Codependency is a term that gets thrown around a lot. The definitions range from the technical, where it is used to describe a specific phenomenon that occurs in the families of addicts, to the popular, which revolves around how much time two people spend in each other’s company.
But which definition is accurate? In this article, we will explore three different understandings of codependency and evaluate each in order to arrive at a more accurate understanding.
Codependency: A (Very) Brief History
The term “codependency” was first used in the early 1980s by the Alcoholics Anonymous movement to describe family members of alcoholics who both enabled the alcoholic to feed his or her addiction, and who, themselves, were addicted to being needed by the alcoholic. There was enablement on the part of the family member(s) and addiction on the part of the alcoholic.
In 1986 Timmen Cermak, M.D. offered an expanded definition of codependency which included anyone who sought to meet the needs of others to the exclusion of their own, along with a variety of other symptoms.
As frequently happens, the term hit the mainstream and began to be casually applied to a wide variety of relationship features.
“Monica always has to have a boyfriend. Hello! Codependency alert!”
“Have you seen how Chad and Crystal do everything together?”
“I know, right? They are soooo codependent!”
Some have even suggested that every relationship has codependency issues, making the term so broad that it covers nearly everyone.
This brings us to our first definition.
Codependency as an addiction to being needed
Picture a couple – we will call them Bob and June – who have been married for over 32 years. After three years of marriage, June got pregnant. They were excited for the birth of their first child, but tragically, the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Their second pregnancy 18 months later ended the same way. After a barrage of tests, it was determined that June was unable to have children.
The news was devastating, throwing June into a deep depression. At first, she began drinking a glass of brandy each night before bed to help her sleep. Then she began drinking a glass in the afternoon, as well. Eventually, she began to drink whenever Bob was at work, and he would sometimes come home to find her asleep on the couch.
Other times he would come home to find her sitting on the couch nursing a bottle of whiskey. If he tried to take it away from her, she would become verbally and physically abusive until Bob locked himself in the bathroom and June eventually passed out on the floor.
She would always apologize the next day and promise that she would give up the booze. A couple of times she even went as far as pouring it down the drain, but within a few weeks or months the drinking would start all over again.
On his part, Bob never complained. He knew that his wife needed him, and he felt fulfilled in caring for her. If anyone asked about his occasional bruises, he always made up some excuse. If someone pressed him on the topic of his wife’s alcoholism, he just said that June was “going through a hard time” and she needed him to “be there for her” and to “clean up her messes.” Bob knew that whenever June was sober, she secretly appreciated him.
This portrayal fits the classic definition of codependency – a situation where one person is an addict of some kind and the other endures embarrassment, inconvenience, and even abuse to maintain the relationship. However, there is more to it than that. The non-addict is a kind of addict, themselves.
Bob has a “need to be needed,” otherwise he is not fulfilled. He feels fulfilled when he can care for his wife during one of her drunken binges. Bob’s need to be needed enables June’s drinking, and caring for June when she is drunk brings Bob fulfillment. If June were to give up drinking, Bob would not know what to do. In fact, Bob may not even know who he is apart from his alcoholic wife. Their relationship can be described as codependent.
Codependency as an addiction to people
Amy loves Michael. She loves him so much that whenever she sees him even talking with other people (especially other women) she becomes wildly jealous and tries to get his attention, or else she experiences some sort of “emergency” in an attempt to drag him away.
She makes sure that she always takes good care of him because she is his wife. It’s her responsibility, after all. The way Amy sees it, Michael usually does not know what is best for him. Whenever they go out, he asks her what restaurant she wants to go to, and she typically just says “wherever.”
However, as soon as he suggests a place, she finds some valid reason why they cannot or should not go there. Perhaps the atmosphere is wrong, or it is too far away, or too expensive. They always seem to end up at places she likes.
If Michael wants to spend time with his guy friends, Amy makes sure that she is invited, too. Once, when Michael failed to invite her, she went into a weeklong depression and even ended up threatening suicide. He never forgot again, seeing how anxious it makes her when he is away from her.
