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In sociology, codependency is a theory that attempts to explain imbalanced relationships where one person enables another person's self-destructive behavior such as addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. Definitions of codependency vary, but typically include high self-sacrifice, a focus on others' needs, suppression of one's own emotions, and attempts to control or fix other people's problems. People who self-identify as codependent exhibit low self-esteem, but it is unclear whether this is a cause or an effect of characteristics associated with codependency. Codependency is not limited to married, partnered, or romantic relationships as co-workers, friends, and family members can be codependent.
The term codependency is most often identified with Alcoholics Anonymous and the realization that the Alcoholism was not solely about the addict but also about the family and friends who constitute a network for the alcoholic. The term “codependent” was first used to describe how family members and friends might interfere with the recovery of a person affected by a substance use disorder by overhelping.
Application of the concept of codependency was driven by the self-help community. Janet G. Woititz's Adult Children of Alcoholics had come out in 1983 and sold two million copies while being on the New York Times bestseller list for 48 weeks. Robin Norwood's Women Who Love Too Much, 1985, sold two and a half million copies and spawned Twelve Step groups across the country for women "addicted" to men. Melody Beattie popularized the concept of codependency in 1986 with the book Codependent No More which sold eight million copies. In 1986, Timmen Cermak, M.D. wrote Diagnosing and Treating Co-Dependence: A Guide for Professionals. In that book and an article published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Cermak argued unsuccessfully for the inclusion of codependency as a separate personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-III-R. A twelve-step program called Co-Dependents Anonymous was founded in 1986.
Codependency has no established definition or diagnostic criteria within the mental health community.
According to the book Codependency for Dummies, a codependent person is someone who cannot function on their own and whose thinking and behavior is instead organized around another person, process, or substance. Under this conception, many people who are codependent place a lower priority on their own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships.
Timmen Cermak, M.D., proposed that co-dependency be diagnosable as a personality disorder when specific personality traits become excessive and maladaptive and cause significant impairment in functioning or cause significant distress. Codependency has not been included as a condition in any edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Behaviors and characteristics
Under theories of codependency, the codependent partner in a relationships is often described as displaying self-perception, attitudes and behaviors that serve to increase problems within the relationship instead of decreasing them. It is often suggested that people who are codependent were raised in dysfunctional families or with early exposure to addiction behavior, resulting in their allowance of similar patterns of behavior by their partner.
Codependent relationships are often described as being marked by intimacy problems, dependency, control (including caretaking), denial, dysfunctional communication and boundaries, and high reactivity. There may be imbalance within the relationship, where one person is abusive or in control or supports or enables another person's addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.
Under this conception of codependency, the codependent person's sense of purpose within a relationship is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner's needs. Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy "clinginess" and needy behavior, where one person does not have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on their loved one for fulfillment. The mood and emotions of the codependent are often determined by how they think other individuals perceive them (especially loved ones). This perception is self-inflicted and often leads to clingy, needy behavior which can hurt the health of the relationship.
Codependency may occur in people with diagnosable personality disorders.
- Borderline personality disorder – there is a tendency for loved ones of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) to slip into "caretaker" roles, giving priority and focus to problems in the life of the person with BPD rather than to issues in their own lives. The codependent partner may gain a sense of worth by being perceived as "the sane one" or "the responsible one".
- Narcissistic personality disorder – Narcissists, with their ability to get others to "buy into their vision" and help them make it a reality, seek and attract partners who will put others' needs before their own. A codependent person can provide the narcissist with an obedient and attentive audience. Among the reciprocally interlocking interactions of the pair are the narcissist's overpowering need to feel important and special and the codependent person's strong need to help others feel that way.
In the dysfunctional family the child learns to become attuned to the parent's needs and feelings instead of the other way around. Parenting is a role that requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice and giving a child's needs a high priority. A parent can be codependent toward their own child. Generally, a parent who takes care of their own needs (emotional and physical) in a healthy way will be a better caretaker, whereas a codependent parent may be less effective, or may even do harm to a child. Codependent relationships often manifest through enabling behaviors, especially between parents and their children. Another way to look at it is that the needs of an infant are necessary but temporary, whereas the needs of the codependent are constant. Children of codependent parents who ignore or negate their own feelings may become codependent.
Recovery and prognosis
With no consensus as to how codependency should be defined, and with no recognized diagnostic criteria, mental health professionals hold a range of opinions about the diagnosis and treatment of codependency. Caring for an individual with a physical addiction is not necessarily treating a pathology. The caregiver may only require assertiveness skills and the ability to place responsibility for the addiction on the other. There are various recovery paths for individuals who struggle with codependency. For example, some may choose cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, sometimes accompanied by chemical therapy for accompanying depression. There also exist support groups for codependency, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), Al-Anon/Alateen, Nar-Anon, and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA), which are based on the twelve-step program model of Alcoholics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery and Life Recovery a Christian 12 step Bible-based group. Many self-help guides have been written on the subject of codependency.
It has been proposed that, in attempts to recover from codependency, go from being overly passive or overly giving to being overly aggressive or excessively selfish. Therapists may seek to help a client develop a balance through healthy assertiveness, which leaves room for being a caring person and also engaging in healthy caring behavior, while minimizing selfishness, bully, or behaviors that might reflect conflict addiction. Developing a permanent stance of being a victim (having a victim mentality) does not constitute recovery from codependency. A victim mentality could also be seen as a part of one's original state of codependency (lack of empowerment causing one to feel like the "subject" of events rather than being an empowered actor). Someone truly recovered from codependency would feel empowered and like an author of their life and actions rather than being at the mercy of outside forces. A victim mentality may also occur in combination with passive–aggressive control issues. From the perspective of moving beyond victim-hood, the capacity to forgive and let go (with exception of cases of very severe abuse) could also be signs of real recovery from codependency, but the willingness to endure further abuse would not.
It is theorized that unresolved patterns of codependency may lead to more serious problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, sex addiction, psychosomatic illnesses, and other self-destructive or self-defeating behaviors. People with codependency may be more likely to attract further abuse from aggressive individuals (such as those with BPD or NPD), more likely to stay in stressful jobs or relationships, less likely to seek medical attention when needed and are also less likely to get promotions and tend to earn less money than those without codependency patterns. For some people, the social insecurity caused by codependency may progress into full-blown social anxiety disorders like social phobia, avoidant personality disorder or painful shyness. Other stress-related disorders like panic disorder, depression or PTSD may also be present.
Codependency is not a diagnosable mental health condition, and there is no medical consensus as to its definition. Without clinical definition, the term is easily applicable to many behaviors and has been overused by some self-help authors and support communities.
In an article in Psychology Today, clinician Kristi Pikiewicz suggested that the term codependency has been overused by the general populace and labeling a patient as codependent can be confusing and may even shame them rather than help them focus on how their traumas shape their current relationships.
Others have stressed an awareness that codependency is a theory, and that there no evidence that codependence is caused by a disease process. Attachment theory may be a more helpful model for understanding and dealing with attachment in adults. Codependency does not refer to all caring behavior or feelings, but only those that are excessive to an unhealthy degree. Some scholars and treatment providers assert that codependency is an overresponsibility and that overresponsibility needs to be understood as a positive impulse gone awry, and that responsibility for relationships with others needs to coexist with responsibility to self.
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