Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reclaiming Codependence

A few weeks ago I was at a gathering and someone asked me what I did for a living. A common enough question but one I’d rather avoid. Not because I don’t believe in what I do, or that I feel questions of the job related sort are inappropriate as in “I am a human being not a human doing”, it is more because of the reaction I usually get. Unless I am with a like minded crowd, “bodywork therapist” tends to get looks of woo-woo cynicism and my work with codependence engenders reactions from anger to disdain. I can handle the woo-woo cynics quite nicely — I ignore them — but the harsh reactions of the latter gets me tired and wishing I had told them I was an undertaker. It is not so much their comments that relate codependence to an outdated, misogynist, and useless concept that bothers me. Rather, it is the belligerent look that some offer, daring me to defend myself with, no doubt, inept platitudes.

But then again, that is the problem with pop psychology, which codependence, unfortunately, has found its home. It may just be a case of “familiarity breeds contempt” but I also know that codependence was initially misused by misogynists because of the narrow and circumscribed definitions used by well-meaning but, I feel, misguided therapists.

The term codependence was first defined over thirty years ago as a syndrome exhibited by families of alcoholics. Living with an alcoholic, so the literature said, created ripe conditions for an unmanageable life: codependents were thought to be “manipulative”, “controlling”, “anxious”, and “confused about their own identity”. Whoa! Talk about denigrating the victim. What the early literature didn’t talk about, however, was how trying to create sanity in an insane environment had by necessity the appearance of manipulation and control. The other thing that was not talked about was how the label was used, more often that not, on women. This could have been because the first Al-Anon group was formed by the wives of alcoholics (Beatty, 1992) but, anecdotally speaking, we have all heard stories that when a man takes charge, or tries to take charge in chaotic situations, he is called assertive and a strong leader, but when a woman does, she is labeled manipulative or controlling. In the late 70’s and early ‘80s, the label codependence fell right into a female stereotype of misogynist terms.

That, however, was then. As we now know, codependence is not synonymous with having an addicted family member. Instead, it has its roots in childhood where the act of getting one’s basic needs met, that is, one’s survival needs of love, value, and safety, could not be taken for granted and, therefore, demanded creative solutions. These solutions, when carried forth into adulthood, have the potential to become codependent behaviours. They are the “part” of our self that feels we must get our needs met the same way we did, or attempted to do, as children. That way usually involves looking outside of ourselves for fulfillment rather than finding an internal sense of safety and value.

Codependent behaviours can include, but not be limited to, being too dependent or, alternately, overly independent; being controlling or passive; having rigid boundaries or fuzzy ones; and being overly emotional or apathetic. We are all unique and, as such, have unique symptoms which may manifest in one part of our life but not in others. And, perhaps most importantly, codependence always needs a partner whether that be the spouse, best friend, pet, career or god: someone or something must be perceived as the wellspring to fulfilling the other’s needs. If the relationship is with another person, each participant feeds on the other. In simplistic terms the codependent partnership is like the game of Jenga. The structure works perfectly well with each partner building upon the expectations of the other until someone changes the rules or doesnt quite meet those expectations anymore and the structure collapses.

Finally, no one is 100% codependent but every one of us has at least one codependent behaviour in some aspect of our life. It is the human condition.


  1. Great article! (I can totally relate to what you say about both the "woo-woo" naysayers and the anger and disdain, just in a somewhat different way.) It is really unfortunate that the word "co-dependence" has such a checkered history and such confusing connotations. Keep fighting the good fight to get this straightened out and to educate lay people and those in the healing professions alike about on the depth and richness of topic.

  2. Thanks, as always, for your support, Kristen.

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