Amy’s need goes far beyond simple jealousy. She is consumed with Michael and wants Michael to be consumed with her. She finds her sense of identity and purpose in Michael. Rather than the relationship being one of mutual love and friendship, she also wants to be in the driver’s seat, but without appearing to be.
Rather than an addiction to being needed, this definition says that codependency is when one person is addicted to another person. The relationship is characterized by a deep neediness, which leads one person to manipulate the other person into being or doing what the manipulator wants.
Codependency as self-sacrifice
The last definition of codependency is the loosest, viewing codependent behavior as any kind of self-sacrifice in a relationship. This is the definition that gets thrown around in casual conversation the most, and it is often expanded to include any kind of relationship where two people enjoy each other’s company, sometimes to the exclusion of others, or to the point of sacrificing their own needs in order to care for the other person.
This has given rise to the claim that every relationship is either codependent or exhibits codependent behavior at times. The hidden assumption in this definition is that it is unhealthy for one person to sacrifice their needs so that they can care for the needs of the other person, and in the popular expansion of this definition it is assumed that if two people really like being together and doing things together, they must be codependent.
Cutting through the fog
What are we to make of these definitions? While most would agree that the classic definition describes codependency, there is some disagreement about whether the other two definitions should be included. Is it proper to refer to a person who is obsessed with another person as codependent? Should we identify self-sacrificial behavior with codependency?
It is significant that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) does not list codependency as an identifiable mental health disorder, though it does include what it calls Dependent Personality Disorder.
Let us consider the second definition. In the example above, Amy’s behavior is obsessive and domineering, but it would seem to be improper to call it codependent since Michael is not dependent on Amy the way she is on him. It appears that Amy may have Dependent Personality Disorder, but that is different from codependency, so it appears that the second definition is inappropriate.
The third definition, while common and popular, suffers from the fact that it essentially labels any kind of self-sacrifice – especially long-term self-sacrifice – as codependent behavior. The wife who tends to her invalid husband for 40 years, lovingly sacrificing her time and energy for his good would have to be considered codependent by this definition, and to some in our narcissistic society, it clearly would be.
Contrast this with what the following Bible verses teach about how we are to sacrifice ourselves for others:
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. – Matthew 14:13
Jesus wanted to get away from it all, but the crowds would not leave him alone. Rather than telling them to leave, he had compassion on them and healed the sick people among them. If even our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to sacrifice His needed time alone, shouldn’t we be willing to do the same?
And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. – Ephesians 5:2
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. – Ephesians 5:25
In both of these verses from Ephesians, we are taught to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others – husbands for their wives, and even all Christians for each other – the way that Christ sacrificed Himself for the church. How did He do that? He paid the ultimate price to save those who hated Him.
If Christ loved us in this way and sacrificed Himself for us and commanded us in His Word to live sacrificially for others, we dare not label self-sacrifice as a mental disorder. Granted, those relationships in which one person regularly sacrifices for the good of the other can become codependent, but in that case, it is not the self-sacrifice that makes it codependent.
What makes relationships codependent is the presence of addiction. Codependency stems from the fact that one person is addicted to something and the other is addicted to being needed by them. Mere self-sacrifice is no reliable indicator that a relationship is codependent.
All of this is not to diminish the serious nature of codependence, however. Regardless of its absence from the DSM-5, codependency is a real thing that negatively affects real relationships.
Symptoms of codependency can include:
- Dependency on others for self-esteem or identity
- Extreme people-pleasing
- Poor understanding of boundaries
- Obsession with people or relationships
- Difficulty getting emotionally close to others
- Need for control
- Dysfunctional communication
Christian Counseling for Codependent Relationships
If you believe that you may be in a codependent relationship, the time to seek counseling is now. Christian counseling can help you and the other person break free of the toxic cycle of addiction and the need to be needed. Get the help you need and set yourself on the road to a healthy relationship.
“Laughing Together”, Courtesy of Tim Mossholder, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “In Love”, Courtesy of Hian Oliveira, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Looking out the Window”, Courtesy of Sinitta Leunen, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Snuggle”, Courtesy of Joanna Nix-Walkup, Unsplash.com, CC0 License