Codependency Revisited

By Beth Wilson

The history of the word “codependency” dates back to the 1950s when Lois Wilson and Anne Bingham founded Al-Anon, the Twelve Step recovery group for family members and others in relationships with alcoholics. Back then, the word described exactly what it was – an unhealthy drive to fix or alter the conditions that had created so much turmoil in their unhappy homes.

According to Ross Rosenberg’s blog post, “The History of the Word Codependency,” 1970s treatment centers began to recognize that alcoholism didn’t just affect the alcoholic; so they labeled family members “co-alcoholics.” The rising drug crisis of the 1980s saw treatment providers expanding their programs to include treatment for people who were chemically dependent. Rosenberg goes on to say that since “co-chemically dependent” was a mouthful, the family members’ designation was shortened to “codependent.”

Since the 1980s, the term codependency has jumped out of therapeutic settings and into mainstream nomenclature, but with a meaning that is not very favorable. Today, it’s common to overhear a cell phone conversation, “I know, right? She’s so codependent.” Variations of this conversation happen in daily settings everywhere. “Have you heard about Dorothy? She totally lets Toto dictate her every move. OMG, that girl is super-codependent!”

While the dialogue may seem silly, relinquishing one’s own wants and needs for the sake of another person’s is not. In his way of redefining codependency, Rosenberg says these are people “. . . who habitually and reflexively give more love, respect and care to others while not receiving the same in return.”

The concept of codependency even sparked the book, Codependency for Dummies, written by Darlene Lancer. Lancer’s definition of codependency – because it seems everyone has their own definition – is, “Someone who can’t function from their innate self, but instead organizes their thinking and behavior around another person(s), a process, or substance.”

In the mid-1980s, the concept of codependency rocketed into the fourth dimension with Melody Beattie’s book, Codependent No More. She writes, “Codependency is about crossing lines. How can we tell if what we’re doing is codependent? When we cross the line into the Codependent Zone, we’ve usually got an ulterior motive for what we do, and what we’re doing hurts.”

In 2009, she wrote a follow-up book called The New Codependency: Help and Guidance for the New Generation. Beattie acknowledges that the world has changed drastically in the 30 years or so since she wrote her first book. She writes, “Teenagers know about boundaries and limits; five-year-old children talk about feelings.” She believes we have had a shift in the self-care paradigm.

Taking care of ourselves and not feeling selfish about it, and learning to care for others in a healthy way are the shifts that needed to happen. Perhaps this is why bookstores today are filled with books on codependency and how to recover from it.

Codependency has evolved from its beginnings. Some say the concept is bastardizing itself out of existence. In fact, Dr. Sue Johnson, a respected couples therapist, said, “There is no such thing as codependency; there is only effective and ineffective dependency.” Using Dr. Johnson’s definition, it is more likely that a person simply has a problem with communication.

She explains that ineffective dependency is the result of reaching out to others in ways that don’t work. Needy and clingy people tend to evoke frustration and even anger from others – the very opposite of the response they desire. Instead, if they choose to state their needs directly, the exchange will be more satisfying for both people. The communication becomes effective, and unhealthy dependency is no longer an issue. Self-contentment goes a long way toward easing both ineffective dependency and communication.

In truth, we are all dependent on others. It seems safe to assume that we are all codependents at one time or another. It is human nature to be interdependent with others for certain things; and, because we are human, that dependency isn’t always healthy.

In her blog post “The Myth of Codependency,” New York psychologist Jenev Caddell notes that, “We are not wired to be alone. We do need each other, and that is not codependency. It is an innate, wired-in, biological need. Simply stated, we would die without each other.”

Caddell’s solution to codependency begins with a moratorium on using the word. Instead, she recommends people heed the call to be with others and do their best to make these relationships healthy. She writes, “Stop questioning yourself when you start to feel attached to someone.” While you’re at it, don’t bend to the current codependency descriptions blowing through our culture. Be your own beautiful self, and let that be enough.

Sarah Jones writes on The Good Men Project website that today’s pop-culture definition of codependency seems to “. . . center around the idea that codependents have little-to-no core sense of self and are therefore compulsively looking to outside sources for comfort.”

Jones’ description could sum up the lives of just about all of those entering recovery from addictions. Looking for outside comfort is what recovering people do as they search for something to fill the interior sense of emptiness. Many continue the search long after the addiction is set aside.

Jones suggests that the general public would do well to leave the word “codependency” to therapists, counselors and psychologists, and instead to focus on developing more effective interdependent relationships.

The only benchmark needed to determine if a relationship is symbiotic is to answer the question, “Is the way I’m showing up in this relationship making me more of who I want to be?” If the answer is no, you need to address why not. If the answer is yes, go forth and enjoy your relationships – and your life!

Beth Wilson is a writer in long-term recovery from addiction. She blogs about recovery and mindfulness at and is also the director of digital content at



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