Clarifying Codependency: Finding A New Language From An Old Term From 1978 To 2013

By Ann W Smith MS, LMFT


I must admit that I identified myself as codependent over 30 years ago although it has been many years since I regularly used the term. Today I prefer to address the issues of codependents in other ways unless I am working with a client who uses the term and is comfortable with it.

Early in my personal journey toward wellness I realized that I found comfort in therapy and self-help groups where adult children of alcoholics shared the struggles and consequences of growing up in an alcoholic family. The problem for me was that I did not have that history. My parents were not alcoholics nor were my siblings. I was frustrated and wished to be a member of a group where my background would be understood. For me, and many others, Codependency groups became a logical choice.

The term codependent gave me and many others a place to receive support and understanding without having an alcoholic family history. It was helpful that groups related to Codependency were more often focused on current issues in relationships. Anyone was welcome and qualified to use the label.

The term Codependency was officially defined in September 1989 at the first National Conference on Codependency held in Scottsdale, Arizona by a committee of about 20 experts in the Codependency and Adult Children of Alcoholics field, including myself and Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse as well as other authors and treatment providers from across the US. After much discussion and brainstorming the group arrived at this definition:

Codependency is a pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behavior and on approval seeking, in an attempt to gain safety, identity and self worth. Recovery is possible.

Working on this definition provided us with an opportunity to find common ground that we could then share with those who called themselves Codependent. Unfortunately this final version was not as clear or comprehensive as hoped and it did not serve as a useful diagnosis for the long term. My definition in my writing and lectures at that time was:

Codependency is a condition or state of being, that results from adapting to dysfunction (possibly addiction) in a significant other. It is a learned response to stress which, over a person’s lifetime, can lead to the development of the following characteristics:

• External Focus
• Repressed Feelings
• Comfort with Crisis
• Boundary Conflicts
• Isolation
• Stress related Illness
• Compulsive Behavior

This description was useful for many years until it became obvious to me and others that the people who were calling themselves codependents were really no different than anyone who was dealing with relationship challenges regardless of the specific problem. We no longer believed it was about association with addiction.

Today the term codependency is used at times in a haphazard manner in popular culture and is still taken seriously in counseling offices when clients have self-diagnosed and are seeking help for relationship issues they do not understand. Some clients find the label offensive and shaming, others find it helpful as a description of a cluster of symptoms they are experiencing. Overall, professionals seem to agree that the term is vague, misunderstood, sometimes shaming and certainly overused. When asked for a definition, most do not have a precise answer.

Early perceptions of codependency were that it was caused by association with someone who was an addict or abusive. It was seen as an abnormal, dysfunctional response to a stressful situation. Identifying with the label had a negative connotation implying that there was something wrong with you if you were codependent. Codependents were (and still are) called people pleasers, controllers, compulsive caretakers and enablers. They were described as being incapable of minding their own business. Loving too much was seen as a bad thing that may even cause addiction and mental illness to worsen.

The culture of the late 70’s through early 90’s contributed to the stigmatizing of anyone who exhibited symptoms of codependency. During that period, individuality was valued and sought after. A healthy person was expected to be self-reliant, assertive, independent, differentiated, self-responsible and emotionally detached.

By 1990 anyone who had a problem in a relationship or who struggled with letting go of someone, was labeled or self-diagnosed as codependent. The term was losing its meaning and becoming a catch all for everything, particularly in women.

Fortunately time passed and new experiences, training, and research began to enlighten professionals in a way that made sense and de-stigmatized those who were considered codependent. For me, two thought processes lead me away from use of the popular label:

Family Systems theory which is simply the belief that when one person in a family is hurting all will show signs of pain and Attachment theory which is based on the fact that human beings are hard wired to attach and need loving connection with others in order to be healthy.

The conclusion in both theories is that it is normal and natural to seek the comfort of those we love when we are hurting, and to feel anxious when we are separated or abandoned, regardless of the cause. Whether addiction, mental illness or high stress is the cause, fear changes our behavior in a way that is meant to protect and preserve our connection. When the parents of an adult child in an active addiction are supporting the child in ways that are no longer helpful, they are in a natural state of fear, even terror, of losing the child, regardless of the child’s age. They need help, not judgments or labels to find a better way.

When a spouse or partner of an addict denies or minimizes the problem, they are trying to keep their relationship from imploding. They hope that love and commitment will heal what is wrong.

