Breaking the Code of Codependence – Introduction

In the late 1970s, the term codependent came into usage among substance abuse treatment professionals. These therapists were trying to understand the climate in which substance abusers lived. In this process these therapists identified a pattern of behaviors in the partners of their clients that appeared to hinder recovery efforts by the drug user in recovery. Although the focus of concern moved from the substance abuser to the family members, this pattern of behaviors became known collectively as codependence. The behaviors of codependent family members were characterized as having an extreme external focus and a “need to control” others because these family members seemed to be driven by the need to control the substance abuser’s drug habits. Ironically these care-taking attempts came to epitomize the meaning of what has been described as codependence.

The prefix “co-“ can be defined as “with or necessary for the functioning of.” Codependence therefore refers to the partner or spouse of a person who is chemically dependent (Greenleaf, 1984). In the literature, codependence is characterized by a list of symptoms that range from an extreme need for control to emotional numbing. According to these different sources, codependence stems from an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the well being of others. By getting others to comply with the codependent’s “controlling” behaviors, the codependent gains a sense of being needed and valued. As will be explained in a later section of this book, these tendencies are developed in the childhood environment when a person learns that if love is not forthcoming, being needed or gaining approval are at least second best to feeling love.

It is in the childhood environment that most people learn to act in codependent ways. When love is not given, children seek approval. When we are not validated for our true individuality, we develop a “false self” that hides who we are and who we can become. When we grow up and seek love within an intimate relationship, we mistake our ability to “get others to change for the better” as being valuable—we gain self-worth. When we are successful at getting others to act and do the things we feel are best for them, we feel needed. In the case of substance abuse, we feel needed and important if we can only get the drug abuser to stop abusing. This perpetuates the denial of our own selves because we are so concerned with what is best for others that we never take the time to discover what is best for us. Consequently, this creates a distorted relationship to our sense of personal will power. Codependence predisposes a person to invest inordinate amounts of energy in the effort to improve other people’s lives in our search for a semblance of self-worth (Cermak, 1986).

Defining Codependence

Melody Beattie (1987, 1989, 1997) defined codependence as primarily a condition of relating with others, or interrelating, that resulted in

…lives (that have) become unmanageable as a result of living in a committed relationship with an alcoholic….A codependent…has let another person’s behavior affect him or her…and is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior (pp. 30-31).

Others, such as Cermak (1986) proposed that codependence is characterized by:

  • Continued investment of self-esteem in the ability to influence/control feelings and behavior in self and others in the face of obvious adverse consequences for doing so;
  • Assumption of responsibility for meeting others’ needs;
  • Anxiety and boundary distortions around intimacy and separation
  • Enmeshment in relationships with personality disordered individuals;
  • Three or more of the following: constriction of emotions, depression, hyper vigilance, compulsions, anxiety, substance abuse, excessive denial, recurrent physical or sexual abuse, stress-related medical illness, and/or a primary relationship with an active substance abuser for at least two years.

He felt that these five criteria would assist in the diagnosis of codependence.

Beattie (1987) suggested that codependents were taught to avoid focusing on their own personal feelings and desires so that they didn’t upset the existing family system. These types of families taught children that to focus on personal emotions and needs was selfish. These children learned to suppress their real feelings. It also prevented them from being proactive problem-solvers. These

unwritten, silent rules…usually develop in the immediate family…(and) set the pace for (adult) relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems, open expression of feelings; direct, honest communication; realistic expectations…being human, vulnerable, or imperfect…(and create a)…habitual system of thinking, feeling, and behaving…that can cause…pain…(leading one)…into, or keep(ing one)…in destructive relation-ships…(It) can sabotage relationships that may otherwise have worked (Beattie, 1987, pp. 30-34).

These early childhood experiences appear as over-learned behavior in adulthood. What was learned so well in childhood carries over into adult relationships and sets the stage for a tendency to relate to others codependently. Subby (1984) believed that the oppressive rules of dysfunctional families create a mistrust of self and others for the codependent.

What is a dysfunctional family? Mellody, Miller, and Miller (1989) described a dysfunctional family as a situation in which adult and child roles are not clearly distinguished. The child may serve as a surrogate partner for one of the parents, or both parents may triangulate the child regarding issues arising between the parents. Triangulation is the tendency of one or both parents to use the child as a “middle-man” or mediator between the mother and father. When we are triangulated, we become hyper-vigilant to what we think others are feeling or what we might believe the other person “really” wants or needs. It is an effort to make everyone happy. Codependence makes us more focused on the external cues from others instead of listening to our own wisdom.

