The precise history of the term “codependency” is unknown, but it is first thought to have been used in the late 1970s at treatment centres in Minnesota, the birthplace of the Twelve Steps model of addiction treatment.
Melody Beattie, the author of several successful self-help books on the subject and the person credited with first popularising the term in 1986, describes codependency as “a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual condition similar to alcoholism that appears in many non-alcoholic or non-chemically dependent people who are close to an alcoholic”.
According to Lee Taylor, Family Programme Coordinator at Castle Craig, codependency and addiction go hand in hand: “Many codependents come from addictive family systems. I think the latest research will say around 10 people are affected by someone’s addiction. Because it’s not only just the nuclear family: it’s the sisters, cousins, mothers, fathers, friends, employers.”
The scope of the term has since been expanded to include other compulsive behaviours, such as overeating, gambling and sex, following the discovery that people in close relationships with compulsive people also develop similar life-coping mechanisms to those in relationships with alcoholics.
Today “codependent” is applied to a wide range of people affected by compulsive disorders in others, including the adult children of alcoholics, people in relationships with emotionally and mentally disturbed or chronically ill people, the parents of children with behavioural problems, nurses, social workers and others involved in the caring professions.
The characteristics of codependency
Codependency is a chronic, progressive illness. Like addiction, it is chronic because it is a long-lasting condition that requires continual treatment and monitoring. It is progressive because as the people around the codependent become more ill, the codependent begins to react more intensely.
Codependents often overreact or underreact to their own or other people’s problems, behaviours and stress. The codependent person is generally characterised by an inclination to let other people’s behaviour affect him or her and control that behaviour.
“The addicted person develops a relationship whereby the other person will feed into the addiction. So the wife or husband or other family member almost facilitates the person’s ongoing dependence on the substance. That’s not because they’re intending to make it worse, it’s because they’re drawn into that whole circle of behaviour and breaking the pattern of that is almost impossible,” explains Dr Maria Kelly, Associate Medical Director at Castle Craig Hospital.
Melody Beattie lists the most common symptoms of codependency as following:
- Excessive caretaking and worrying about the other
- Low self-esteem and low self-worth
- Anger and guilt
- High tolerance of unhealthy relationships
- Communication and intimacy problems
- “Ongoing trip through the five-stage grief process”
- Avoiding hurting other people’s feelings while hurting themselves
- Believing lies and then feeling betrayed
Another common feature of codependency is the unconscious set of rules that develop within the family or codependent relationship. These rules control the interaction between the dependent and the codependent, and may serve to inhibit the expression of feelings and open discussion of problems, and to prohibit play, fun and attempts to unsettle the apparent balance of “family life”.
A perhaps surprising feature of codependency is that even if the codependent ends his or her relationship with the alcoholic or chemical dependent, he or she will then seek out another troubled person with whom to apply the codependent behaviour.
Codependents are also very concerned about their peers and responsive to the needs of the world. Melody Beattie quotes family therapist Thomas Wright as saying: “I suspect codependents have historically attacked social injustice and fought for the rights of the underdog […] But they probably died thinking they didn’t do enough and were feeling guilty.”
Codependent behaviours, like other addictive, self-destructive behaviours, become habits that gain a life of their own. These habits make people stay in destructive relationships or sabotage relationships that may have otherwise worked. All this eventually does is prevent us from finding peace with the only person we can control – ourselves.
Reference: Codependent No More: How To Stop Controlling Others And Start Caring for Yourself – Melody Beattie, Second Edition 1992, Hazelden.
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked August 19, 2020