The term codependent is thrown around in recovery circles, and at many people.  It has become such a widely used word or term that it really has no meaning.  The “bible” of the mental health profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5™) doesn’t refer to it at all.  One of the best books on the subject, Whitfield’s “Co-Dependence, Healing the Human Condition” says that over 90% of all Americans are co-dependent.  The 12-Step group Co-dependents Anonymous, does not define codependency, instead it has a list of five codependent patterns containing a total of 55 possible characteristics of codependents.

The term seems to have found its way into our lexicon through the program of ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics).  They observed that their collective painfully difficult relational issues seemed to have one thing in common, they all grew up in an alcoholic environment, and that this traumatized them.  One alcoholic parent, and often both, plunged them as children into a parent role of some kind.  In going through this they had to give up their normal development and socialization processes.  Worse of all, any attempt from a child to try to be normal was met with condemnation and other forms of punishment.

The term codependent really became famous when Melody Beattie published her recovery classic, “Codependent No More – How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring For yourself” in 1986.  Her original vision of what codependency was has been added to and vastly expanded over the years, to the point that it really does not bear any resemblance to her definition.

We are faced with the reality that codependency is basically anything an author, a recovery expert or a mental health professional wants it to be.  Here are some sample descriptive passages taken from mental health blogs:

  • Codependents are in denial, they don’t face their issues.
  • Codependents are enablers.
  • Codependents are control freaks.
  • Codependents don’t have boundaries.
  • Codependents can’t be intimate.

When we meditate on this wideness of definition is it any wonder that people don’t understand what codependency is, because the professionals don’t either.  Is it any wonder that some people resist the label of being a codependent, because to be one means they are in denial about everything, they are controlling and enabling, and they can’t have decent relationships?  Is it also any wonder that others like to be called codependent, because it is a seemingly simple word that says it all and yet says nothing; it is a great label to hide behind.

Perhaps the time has come for us in recovery to say “stop” to the epidemic of overuse of the word codependent.  Maybe we ought to resist using the word in our everyday recovery language, and maybe we ought to retire the whole idea.

  1. Woody says:

    I agree! Not every spouse or family member of an addict is a “co-dependent” – but they are all living an unhealthy lifestyle by having to be closely connected to an addict. Just being associated with us addicts causes others to live a more difficult life. We addicts often cause others to violate their own values, to behave in ways that are unhealthy for them and living with us adds to stress and anger in their lives. Life with an addict is hard enough, family members don’t need some “label” added to them that adds to a sense of shame, anger, embarrassment, fear or stigma.

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