Analyzing Codependence

The construct of codependence has been described in a variety of ways with little agreement among the various descriptions. It has been referred to as a behavioral adaptation to a drug or alcoholic environment formed in the family of origin or one’s primary relationship (Beattie, 1987). It has also been advanced as a primary disease that is brought into a relationship causing drug abuse in one’s partner (Cermak, 1986a, 1986b; Gotham & Sher, 1996; Rice, 1996). Uhle (1994) described codependence as a need to be needed and to seek approval from others. Codependents experience a willingness to suffer (Collins, 1993), a need to be in control, including an urge to change and control others (Fagan-Pryor & Haber, 1992; Wright & Wright, 1991); an inability to maintain clear boundaries between self and significant others (Fagan-Pryor et al., 1992; O’Gorman, 1993); a numbing or denial of feelings (Mannion, 1991; Morgan, 1991; Granello & Beamish, 1998); and, it has even been referred to as pathological altruism (Mc Grath et al, 2011).

Not all of these depictions of codependence have been validated but they are listed here to demonstrate that the construct of codependence has many problems associated with it. We are unsure if it really exists yet researchers continue to study it as if it does. Keep an open mind given the confusion at this point in our growing understanding of the codependency. We aren’t sure if it is a syndrome or just a collection of problematic behaviors that make is easier to discuss by calling it “codependence.” My personal concern with the discourse of codependence is that there is no agreement as to what it is. On the one hand it is described as the “need to control others” or a “numbing or denial of feelings,” and conversely, as “pathological altruism.” These are quite different behaviors.

Addiction models characterize codependents as being addicted to the addict (Capwell-Sowder, 1984; Wright et al., 1991) while psychodynamic approaches have focused upon dysfunctional early childhood environmental factors that may have resulted in low self-esteem and culminate in codependent relating (Carson & Baker, 1994; Wells, Glickhauf-Hughes, & Jones, 1999). Attachment theorists have described the construct as typifying the characteristics of avoidant or anxious/ambivalent types and provide some indication of how the parenting style can contribute to later codependent development in the children (Carranza, & Kilmann, 2000).

New research in Interpersonal Neurobiology (Siegel, 2011) is revealing that insufficient development of the right prefrontal cortex can result from childhood experiences that lack attunement, collaborative and emotional communication, reflective dialogue, repair of disruptions in the relationship, and coherent narratives. Without these essential elements being present in our parents or caregivers interactions with us, we likely developed insecure/ambivalent attachments to them that resulted in our impaired ability to have satisfying, attuned relationships with others, and our own children. We are now learning that these deficiencies can be remedied through attuned communications and therapy that focuses on integrating a person’s experiences. These and other theoretical approaches all attempt to bring awareness to our understanding of codependence and provide the means to break the code of codependence. These theories are examined more in depth in a later chapter of this book.

The prevalence and popularization of codependence has been publicized through the popular press and media (Gemin, 1997). From this discourse, it sounds as if codependence is really a personal problem. What is advocated in this book however is the disparity between the way the condition develops and the manner in which treatment is assigned. Although codependence develops within the context of relationships, treatment approaches focus upon individual recovery from codependence requiring separation from others. In many ways, this intrarelationship approach is insightful to our understanding of the nature of codependence, but it is not the cure all for this type of interrelationship problem.

Recovery models encourage establishing boundaries and being vigilant for violations of those boundaries by others. It advocates “letting go” and “letting God.” People in recovery are always working the program. One criticism of the recovery model is that a person is always “in recovery but never recovered.” What appears to be an interrelationship problem is dealt with on an intrapersonal level in this type of setting, which is important to the healing process. In other words, we need to learn more about ourselves first so that when we enter into an intimate relationship with another person, we have a developed Self to share. This Self differs from the self (capital “S” versus the little “s”) in that the self is really our ego. Our ego is a truncated version of the fullness that the Self embodies because it is our version that makes us socially acceptable to others. These are the parts of us that we allow others to see, but the Self is the actualization of the true inner soulful being that you are. We know who we are, what we want, what we feel, what we think, what we need, what we like or dislike and can share this with our partner. If we have not learned to undo the damage of an unvalidated childhood, then we continue to try to fit into the image that we hold of ourselves or the image that others expect us to be. We are the chameleons.

