What It Means To Be Codependent
There’s one main reason why you’re probably not codependent. And that reason involves how we commonly perceive and apply the term. To be blunt, we use the term too frequently, too loosely, and mostly, improperly. And those who should know better (i.e. helping professionals) are among the worst offenders! To be sure, there is such a thing as codependency. But the way most folks use the term these days has very little to do with its original, and actual meaning.
If we’re to communicate ideas accurately and reliably, our words must have specific meanings. The “co” prefix in any word means “jointly,” or “together,” – an inherent partnership of sorts. Copilots, for example, jointly operate (i.e. “co-operate”) an aircraft. They might divide specific duties, but both operators engage in the same task: making sure the aircraft properly flies. The word “dependent” also has a specific meaning. It means that one thing is contingent upon or determined by another. In the case of true chemical dependency, for example, a person’s ability to maintain some degree of emotional equilibrium depends upon whether a certain substance is in their system. (And that’s just one reason why “tolerance” and “withdrawal” are necessary conditions for justly conferring an addiction diagnosis on someone.)
Early addiction research yielded many meaningful findings. One finding was how much of the addict’s life was controlled by the substance upon which they were dependent. But it also became evident how much the substance’s presence controlled the lives of others in the family system. With the substance controlling everyone’s lives, one could rightfully say that both the addict and the addict’s “enablers” (those conscientious enough to keep things going despite the addict’s dysfunction) were codependent.
What Codependence Isn’t
I’ve seen hundreds of folks who referred to themselves codependent. Usually, they labeled themselves so because someone told them they were or something they read or heard suggested they were. So it almost always surprised them when I asked: “Along with whom, and upon what, exactly, are you dependent?” And most folks responded with a blank or quizzical stare. But what’s most important is that most of the time, after assessing their situation, it was pretty clear they weren’t codependent at all!
Codependence is not emotional dependency. It’s also not mutual dependence or healthy, normal human interdependence. And it’s especially not imposed dependence (i.e. dependence subtly cultivated by a skilled manipulator, malignantly narcissistic controller, or predator). And to label the victim of such manipulation “codependent” is truly a form of abuse. It casts the victim as their own victimizer, which further damages the victim’s already impaired self-image. And the damage increases proportionally to the degree the victim buys into the notion.
Now, many times interventions designed for codependency can actually be of help to former abuse victims. Folks in abusive relationships often either came to the relationship lacking a sound sense of self or had their sense of self damaged by their abuse. So, while codependency models can be helpful, they can still do some harm. I talk more about this on Character Matters.