Codependency

Codependency personality disorder is a condition in which a person focuses onby living through or for another person, attempting to control the actions of others, attempting to "fix" others, feeling an obsessive need to take careof others, and feeling intense anxiety about the well-being of another person, while feeling victimized and secretly blaming the other person for life's unhappinesses. The diagnosis has become very common in the 1990s, especially in people raised in dysfunctional families, and in the partners and children of alcoholics and drug addicts. In this pattern of compulsive, self-defeating,learned behaviors, one or more members of a family (or other social unit) may develop dysfunctional behaviors in order to survive in a family that is experiencing great emotional pain and stress. Often these learned behaviors are passed on from generation to generation, continuing a destructive cycle.

The idea of codependency emerged in the 1970s. It was originated by alcohol counselors. The original term for codependency was co-alcoholic. Alcoholism counselors began observing the alcoholic's negative impact on the family unit.In an effort to help the spouses and children of alcoholics, these counselorsborrowed heavily from the theories and methods of marriage and family therapy and developed the co-alcoholic concept.

Counselors found that when they looked at an alcoholic household as a unit, the spouse and children in various ways showed behaviors that unknowingly supported the alcoholic's dependent behavior. For example, by becoming "strong" and responsible, a child might enable an alcoholic father to "get away" with irresponsible behavior. By making excuses to an employer, a wife might cover up her husband's drinking. What counselors observed was that family members, often without realizing it, became dependent on the abuser's continuing addiction in order for the family unit to continue to function, even when it functioned in an unhealthy manner. These family members were called co-alcoholics because their behaviors enabled the alcoholic to continue drinking rather thanfacing his or her addiction.

The alcoholic's ability to manipulate people often entangled family members in a web of unspoken and oppressive rules regulations whose end result stifledopen expression of feelings and direct confrontation with personal and interpersonal problems. Frustration and repressed anger was often associated withthe seemingly mature and responsible caretaking behavior of the co-alcoholic.Co-alcoholics were viewed as less obviously disturbed than the alcoholic, but they often also needed counseling or psychotherapy.

In time, the concept of enabling an addicted person to continue the addictionspread from the field of alcoholism to the field of drug addiction counseling. The term co-alcoholic was replaced with less specific term of codependent.Social scientists also became interested in the area of addiction and beganconducting research on the effects of substance abuse on the family. These researchers later initiated investigations on compulsions other than chemical addictions, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, extreme religiosity, and work addition, as abusive patterns that could lead to what they labeled codependence in family members. This research led to the conclusion that individualsraised in such families experience identifiable emotional and behavioral problems in coping with adult life. The adult retains the wounds, the pain, the emotions, and the destructive behaviors that he or she learned as a child. Thus, codependent behaviors were found to arise as a result of any dysfunctionalrelationship or upbringing and to be caused by deprivation, abuse, or a lackof nurturing in childhood.

As the concept of codependence spread to areas other than drug and alcohol addictions, the characteristics of a codependent person also broadened. By thelate 1990s codependence had become firmly established in the vocabulary of popular psychology and codependent people were said to exhibit some or all of the following traits:

  • 1. An intense need to feel needed by others in order to establish a relationship with them.
  • 2. A feeling that the value of the codependent's life was linked to and determined by the value of theabuser's life.
  • 3. Becoming resentful when not allowed to help others.
  • 4. Feeling that the codependent knows better how to take care of others than they know how to care for themselves.
  • 5. Fearing the anger or rejection of the abuser and changing behavior to avoid triggering that anger or rejection.
  • 6. Putting aside hobbies and interests in favor of the hobbies and interests of others.
  • 7. Using gift giving as a way to maintain the relationship with the abuser.
  • 8. Limiting social interactions to become more closely involved with the life of the abuser.
  • 9.Feeling agitated and unhappy about the abuser's pain or struggle.
  • 10.Attempting to protect the abuser.

Supporters of the codependency theory of personality disorders continue to expand the list of identifiable codependency symptoms. In general, the symptomsinvolve fixing or controlling others instead of facing internal pain, and failing to recognize the disease in oneself. The basic emotional symptoms of codependency may include any of the following: stress, depression, anxiety; nervousness; irritability; alternation between lethargy and hyperactivity; lossof self-esteem; fear of independence; dysfunctional and entrapping relationships with family members, friends, and coworkers; isolation; emotional pain oremotional numbness; or even suicidal thoughts.

In addition to emotional problems, supporters of the idea that codependency is a personality disorder find that codependents may also suffer from chronicphysical ailments. These may include gastrointestinal disturbances, colitis,ulcers, migraine headaches, nonspecific rashes and skin problems, high bloodpressure, and other stress-related physical illnesses.

One apparent psychological problem in the life of codependents is that as much as a they feel responsibility for others and need to take care of them, they believe deep down that other people are truly responsible for them, blamingothers for their unhappiness and problems. Another contradiction is that while they feel controlled by people and events, codependents themselves are overly controlling. They are afraid to allow other people to be unique and independent individuals and to let events unfold naturally and spontaneously. Thecodependent's world is rigid and inflexible, and he takes comfort in routine.

An "expert" in knowing best how things should turn out and how people shouldbehave, the codependent person tries to control others through overt or covert threats, coercion, compulsive advice giving, helplessness, guilt, manipulation, or domination. Aside from compulsive behaviors such as perfectionism orworkaholism, individuals suffering from alcohol or drug-related codependencyoften feel caught up in a kind of treadmill existence. Whether or not they achieve their goals, they feel driven to achieve more and have an anxious feeling of incompleteness or emptiness regardless of what they accomplish.

Although the term codependency has gained increasing popularity in the 1990s,and books on codependency have sold millions of copies, many respected psychologist feel there is little research evidence to support the theory that codependency is a disease or legitimate psychiatric disorder. Many of these skeptics feel that the ideas that led to the concept of co-alcoholism have been carried too far and applied too broadly, so that any "less than nurturing" childhood experience is now thought to be traumatic and result in repressed feelings and codependency. These psychologists argue that codependency has becomea catch-all for many problems such as low self-esteem, anger control problems, depression, anxiety, and communication problems, and under its current definition, virtually every one in the United States could be diagnosed as codependent.

One of the difficulties in doing scientifically rigorous research on codependency is that its definition is so broad, the symptoms are so general, and theroot causes are defined as patterns established in childhood many years earlier. There is no doubt that families are scarred by the alcoholism, drug addiction, and physically or emotionally abusive behavior of any member. Howeverthe role non-addicted family members play in the continuation of the addiction cannot be demonstrated with scientific rigor.

Supporters of the codependency diagnosis claim that the disease never disappears, but only goes into remission. Most theraputic approaches to codependencyare based on the 12-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous and adapted by many other groups dealing with addictions. The program stress awarenessas the first step in recovery; the second step is acceptance, both of whichneed to occur in a supportive group setting. Codependency is treated as an addiction, since codependents have as much difficulty accepting their powerlessness over people and events as substance abusers do over their drug of choice. Co-Dependents Anonymous, modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, is the best knowof the organizations following this treatment model.

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