At some point we must reenter the world of relationships. This is the forum where we learn to become a warrior. Unless we are challenged to use our new found “Self” we never truly know if we have taken that important step into living what we have learned. Without actively engaging in a relationship with another person and allowing ourselves to learn who we are in relationship to this other person, we can never know if the intrarelationship healing has been effective in helping us to have a healthy interrelationship.

Feminist critics of the construct of codependence are concerned that the recovery movement traditionally focuses upon the “identified codependent” instead of examining the additional contributions to its development that come from societal and political factors. Focusing on the identified codependent simply diverts attention away from the forces in society and the political atmosphere that impact gender related behaviors and how we judge those behaviors. Females are taught to be caretakers and nurturers and have historically not enjoyed the same privileges that are afforded to most males. By simply describing codependence as a personality problem of the individual, many are left unaware that society expects women to be the caretaker and the nurturers as long as they don’t carry out that role to the extreme. If we don’t acknowledge that codependence is an exaggerated form of the typical roles assigned to females in society, public consciousness will remain constricted about the construct of codependence (Favorini, 1995; Frank & Bland, 1992; Gemin, 1997; Gordon, 1997). It will continue to be seen as a problem emerging from the individual. Codependence is thus understood as an individual problem rather than acknowledging the complexity of this behavioral syndrome that can only be understood if we examine all facets that contribute to its development: lack of attuned interactions during development, gender bias, politics that create division into the “have” and “have nots,” societal prejudices, cultural expectations, and more.

Another criticism of the current discourse on codependence is that the societal structures that exacerbate addictive behaviors are not considered in this myopic definition. Hierarchical power structures, common in American society, may well be the primary driving force behind the prevalence of codependence in our society. We live in a patriarchal society. Patriarchy is defined as a social form in which ranking, status, independence, logic, and domination are male-defined and reflect primarily male standards. Peele and Brodsky (1975) believed that such distinctions create an unequal distribution of power within the social, economic, military, and political structures of these types of societies and therefore any deviations from these patriarchal established norms are considered as abnormal or pathological.

If expected gender roles are male-defined there will be a rank ordering to the behaviors assigned appropriate for males and females. In most societies, characteristics associated with the masculine are seen as being more normal than behaviors associated with females. For example, the words “strong, independent and objective” are preferred over the words “weak, dependent and subjective.” When behaviors and gender roles are assigned by predominantly male standards, then those roles associated with females are seen as belonging to a minority class in society. This is an example of hierarchical ranking.

Expected roles for females are defined by male standards that reflect this bias. This is not a statement of gender bashing but describes the conditions in society that contribute to a stratification of rank-ordered and preferred behaviors. Enabling and care taking are terms generally associated with codependence and expected feminine gender role behaviors. As a consequence, a higher proportion of females are diagnosed as codependent. Researchers have suggested that this gender discrepancy arises because males are more likely to be the chemically dependent partner in relationships.
The roles and behaviors expected of females reflect the opposite of that which males are expected to adhere to, but as in the case of codependence, when females carry out these expected gender-role behaviors too well, they are labeled as a form of deviant behavior that needs to be fixed. Whether codependence was originally described to obscure the part that patriarchy has contributed to gender inequality, or whether it more specifically represents a personality disorder that primarily affects females will be further examined in this book.

The pervasive nature of codependence and the confusion regarding its definition, etiology, and diagnosis has created much disagreement about the construct. Current theoretical approaches have proposed a mixture of contradicting or narrowly defined viewpoints regarding codependence, its etiology and treatment. Mc Grath et al (2011) asserted that there is a lack of psychometrically sound instruments to measure the construct of codependence and propose that it “might be better to conceptual(ize) codependency as dysfunctional behaviors to identify, rather than a disorder to diagnose (Mc Grath et al, 2011, p. 53). This echoes earlier writers who argue that the identification of the behaviors that constitute problematic relating would be more helpful in treatment strategies. This book proposes such a re-visioning of the construct, but to see it as a personal mythology in need of revision rather than a mental health diagnosis.

