others because we believe that it is up to others to fill our emotional needs. In this case, in column A where we put distorted beliefs, you may write:
I need other people to ensure that I will not be alone for the rest of my life.
The opposite of this common feeling, listed in column B, might be:
We are responsible for our own happiness. I will seek resources necessary to find inner peace, happiness, and wholeness. This may include speaking with a licensed professional but I will because I am worthy of a lifetime of happiness not dependent on others. I also deserve to find someone who will love me the way I deserve and am willing to identify and curb old patterns and behaviors to do so.
Refusing to give up old patterns makes life a lot harder than it ought to be.
Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
Of course, I encourage working with a licensed mental health professional atop these strategies. Getting a professional, unbiased view from someone who has treated countless others with the same patterns makes sense. Not only does it make sense, but it makes our path to undoing our distorted beliefs about relationships easier. Change can be difficult. Refusing to give up old patterns, though, makes life a lot harder than it ought to be.
Ultimately, though, overcoming clinging to unhealthy relationships boils down to being able to tolerate discomfort. The feeling of uncertainty is like a spider to a spider phobic. If you have a fear of spiders, and were placed in a room with one, your heart rate might go up and you may get very nervous. After as little as ten minutes, though, seeing how nothing has happened, your fear lessens. What comes as a result of sitting with the feeling of loneliness, over the fleeting feeling of external validation, is self-love. If we want to get better, we will actively seek happiness within ourselves and reasons why we are worthy. This makes us better, whole people that attract better, whole people.
Thanks for reading Kasey’s Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.