When addicts are in their addiction, they are not immune to the problems other family members are experiencing. They too are trying to preserve loving attachments while at the same time facing guilt and shame. The diagnosis of codependency appeared to exclude the addict and instead of viewing them as a member of the family, would blame him or her for making everyone around them sick. An addict does not intentionally harm their family and deserves the same respect and compassion as any member of the family. They need help to rebuild loving relationships, not only to maintain sobriety.

When a family is dealing with ongoing problems of any kind, negative stress increases and they begin to live in a survival mode. They develop patterns that are an attempt to decrease anxiety and increase attachment. Although they may appear to be dysfunctional, these patterns of attachment are meant to protect the emotional well being of each person and the family unit. Of course, if continued for too long, they become a painful way of living.

Patterns of attachment are individual and varied depending on innate tendencies, birth order and the degree of stress in the family. A sensitive child who is an extravert may use his or her gifts in academics or sports to feel better and gain love and approval. A child who is a natural leader and compassionate, may start to help parents and guide younger siblings. Another with a feisty nature may become a “truth teller” proudly informing others of the error of their ways in an attempt to make things better. This may rock the boat but it does get the attention they seek. A quiet introvert may withdraw or choose to engage with peers away from home.

If family stress continues, these patterns, especially in children, will be overused out of necessity and may become a permanent way of coping with attachment anxiety in adult life. Those who use withdrawal to cope will have trouble handling intimacy or conflict and may have superficial relationships. Those who are prone to caretaking may see everyone as a problem and spend their lives trying to fix what is wrong in hopes of someday feeling ok and safe.

Recovery from the anxiety of broken relationships is multi-faceted. At times it is an individual experience of getting to know oneself, acknowledging that the desperate actions we took in the past may have been all wrong. At the same time, we may also notice that when we are not taking care of ourselves, we resort to those actions again and again.

We use our gifts and our weaknesses to try to gain stability and may fall back repeatedly until we learn how to pause…. And look inward at our fears.

While we work on recognizing our attachment patterns, we need to also work at connecting with our loved ones. This does not involving asking them to change or trying to fix them. It is simply a time of accepting what is and learning to manage our own responses to them. Relationships need attention and cannot wait while we mend ourselves alone.

Trying to find human love in our hearts and kindness in our words and actions does a great deal to heal deep wounds. It also improves feelings of self worth. I was once given the advice to “Be the person you want others to be.” Begin with monitoring your own actions rather than expecting miracles from others. They may follow, they may not. Either way you win if you begin to love yourself.

Many individuals, couples and families find needed solutions by adding professional counseling to their recovery plan. With a skilled counselor you may be able to shorten the process and lessen the pain.

In summary, what I once called codependency is actually human beings doing what comes naturally – loving. When we need love and connection and believe that our loved ones are pulling away or leaving us, we panic and jump into our fear-fueled attachment pattern. Yes, this can become a serious lifelong problem if it continues without help. Once we see that our pattern is no longer effective in helping our loved ones we can let go and use support to set healthy limits and care for ourselves One Day at a Time.

Since guilt, shame and fear are a major part of the pain we feel during a relationship crisis, we need to be conscious of the impact of the words we speak to others and to ourselves. When we realize that love is behind much of the behavior that looks irrational or crazy, we begin to have compassion and love for ourselves and those we care about.

With sensitive and affirming language we are able to view our experiences and choices as logical given the conditions we were in. We did the only thing we knew to be possible to maintain our attachments and prevent a separation we could not bear. It is time to forgive your mistakes and with one foot in front of the other, do better today.

ANN W. SMITH MS, LMFT Executive Director, Breakthrough at Caron Ann Smith designed and directs a weekly 5 day residential personal growth workshop near Reading, Pennsylvania for adults who are seeking a better quality of life. In 2011, the Innovative Breakthrough program was featured in a one hour program on Dateline NBC. She has a Master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling and is licensed as both a Professional Counselor and a Marriage and Family Therapist. She is the author of three books titled Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding the Key to Balance and Self Acceptance, Overcoming Perfectionism: the Key to a Balanced Recovery and Grandchildren of Alcoholics: Another Generation of Co-dependency (available as an e-book). Her blog “Healthy Connections”, currently active on Psychology Today’s website is frequently listed as an “essential read” with over 250,000 views to date.