An integrative framework that incorporates the total body of knowledge on codependence would provide a more holistic approach for working with codependence. By addressing the sociopolitical, economic, cultural, theoretical, family of origin, personality factors and feminist concerns regarding how the construct of codependence is framed, a viable path to healing can be identified. Through these considerations, deeper understanding can be achieved and the necessary steps to heal from codependent patterns of relating can occur. There is an emerging revolution in psychology that considers how this can be achieved—the Transpersonal Movement. The Transpersonal takes us into the realm of the mysterious and unseen world of the human being—our consciousness. By learning how we form our perceptions, what happens in the brain as we change the ways in which we view our “reality” we are empowered to heal ourselves. The plasticity of the brain informs us that what happened or did not happen when we were children does not doom us as adults. We have the capacity and ability to change our brain and lives through knowledge that leads us to practices that heal.

Transpersonal psychology is concerned with the different forms of consciousness that humans are capable of experiencing. Briefly defined, transpersonal psychology is concerned with consciousness awakening and consciousness evolution in our lives. It considers our human tendency to behave in archetypal ways. Archetypes are predisposed patterns of behavior that are unconsciously reenacted in each generation. For example, we tend to follow the patterns of relating in intimate relationships that we had modeled for us by our parents and others in society. Unless we consciously choose to create something different, we will no doubt repeat these patterns.

There are as many archetypes as there are situations, but the focus of this book is to investigate how the archetypal pattern comes to life when we enter into an intimate relationship. We may be an independent, confident person outside of a relationship, but within a relationship, we seem to lose our sense of identity and our direction. Suddenly, the other person’s life and well-being is much more important than our own happiness. We do what we can to assure that our partner makes those choices that “we” think are best. Breaking the code of codependence is to understand the many factors that have contributed to this pattern of interrelating.

To see codependence as an archetype, or the modern expression of the characteristic ways in which females and males have related to one another for thousands of years, the possibilities for emerging from unconscious adherence to these patterns of behavior happens. Understanding how the dynamics in dysfunctional families can make one more at-risk for later codependent relating, and increasing awareness of the archetypal influences at play, we begin to recognize the patterns in which we are stuck and can then form new ways of relating. As we develop practices to change our brain, we learn to witness our emotions to become the observer. Becoming the observer of our emotional times loosens the neural nets that keep those emotions brewing and at-ready to burst upon the scene. We know that neurons that fire together, wire together (and all the accompanying hormones and neurotransmitters that are released to make up our “emotional cocktail”). Conversely, neurons that no longer fire together will loose their connections to one another (Siegel, 2001, 2011).

Prior to learning about transpersonal psychology, interpersonal neurobiology, and archetypes, we will explore how codependence has been described and defined as well as how it develops from the childhood environment within the family of origin in Part I (Beattie, 1987; Cermak, 1986). We will also examine how society has affected our notions of appropriate gender roles and behaviors that culminate in codependence (Jimenez, 1997; Peele & Brodsky, 1975). Society’s contribution to addictive behaviors and gender bias is another perspective from which we can gain a clearer understanding of just what codependence is and how it develops.

In Part II, we will explore codependence from a transpersonal perspective. What is the transpersonal path? Part II examines this emerging fourth force in psychology and places it within the historical development of the discipline of psychology. Transpersonal psychology is intimately involved in explaining how we form our notions of reality and simultaneously provides scientific evidence for perhaps revising the way in which we have come to understand “how the world works.”

Most important to understanding codependence and how one can heal from these patterns will be to understand how we form our “reality.” Is reality all around us simply waiting to be seen or is it something that we actively create? These are the concerns of Part II where we will look at how we come to perceive what we call our reality and at the same time find a path to change the archetypal patterns that have culminated in codependent behaviors.

The transpersonal framework gives us a basic understanding about how codependence can be seen as a condition a person can grow beyond. To expand our individual boundaries and transcend our human nature we can create a broader way of understanding what is happening in codependence. To seek the transpersonal is to seek the unity within the universe and our connection to others. It helps to explain our similarities and tendencies to use consciousness in restricted ways.

Get ready to explore how you can heal or help others to heal from codependent relating. Learn tools to change your perception and your brain. Learn how your consciousness has contributed to the formation of the reality you experience and how to change these perceptions that ultimately help rewire your brain. By educating ourselves and learning the tools to evolve consciousness, we will each have the opportunity to grow and evolve to become the person that we desire to be.