The Not-Codependency of Sam and Dean
Some friends and I got into a discussion the other day about Sam and Dean. As you do. Sam and Dean have a lot going on with their relationship right now. As they do. And a lot of talk right now seems to center around the codependent nature of the relationship between the brothers Winchester. But there’s something about that word “codependent” that’s been working at me for the last year or so. I just don’t think it’s an accurate description of their relationship. But it’s been taken up as the de facto mascot of the fandom, so I haven’t been overly bothered by it or anything. Really haven’t given it much thought. Until this discussion with my friends the other day, which forced me to think about it. What is it about Sam and Dean that makes them NOT codependent? And if they’re not codependent, then what are they? Because they’re sure something.
Why would I even ponder this? Sometimes my professional life bleeds over into my fandom life. Can’t help it. I have a master’s degree in counseling psychology, I hold a license in my profession, and I’ve practiced in the fields of substance abuse, adult mental health, and child mental health. It’s second nature for me to look at someone—real or fictional—and wonder what makes them tick. (I swear, I’m not doing it right now. I rarely find myself doing this to people I know. Awkward.)
If I’m going so far as to say, without question, that Sam and Dean are not codependent, I figured why not put it out there? It’s only a theory of mine, and I’m dying to know what other people have to say about it.
Codependency is not a disorder. It’s not a defined symptom. It’s not something you will find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It’s a quality of relationship, something I’ve learned to recognize over years of experience. So when I set out to write this, I went in search of a nice, clear, objective definition of codependence. Oy. Quite honestly, every definition I read made my skin crawl a bit. Nothing was very kind to the codependent. I saw nothing that could be backed up by research, and I saw the word explained several different ways. Take your pick, bend it to suit your needs. Go ahead, do a Google search for codependent. I’ll wait. Then come back and I’ll tell you my definition of codependent: A relationship in which one person enables the negative behavior of another and both persons get something out of that arrangement.
The concept of codependency originated out of the substance abuse field. One person enables the addictive behaviors of the other. But the concept can be applied to any relationship where one person is supporting the negative behavior of another because of some reinforcing factor. For example, an adult son lives with his mother who is a compulsive overeater. He is financially independent, but lives with her because he believes she needs him to care for her. Her mobility is limited due to her weight. However, the son has never expressed his concern over her health issues, even when she becomes confined to her bed. He continues to prepare her meals and bring them to her. His own personal life suffers; he has no friends and sacrifices a romantic relationship in order to care for his mother. The mother is able to continue her negative behaviors because she has never been challenged to do otherwise, due to her son’s caretaking. What is the reinforcing factor for the son? Perhaps it’s being the caretaker. Or being the head of the family. For some, taking on the martyr role is reinforcement enough. (If the situation sounds familiar, I borrowed the example from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Good movie.)
Now that we’ve established the definition of codependency that I’m working from, let’s talk about our favorite brothers. I do not believe Sam and Dean are in a codependent relationship. They each have their share of negative behaviors, no doubt. Demon-blood addiction, savior complex, drinking your feelings, the list goes on. But I can’t think of one screwed up behavior one of them exhibits on a regular basis that the other consistently supports and enables. They tend to call the other out on these things, even if only in subtle ways.
By the way, whoever said Sam and Dean were codependent in the first place? As much as I would love to do a series re-watch and log every time the word “codependent” was said, ain’t nobody got time for that. So I did the next best thing and did a search for “codependent” on Superwiki and got two results, both in Season 5. First up was Dr. Fuller, in Sam, Interrupted, who calls the brothers “dangerously codependent” after a 5 minute conversation. Crikey. Would you trust your care to this guy? I don’t know why we’re accepting his expert opinion on this one. (pssst. Psychiatrists… therapists… not actually psychics or mind readers.) And the second mention of their codependency is from Zachariah, in Point of No Return, when he calls them “psychotically, irrationally, erotically codependent on each other.” He’s trying to get Adam to turn on Sam and Dean. Look, Zach isn’t exactly on the boys’ side here. In this scene he’s trying to flip Adam by saying he can’t trust the Winchesters, that they don’t care about Adam, the only family they care about is each other. And how is it we’ve accepted this codependency as canon?
There’s this thing called the Appeal to Authority Fallacy: A person of authority makes a claim, so the claim must be true. The problem is that the person is either not actually an authority, or is not an authority on the topic in which they are making the claim. Dr. Fuller does not know Sam or Dean well enough to claim expertise on the nature of their relationship. As for Zachariah? I don’t think the mythology on the show has ever shown angels to be omniscient. Perhaps Zachariah has adequate insight into Sam and Dean’s relationship to accurately describe it, perhaps he doesn’t. Either way he’s a manipulating bag of dicks and I don’t trust one word that comes out of his mouth.
