Towards a New Definition of “Co-Dependency”

Over 2 decades ago the term “co-Dependency” burst on the self-help scene through the publication of Melody Beattie’s 1987 Codependent No More (Hazeldon) and Pia Mellody’s 1989 Facing Codependence (Harper & Row). Since that time, millions of people around the world have used it to describe their unhealthy relationships with themselves and others.

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Over 2 decades ago the term “co-Dependency” burst on the self-help scene through the publication of Melody Beattie’s 1987 Codependent No More (Hazeldon) and Pia Mellody’s 1989 Facing Codependence (Harper & Row). Since that time, millions of people around the world have used it to describe their unhealthy relationships with themselves and others.

Originally, the term was used to describe the impact of drug and alcohol addiction on family functioning. It was observed that in families where one member suffered from an addiction, other family members displayed certain self-limiting personality traits and were “sick” as well. Central to these traits are:

  • Relying excessively on other people for approval and identity
  • Placing other people’s needs ahead of one’s own
  • Assuming responsibility for another person’s behavior
  • Fixing the damage caused by another person’s behavior

In short, a co-dependent person becomes so obsessed with “fixing” and “rescuing” others that they lose the ability to take proper care of themselves. In failing to take proper care of themselves, they lose the ability to live full and productive lives.

Over the years, use of the term has been expanded to describe a person’s involvement with almost any relationship impacted by illness. So a mother with a son who suffers from hyperactivity or a daughter who suffers from bi-polar disorder could become so obsessed in fixing her child that she neglects her own physical, spiritual and emotional needs.

As a general concept, the term “co-dependent” holds value. It recognizes that illness of all sorts do not occur in isolation, but affect everyone around the afflicted person. Where the term comes up short, however, is where it places additional blame and shame on the caregivers who are already overly burdened with the stresses and strain of giving care.

Rather than labeling these caregivers as people who are sick and need to be cured, why don’t we honor and acknowledge their incredible capacity for love and service.

Instead of defining these people as co-dependent, why don’t we build on their strengths and call them what they are…compassionate human beings. So now when a mother describes her relationship to her sick child she is reminded of her strengths instead of burdened with another weakness; and once aware of her strengths, she can call on them to feel good about and change her own life.

The words we use to define ourselves, our lives and others hold enormous power. It’s time we begin using them to build on our strengths instead of relying on others to define our weaknesses.

Blog written by Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, JD
Paul Hokemeyer is a licensed attorney, researcher and Marriage and Family Therapist who works with individuals, couples and...