Fraying Rope? Let It Go

Image of Fraying Rope about to Break

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Carrot Ranch to write about “something frayed” inspires this post on the variant, “fraying.”

In thinking of a flash story, the well known fable The Bridge came to mind. Written by rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman, this parable illustrates Friedman’s technique in treating patients with co-dependency issues. Rather than trying to educate such people with a traditional therapeutic approach, Friedman instead began trying to free them from this “syndrome”. As Justin Hughes explains in the linked post above, co-dependency has expanded to include not only relationships with alcoholics, but with people suffering from any kind of dependency:

Today, the word is often used to describe anyone in a significant relationship (or relationships) with a person who exhibits any kind of dependency. Such dependencies could include alcohol, drug, sex, food, work, gambling, success, perfectionism or something else. Being in relationship with this type of person often results in codependency, which involves an imbalanced sense of responsibility to rescue, fix and help this person.

Co-dependency and Learned Helplessness

Perhaps most of us have had co-dependent relationships. I certainly have, with alcoholics, substance abusers, possessive lovers and friends. But I’ve also experienced a more subtle challenge with people who suffer from what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” This condition, discussed in his book, Helplessness,  describes “individuals [that] may accept and remain passive in negative situations despite their clear ability to change them.”
 Sadly, this inability to take the initiative to improve ones situation seems to stem from earlier learned behaviors, often enabled by the concerned party. The more a partner or parent tries to “rescue, fix, and help” a loved one by doing things for them, the more that person learns to be helpless. This, in turn, can lead to a co-dependent relationship. It’s a complicated subject, not given to easy applications for people with serious mental health issues. But I’ve seen many  classic examples of enabling behaviors on the part of well-meaning friends and relatives, including myself.

The “Failure to Launch”

Seligman stumbled across his revelation back in 1967.  In the ensuing years, one particularly “helpless” demographic has claimed much attention in the popular sphere: the “failure to launch” population of young people. How many of us have suffered fraying nerves and domestic upsets in attempting to help a young adult make the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood, with little effect at bolstering the necessary motivation to successfully span this developmental stage? And yet, how many of us really want to resort to the advice of (often childless) friends to simply “kick the bum out”?
That brings us back to “The Bridge.” The parable has been a useful resource for therapists and others in the helping professions, and has a large following on the Internet. Here is my flash take on it:

Fraying Nerves

Fuck. How did I get in this position, she thought.

Her hands burned, the rawness bleeding the rope red.

“Come on! You have to help me.”

She watched the young man through the slats of the bridge. He looked up from where he dangled, the ground a mile down. Still he did not speak.

“I can’t hold you. Climb up or swing to the supports. Are you listening?”

The rope jerked, sawing at her hands.

“There’s no more time,” she screamed. “The rope is fraying.”

She saw herself then, and let go, falling back, gazing into the cloudless blue.



8 thoughts on “Fraying Rope? Let It Go

  1. Thanks Jeanne, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I hadn’t heard Friedman’s fable of The Bridge and am happy to have been shown it. It’s quite a powerful fable about making one’s own choices for living. I think there are probably lessons in there for me. It is easy to become dependent on someone else’s dependency.
    I love your flash. It does great justice to the fable in far fewer words. Well done. I have also written about dependency this time, but of a different kind. Not quite ready to post yet, though. Soon.

    1. Hi Norah,

      I was just going back in to CR this morning to read some more flash stories and planned to look for yours! I was thinking recently that my posts were too long, and that perhaps I should just do the flash. I know it’s hard for people to find the time sometimes to go into each individual website to read the post. But the prompts always tie into topics that require some thought. I enjoy yours when I go to to your site, and Anne’s, and of course Charli’s. You and some others have inspired me as I began to post. So even though there is much more to be said on co-dependency, etc. I couldn’t NOT set the context for my flash. Thanks for coming in and reading.

  2. I always enjoy reading your posts, Jeanne and feel my mind expand. The Bridge is not one I’ve read before and I appreciated reading it and about learned helplessness. I’ve struggled with an unnamed fear this past year, and I can’t fully articulate it, but I can see how homeless people end up on the streets chronically. Don’t we all want to avoid pain or seeing others suffer? And yet we must remain empowered and the acknowledgement of choices is a good anchor, I’m thinking. Thus on the bridge, we can also offer others a choice, but freedom does not come with safety nets. Your flash accentuates the personal struggle to hold on to a loved one hanging from the rope. In the end, we are always going to be on separate ends. We learn to work together, which can be painful and look like struggle, or we learn to let go.

    1. I was hoping, with the last line of the flash, to emphasize the stripping away of illusions on the part of one who enables others to persist in their helplessness. When push literally comes to shove, it is of course hard to “walk the talk.” But I have also heard so many stories from others. At one point last winter, as a prerequisite for visiting my son in rehab, I went to a couple AA meetings. The majority of those attending were mothers or other family members of substance abusers. Many had had to let the rope go. One was struggling mightily with leaving her alcoholic husband…again. Extremely painful. But a life hanging on to someone else’s rope is not a life. Thanks for popping in, Charli.

  3. Loved this psychological post, Jeanne, I’m sorry I’m so late getting to it. I haven’t read “The Bridge” but I think your Flash says it all. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but our primary responsibility is to ourselves.
    You’re absolutely right that codependency extends beyond the addiction arena and can apply to any of us with rescuing characteristics.
    I was interested in your extension of this to the “failure to launch” generation. Not having children myself, I sometimes wonder at the extent to which some friends bail out their children well into their 20s and beyond, but I’m never sure how much my reaction stems from my own opposite experience. But I think it’s difficult for the baby boomer generation who might have had it relatively easy compared to their offspring – there’s the guilt versus the genuine recognition that some things are harder for young people these days (although they also seem to demand more in terms of home comforts).
    Better stop there before I get too much out of my depth but I’m reminded of a nice quote from a book by a therapist (I think it’s Patrick Casement) saying to the patient something along the lines of “Don’t worry, I wasn’t trying to help you” – seems counterintuitive, but therapists too need the capacity to stand back.

    1. It was my sister who sent me “The Bridge” at a time I was dealing with someone overly dependent in my life. I have a very hard time with that. It is of course fantastically difficult to let go of the rope. I thought of it again recently when confronted with a stepson who has lived with us for 6 months now. At 32, and most likely on the Asbergers’ spectrum, he functions in as far as taking care of himself and keeping a job, but he does not handle change well adn he shows almost no initiative. So that is a different story, and yet, I know I am enabling him, too, to some degree. And I still help my 23 and 25 year old kids, one of whom recently needed expensive dental work and one who had to dig herself out of a very bad decision last year to to move to Buffalo New York. As for typically “failure to launch” young people, I am struck, as are all my baby boomer friends, on the things that have become real necessities these days–iPhones and computers and apps; travel and tattoos and Starbucks–and for some, even therapy. (I had never before heard of bi-polar disorder before a crop of my kids’ friends started being diagnosed with it.) Undoubtedly, though, and as you point out, things are more difficult. I was able to afford tuition, rent, gas, etc. working part time while going to college. And in my twenties I was able to have my own one-bedroom apartment in LA and a car on a small salary. Basics such as housing and transportation–and education–have become unaffordable, especially in cities of any size. I suppose I should just try to heal myself 🙂 I like the quote from the therapist: Maybe I should stop telling the young people in my sphere that “I just want to help”!

      1. I think there are no easy answers as to when, and how much, to let go. But thoughtfulness about the situation is at least a start. But isn’t it great that a story brought this to your attention?

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