The term codependency has two related uses. The first originated in the addiction treatment and family therapy discourses. Until the 1980s, the term described a person involved in a relationship with an alcoholic or drug addict. The codependent engaged in considerable effort, mostly unsuccessful, to manage the problems associated with the partner’s addiction. The spouse of an alcoholic might find him- or herself making excuses and telling lies to employers and family members, hiding liquor, struggling with issues of blame, and often trying in vain to figure out how to “fix” the addicted spouse. Domestic violence, as well as verbal and emotional abuse, might also characterize such relationships.
Over time, many nonaddicted spouses and partners came to believe that they had no sense of self apart from the addiction. Whereas the addict depended on substances, the spouse depended on the presence of the addiction for his or her self-worth. Treatment professionals began to label such clients “codependents.” Because of the original connection with substance abuse, particularly alcohol, the therapy of choice for codependency was the twelve-step program called Al-Anon, which offers support to relatives and close friends of alcoholics.
In addition to the connotation of “co-alcoholic” or “co-addict,” another use of the term codependency evolved during the 1980s. The newer use of the term connotes the same relationship difficulties and lack of a sense of self but without the necessity of substance abuse.
During the late 1980s, family therapists claimed to see increasing numbers of clients who felt that their identities were based largely in relationships with problematic spouses. The problems did not necessarily stem from substance abuse or addiction. A person who was drawn to emotionally distant partners, or partners who were consistently unfaithful, might continually attempt to change or fix the undesirable behavior in the other person. Similar to the spouse of the alcoholic or addict, the “codependent” partner began to base his or her sense of self-worth in trying to fix problems in the relationship, while losing touch with his or her own goals and plans. Codependents claimed not to know who they were and reported feeling out of touch with their emotions. Family therapists attributed this behavior to “dysfunctional” families.
According to the systems approach of the therapeutic discourse, all families have secrets and embarrassments, and all create rules to hide them from outsiders. Children internalize these rules, at the expense of trust and self-confidence. The dysfunctional family system results in relationships that lack true intimacy because the child purportedly has no self in which to base that intimacy. Children tried to please parents who could not be pleased. As a result, they did not develop a sense of self-worth apart from trying to please others. Within the therapeutic discourse, this constitutes a form of abuse, regardless of the presence of physical or emotional violence. Children grow up to reenact the various unresolved conflicts and abuses of childhood. They become what family therapists refer to as “adult children,” codependent on the dysfunction and abuse much as the co-alcoholic had depended on alcoholism.
Because alcohol and substances did not necessarily play a part in the problems that adult children felt, those seeking therapy felt unwelcome in Al-Anon, with its focus on living with active alcoholism. In 1986, two enterprising codependents noticed this lack and started Codependents Anonymous, or simply CoDA. The group describes itself as a place for people with an inability to maintain functional relationships. CoDA adopted and adapted the twelve steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), as well as its voluntaristic, democratic organizational structure. However, the two groups have strong ideological differences stemming from the therapeutic origins of codependency and AA’s exclusive focus on alcohol. In any case, therapists began sending clients with codependency to CoDA meetings to supplement therapeutic sessions or to replace sessions when insurance would no longer cover them.
The recovery program for codependency differs from that of other addictions in that it does not require abstinence from the presumed cause: relationships. However, the more accurate term is not recovery but management, for the discourse claims there is no complete recovery. Codependent tendencies never disappear completely, but they can be recognized and addressed before they cause problems again. Doing so depends on finding ways to “get in touch with” one’s true self, known in the discourse as the “inner child.”
Codependency is a self-diagnosed condition. It does not appear among the disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Regardless of whether codependency constitutes an actual disease, the complaints do respond to real social concerns prevalent during the time. Most people who claim to be codependent are baby boomers, having come of age in a period during which many Americans valued “getting in touch with” the self and understanding one’s “true” emotions. In addition, the increase in varieties of therapy and the popularity of self-help literature lionized and democratized self-actualization. Moreover, most codependents have experienced at least one divorce and several other uncouplings, which could lead one to question one’s ability to maintain “functional” relationships. Many are single parents, and some struggle with custody arrangements. The resulting disillusionment can understandably produce a suspicion of marriage and other mainstream social institutions. However, these very institutions can offer a context for the strong sense of self that codependents claim to lack.
In short, codependency is a disease of its time. It reveals much about late 20th- and early 21st-century social circumstances.
- Beattie, Melody. 2001. Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. 15th anniv. ed. New York: Harper/Hazelden.
- Co-dependents Anonymous. 1995. Co-dependents Anonymous. Phoenix, AZ: CoDA Service Office.
- Irvine, Leslie. 2008. Codependent Forevermore: The Invention of Self in a Twelve-Step Group. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Rice, John Steadman. 1998. A Disease of One’s Own: Psychotherapy, Addiction, and the Emergence of Co-dependency. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
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