Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Given that it originated in the 1970s, it is incredible that 50 years later the term "co-dependency" has become a familiar part of our everyday language.
The concept of Co-dependency has a fascinating history.
It was originally formulated to describe relationships of people with substance abuse, although over time it has since been generalized to all types of relationships.
Definitions of co-dependency can vary and include a combination of these components, with authors putting weight on different aspects of this term:
A tendency for overinvolvement in another person, with one’s self-worth dependent on another person’s behavior
A tendency to control another’s behavior for one’s own emotional wellness
A tendency to rely on external sources of self-worth
A tendency to make personal sacrifices, to one’s own detriment.
Co-dependency is often perceived as problematic. There is even a 12-step program for recovery from it! But, before you check off all of the above items and label yourself as a "hopeless co-dependent," make sure to read through the below research critique of this term, to help you sift through what is fact and what is fiction.
Critique 1. There exists a spectrum of co-dependency
The characteristics that describe co-dependency can be thought as being on a spectrum, with those on the less intense side of the spectrum being even suggested to be part of healthy relationships!
For example, many psychologists (including myself) believe that there is always a part of us vulnerable to being affected by other people’s approval, of course we can learn to increasingly disengage from it and learn to put greater weight on affirming ourselves.
Critique 2. Many assumptions underlying the co-dependency theory are not supported by research
The original assumption underlying the term co-dependency was that there is a particular pattern of disfunction common to partners of individuals with a substance abuse problem. Research found no support for this, “partners of people with substance abuse do not have a consistent pattern of dysfunction.” Even in the 50s when a pre-curser term, co-alcoholic, surfaced researchers found that there was “no evidence to suggest that spouses of alcoholics had any predictable patterns of psychopathology.”
Critique 3. There is more to the “cycle” of co-dependency than meets the eye
Many believe that co-dependency starts with low self-esteem in one partner, who is vulnerable to seeking approval and validation from another (perhaps they experienced a critical relationship in their past and feel drawn to similar partners so they can subconsciously heal that past relationship and its impact). Many describe co-dependency as a combination of heightened sensitivity of one person to another’s approval, and their partner’s insensitivity.
The critique of this is that seeing co-dependency as a two-person dynamic and a “disease” can at times place excessive blame on “the victim” within an abusive relationship (as an individual with low self-esteem who doesn’t know how to affirm themselves), as opposed to their abusive partner.
However, research suggests that while all of us have within us emotional patterns that we learned from our past, many individuals who experienced past traumas end up being well adjusted in their adulthood and take on board lessons from their past experiences that enable them to be particularly empathic and clear about what kind of relationships they would like to create in their lives.
Critique 4. Many authors feel that the co-dependency is very general
Lastly, many researchers suggest that because the definition of co-dependency is so general, most people are bound to meet at least one criterion, and misguidedly label themselves pathologically.
In summary, the term co-dependency may help us to understand some possible relationship dynamics, such as when a person vulnerable to low self-esteem may excessively look to their partner for affirmation; perhaps hoping to gain control over a past relationship with a critical other.
The term originated within the substance abuse context, however tends to be over-applied to general relationships in the present; possibly pathologizing some healthy tendencies that are likely to happen at the low end of the co-dependency spectrum, broad enough for any of us to identify with!
“I must be co-dependent” is something I hear often in my counselling work, so if this is something that crosses your mind at times, I hope you will find this blog reassuring, supporting you to reflect on your relationships with kindness and non-judgement.
Best wishes for a peace-filled, insightful, empowering week,
Doweiko, H. Concepts of Chemical Dependency. Cengage Learning, 2011