by Alison Johnson, PsyD
The term codependence, which emerged in the late 1980’s, was originally used to describe some of the behaviors which were typical of family members or spouses living with an addict or an alcoholic. Inspired by the work of Melody Beattie, the term helped many people gain insight into unhealthy, unbalanced relationships.
“Melody's compassionate and insightful look into codependency--the concept of losing oneself in the name of helping another--struck a universal chord among families struggling with a loved one's addiction”. (Hazeldon)
Losing oneself in the name of helping another – what a difficult behavior to measure! How does a person know when they are “losing themselves” ?
What started as a book became a whole movement dedicated to uncovering the family members who were trapped in an unhealthy care-taking role. Very soon hundreds of people in all walks of life – not just the family members of addicts and alcoholics – were identifying themselves as codependents. People started to ask the question “is there even such a thing as a normal relationship?” Some writers were extremely upset with the codependency movement. Willard F. Harley, Jr. writes:
“In my judgment, the co-dependency movement, which began with such valuable insight, has become a monster. In over-reaching, it has subjected healthy people to the same norms as unhealthy people, and in so doing, has caused much more harm than good. Married couples should be on guard from the ruinous effects of the co-dependency movement on marriage, especially if one of them suffers from anxiety or depression”.
How the Co-dependency Movement Is Ruining Marriages
The truth lies in the words “healthy” and “discernment.”
The critical issue is not whether or not a person is “over-caretaking”. Family members or significant others can find themselves taking care of family members in a very involved way, such that their own lives are put on hold, maybe even for a long time. Families can be greatly affected by the situation or health of one family member, such that everyone’s attention is directed towards that family member’s needs. These examples are not in and of themselves unhealthy. The codependency movement never meant to topple healthy human “interdependence”. We all rely on others for feelings of safety, happiness, security, self-esteem, well-being and love.
The difference between codependency and interdependency is in the “healthy details.” In my experience as a therapist, I have noticed that there are recurring feelings shared by codependents which are tell-tale signs of an unhealthy pattern of codependency – namely, feeling unappreciated and feeling angry. Often the first sign that someone has crossed over the line of caring into the domain of codependency is resentment of the person they are helping.
This important discernment is critical in spotting codependent tendencies. It is, after all, a very difficult thing to measure. It is easier to observe when an alcoholic or addict uses a substance – there is a clearer line – either the addict or alcoholic ingested the substance, or they didn’t. But, how does a person know when they have relapsed into some kind of “codependent pattern of behavior”.
Since codependent behaviors are sometimes outside of a person’s awareness, it is very helpful to seek out the objectivity of others who can relate to the struggles of codependency and enabling. Counselors, therapists, self-help and support groups can be helpful resources in these instances. People who identify as codependents can and do learn to have healthy relationships characterized by mutual care and reciprocity.
The codependency movement never meant to turn healthy, loving, nurturing relationships into pathological ones. Like any psychological or self-help term we need to be careful throwing around labels and judgements. Just because someone is in a care-taking role of another or devoted to a family member’s care and needs does not make them codependent. Try looking at some of the characteristics of codependency to help you discern the nature and health of your own relationships.