Lately, I’ve been seeing articles with titles that say codependency is a myth or a hoax. They claim that the concept is not just wrong but harmful. Despite its almost 40-year history, codependency now seems invalid to many.
Codependency is defined as a mechanism whereby enablers are enmeshed with their child, spouse, sibling, or significant other to such an extent that they lose the ability to take care of their own emotional needs. The enabling also means that the person suffering from a psychological condition (originally addiction, but later other problems) does not have the motivation to work on themselves or change their behavior. In extreme cases, it means that one partner cannot tell where they end and the other begins.
My husband introduced me to the concept of codependency. He has a background in psychology and was greatly influenced by Melody Beattie’s writing. Her book, Codependent No More (published in 1986 but still selling well), his work with Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), and attendance at seminars on the topic have made him a staunch believer. When I told him about the articles, he scoffed. In fact, he seemed offended. It’s a basic tenet that aligns with his experience of psychology.
So, what are the objections to the concept of codependency?
First of all, it’s not a recognized psychological condition in that it’s not an official diagnosis. There are no specific diagnostic criteria, though there is a list of symptoms including fears of rejection or abandonment, avoiding conflict, making decisions for or trying to manage the loved one, keeping others happy to the detriment of self, and generally a “focus on caretaking and caring for others to the point that you begin to define yourself in relation to their needs.” Admittedly, those are largely squishy criteria (there are others), some of which overlap with officially recognized diagnoses.
Another definition states, “The codependent person sacrifices their needs to meet the demands and expectations of the other person. These individuals may also strongly desire to ‘fix’ the other person’s problems. The individual often neglects their self-care and personal growth in the process.” This was developed in the context of addiction studies, and some people object to the concept being broadened to include other circumstances.
More significant is the idea that the concept pathologizes love and support. Interdependence is the natural function of intimate relationships, and depending on each other is the ideal. Codependency theory is said to downplay helping behaviors that are essential to good relationships. In addition, codependency is often viewed as a “women’s problem,” and that reinforces patriarchal stereotypes, such as that women are “needy.” Instead, a person labeled codependent should work on overwriting old scripts of anxious attachment and other negative feedback loops.
Codependence is said to have contributed to the “tough love” movement that involved a hands-off approach to a loved one’s addiction, allowing them to experience the natural consequences of their behaviors. Tough love is discredited these days as a form of verbal abuse and a philosophy that has no basis in psychological practice, as well as reinforcing the idea that an addict must hit “rock bottom” before they are able to accept help. Tough love also promoted a model of intervention as a process involving anger, blame, non-compassionate confrontation, and the use of psychologically damaging “boot camps” for troubled teens.
Then, too, it is said that there is no research validating the concept of codependency, no way to measure it, and no effective treatment for it.
There’s another point of view, though — that codependency is a real, serious problem.
Let’s take that last point first. Research on codependency has revealed specific behaviors associated with it and the tendency to repeat those behaviors in subsequent relationships. Research has also indicated sex differences in codependency, with women being more likely to suffer from it. (It should be noted that women also dominate in diagnoses such as depression. Both genders are affected by depression and codependency, however.) As with codependency, there are statistics to report how many people suffer from depression and other conditions, but none to say how severe their condition is. Also, codependency has its roots in attachment theory, family systems theory, and trauma studies.
Treatment for codependency is quite possible. Education, individual therapy, couples/family therapy, group therapy, CBT, and DBT have all had beneficial effects. Even 12-step programs such as Codependents Anonymous are possible ways to address codependency. And, like some other disorders, codependency responds to techniques such as boundary setting, building on strength and resilience, and self-care. It also has other characteristics common to other conditions — relapses and setbacks, for example.
As for the idea that codependency pathologizes love and support, it is true that these qualities are essential to the human experience and good things in and of themselves. But when those qualities get hijacked by excessive, misdirected, and exaggerated needs, they can become pathological. After all, moderate depression and anxiety are parts of the human experience too, but when they strike with extreme manifestations, they become pathological as well. To say that all expressions of love and support are good is to ignore the harm that they can do when they interfere with those normal experiences of human interaction.
And while the concept of codependence may have started in the field of addiction studies, there’s no indication that that’s the only place where it belongs. Plenty of psychological concepts begin in one area of study and expand into others. The idea of healing the inner child may have started with trauma studies, but it now applies to other areas as well, such as grief therapy and other abandonment issues (including codependency).
What does all this add up to? I think my husband and the proponents of codependency theory have a point. The fact that it hasn’t been sufficiently studied doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, just that it is a comparatively recent idea compared to other conditions and pathologies. It has demonstrable effects on relationships and makes logical sense. If two people become enmeshed, their behaviors are likely to become warped and dysfunctional. In fact, dysfunction is one of the hallmarks of codependency. It explains relationship dysfunction in a way that few other concepts do. It may not be the only relationship hazard, but it checks a lot of the boxes.
Sure, the term codependency has been overused, especially in the type of pop psychology promoted by assorted self-help articles and books. But so have other psychological concepts and societal problems. Just because gender studies has had limited usefulness in analyzing male and female communication styles doesn’t mean that it has nothing to tell us.
So, do I think that the concept of codependency is a myth? No. Do I believe that it’s a “hoax,” as some have claimed? Again, no. Is the concept itself toxic? Does it imply that love and support are invalid? No. Is it overused by people who don’t understand it? Certainly. Does codependency deserve more study and practice before we discard it? Definitely.
I’ve seen codependency working in people’s lives. Anecdotal evidence isn’t sufficient to prove its reality, of course, but it’s a starting point for further exploration by professionals. Just because something doesn’t appear in the DSM, a notoriously changeable document, doesn’t mean it’s not real.