s someone easily intimidated by the uncertainty of watching new TV shows, there’s something reassuring to me about binging on a series I’ve already seen a dozen times. I like the comfort of knowing what’s going to happen; I enjoy feeling a sense of closeness to the characters. So it’s no wonder that a few months ago, following a season-long depressive episode and a slew of anxiety attacks, I embarked on rewatching the entire Gilmore Girls series for the third time. But this binge session was a bit different than those that came before it: It ran parallel to my first foray into psychotherapy.
At a time when I felt deeply out of touch with myself, I found relief watching Lorelai and her daughter Rory engage in their pop-culture diatribes as their intertwining storylines unfolded in the small town of Stars Hollow. Yet at the same time, something else emerged from this binging experience: I noticed that Gilmore Girls and I have a lot more in common than deviated septums and Juicy Couture zip-ups. As I began to learn about codependency in therapy and understand how it has shaped my own relationship with my mom, I saw similar patterns of behavior between Lorelai and Rory on screen. Though our personalities and circumstances are different, there were times I felt as if I were watching scenes from my own life play out on my iPad screen.
The concept of codependency is fairly new to me. According to Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” Codependency was once thought to be present primarily in families in which one or more members were alcoholics. But Beattie and other psychology professionals believe it is prevalent in all kinds of dysfunctional homes, specifically those where children are raised by caretakers who are not emotionally or physically available.
As a result, people who exhibit codependent behavior become what my therapist calls “emotional caretakers” — they often feel an obligation to take care of everyone else’s emotional needs over their own. This can lead to low self-esteem or the inability to take care of themselves, which can result in needy or controlling behavior.
Upon learning all of this, I began watching Gilmore Girls with a more critical eye, taking note of the countless times Lorelai attempts to control Rory’s life and moments where both women are at fault for hiding their true feelings from each other and their various romantic partners. This is textbook codependency.
In season one, when Lorelai realizes she doesn’t love Max Medina, the man she is set to marry in a few days, she takes Rory on a trip to avoid the issue completely instead of confronting him about it. Lorelai insists on keeping her reasoning to herself when Rory asks what’s going on. In season five, when Rory decides to take time off from Yale, Lorelai, who vehemently disagrees with the decision, tries to go behind Rory’s back and devise a plan that would force her to stay in school. She is incapable of respecting her daughter’s wants and needs, pushing the situation to such an extreme that the two end up not speaking for months on end.
Over the course of the series, Rory often feels so responsible for Lorelai’s feelings that she withholds information she otherwise wouldn’t. For example, she doesn’t tell Lorelai when she first has feelings for Dean in season one or the reason why Dean breaks up with her that same season. Lorelai also tends to unnecessarily interject herself into Rory’s love life, which at times pushes Rory away. In season four, when Rory sleeps with Dean, who is by then married to a woman named Lindsay, it causes a fight between Rory and Lorelai that inspires Rory to go to Europe with her grandmother for the summer to avoid her mother’s disapproval. Whereas I used to see these kinds of shenanigans as quirks of their complex mother-daughter relationship, upon this viewing I saw them as the unhealthy trappings of something more sinister.
It’s no wonder Lorelai and Rory experience some levels of codependency — for so long, all they really had was each other. When Lorelai was growing up, she felt disconnected from her parents, who preferred keeping up appearances rather than being actively involved in their daughter’s life. When Rory was born, Lorelai ran away from her family; Rory’s father, Christopher, was almost completely out of the picture. With such a small gap in age between Rory and Lorelai, the two end up acting more like sisters than mother and daughter, clinging to each other and trying so hard to be who the other person needs them to be.
Learning the behaviors associated with codependency and seeing it on screen via Gilmore Girls gave me a framework for better understanding the ways in which my relationship with my mother has been challenging. My own family fell apart when I was young. When my depressed father moved away when I was 17 to start a new life, I grew more and more attached to my loving, overstressed and overworked mother. As my dad was not emotionally or physically present for a good part of my life, I tried to fill the that void by relying too much on my mom. There have been periods of my life where I’ve called her several times a day to give her updates on my life and ask for advice on all kinds of random things, expecting her to be at my disposal no matter the cost and finding myself upset whenever she wasn’t. There have been plenty of times when I’ve kept important things from her out of concern that she’d react poorly or be upset with me.
My codependent tendencies have also resulted in a casual inability to make decisions on my own or take care of myself. Last summer, while in the throes of my depression, I relied heavily on my mom to help me move apartments, sending the 60-something-year-old woman on various physically strenuous tasks around the city, including the purchasing, shortening and installation of my curtains.
How much reliance is too much reliance? While I do enjoy my mother’s daily weather text updates and the fact that she sends me money whenever I am sick to buy fresh-squeezed juices, I’m a capable 29-year-old and I need to start doing things on my own.
Though on the surface my mother might seem like the ultimate caretaker who loves me just as much as Lorelai loves Rory, therapy has taught me that if I want to improve my relationship with my mom and become a fully independent adult, I must set stronger boundaries and start taking more responsibility for my life. And that means no longer living in fear of her reactions, being more straightforward about how I feel, and solving my own problems, one curtain at a time.
While the dramatic dynamic between Lorelai and Rory may make for good TV, the show doesn’t dive into the internal anguish that often dovetails with codependency. When I set out to rewatch it, I expected to be wildly entertained by the characters’ rapport, but I was surprised to find a new reference point for what constitutes an unhealthy mother-daughter relationship. I don’t see this as a reason to stop loving it, though. I just see it as a perfect excuse to keep binge-watching my old favorites: There are always new lessons to learn.
Photo by Warner Bros./Delivered by Online USA via Getty Images.