Now, I’m not saying Sam and Dean are the picture of a healthy and balanced relationship. Far from it. They love each other deeply. But they are both needy bastards. There is a hell of a lot of guilt-tripping. I can’t live without you. There ain’t no me if there ain’t no you. Over the course of the series, we’ve seen this behavior from both Sam and Dean.
So this relationship between Sam and Dean? If it’s not codependent, then what is it? There actually is a word that defines it—enmeshed. I work with kids, so I see it mostly between parent and child, but I will sometimes see it between siblings. People in an enmeshed relationship are closer than is culturally the norm, to the extent that it keeps others away or causes problems in their relationships with other people. I’m always careful to avoid judgment, enmeshment isn’t necessarily bad. But if it creates problems for one or the other person in the relationship, it’s probably time to re-evaluate things.
Now. I could go through a step-by-step analysis of every relationship Sam and Dean have had, and how they’ve screwed it up because of their deep and abiding love for each other (i.e. enmeshment). But I just don’t have that kind of attention-span or time. And, if I’m going to be completely honest, because the writing on Supernatural is so completely awesome, there are going to be a multitude of reasons why each of those relationships was doomed; the writing on this show is complex and I recognize that.
Let’s look at that complexity, though, with one example: Dean and Lisa. I think Dean really tried with Lisa. But their relationship failed before it started. Dean’s grief for Sam was always between them, and it didn’t look like Dean was going to resolve his grief anytime soon, if ever, in order to move forward in his relationship with Lisa. And Lisa knew that. However, she loved Dean and knew Ben loved Dean, so she was willing to try. But sooner or later, she probably would have cut Dean loose because Lisa isn’t the type of woman to wait around forever for Dean to be “all in.” However, here’s where our talented writers weave a complicated story. The doom of their relationship wasn’t just about Sam. Dean. Was. Not. Happy. He wanted to be, he really did. This is the life he thought he wanted; the life the djinn tried to give him, even, back in What Is and What Should Never Be. But at his heart, Dean is a hunter and he can’t leave that life behind, and it’s a life that doesn’t include a family and a house in the ‘burbs. That part of Dean that sabotaged the relationship had nothing to do with Sam; if Sam had never returned, I believe Dean still would have returned to hunting.
It’s kind of hard to talk about Sam’s relationships, because, well, we know how they end. But I will just say that Sam has talked a good game about wanting to leave the hunting life behind. And he has, several times. He ran away as a teen, he went to Stanford and had a promising future as a lawyer, he could have made things work with Amelia… but each time he chose to return to hunting. And why is that? Would Sam hunt were it not for Dean? We saw the answer to this in season 8, when he thought Dean was really and truly gone and Sam gave up hunting for real. He was grieving for Dean, but unlike when Dean went to Lisa, Sam didn’t appear to miss hunting. He seemed to take real satisfaction in the life he was making for himself, in his skills as a handyman. Sam knows he is a good hunter, but I believe he didn’t return to hunting so much as he returned to Dean. Because he believes that is where he’s supposed to be. Time and again, Sam returns to a life where it’s just him and Dean, and sometimes their friend Cas, on the road.
It’s clear that Sam and Dean have a relationship that is closer than your average white American male, even for brothers. Neither of them is supporting the bad behaviors of the other for any sort of personal reinforcement. But they do have something between them that is special and keeps other people at bay. They have an enmeshed relationship, but not one I would call codependent. They’ve got some differences to work out (don’t they always?), but at the end of the day, even though they’re starting to let others in, they likely feel they only have each other.
Why does it matter if we call the boys’ relationship codependent or enmeshed or if we call it nothing at all? We’ve made the brothers as codependent our calling card. Some see it as the defining characteristic of the relationship—that it’s the heart of our boys and it should stay that way. Some others see it as the defining characteristic but that it’s unhealthy and should be resolved so our boys can, I don’t know—be happy? Self-actualized individuals? My personal opinion is that the conflict in Sam and Dean’s relationship, and their attempts to resolve the conflict, is a core part of the show. Just like I don’t see them vanquishing all evil from the world and the series ending on a happily ever after note, I can’t imagine the two of them resolving every single one of their issues and having their own HEA. Relationships are complex and messy, and Supernatural does a good job of mirroring that fact. Is there an option for the series to end any other way except for the boys going out together in a blaze of glory, literally and metaphorically?