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Mental HealthUnpopular opinion: The myth of codependency 

The term codependency gets thrown around when clients come to me with their concerns around relationships. I believe the term is overused and overrated and find it an unscientific term that has the effect of further dividing people who are already lonely and disconnected. Let me explain. The concept of codependency emerged within the addiction field in the 1970’s to describe family dynamics that occurred as a result of substance misuse. However, a major flaw...
Parisa SoltaniNovember 30, 20229 min
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The term codependency gets thrown around when clients come to me with their concerns around relationships. I believe the term is overused and overrated and find it an unscientific term that has the effect of further dividing people who are already lonely and disconnected. Let me explain.

The concept of codependency emerged within the addiction field in the 1970’s to describe family dynamics that occurred as a result of substance misuse. However, a major flaw in the development of this concept was the lack of agreement on the definition of co-dependency.

Today, definitions continue to vary widely. Just as all language has the tendency to mutate according to context, we saw this term flourish, pouring over into our everyday lexicon describing the manner in which one person relates to another. 

From the onset, even within its original context of substance misuse, this term was vague, divisive in nature and unscientific. 

The author Melodie Beattie, who’s book Codependent No More could be considered the concept’s “go-to” handbook, implies that the individual plagued by codependency is so disturbed by the person struggling with substance misuse that he or she “is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior”. In her book, Beattie provides a list of 200 characteristics of a codependent. Arguably criterion so varied, that virtually anyone can qualify. 

Codependency perpetuates an idea of independence in a way that is problematic and often alienating. Because in truth, all relationships are to an extent codependent. Complete independence is simply not part of our biological make-up, as psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr Amir Levine beautifully describes: “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.” 

There is however, a “dance” or balance of care for others while simultaneously carrying out self-love, and that must be acknowledged.  

Without the balance, the individual exhibits unhealthy, consistent patterns of self-subjugation interpersonally, and consequently they are typically labelled or diagnosed as codependent. 

In reality it is not a diagnosis, but a complex host of symptoms of a person that for both rational and irrational reasons, such as behavior modeled in developmental years, attachment style, cultural influences or poor self-esteem, to name a few, now believes they must buy their place at the metaphorical table to receive love, admiration or attention with self-sacrifice and self-abandonment. This results in poor physical and mental health and is unsustainable.  

It goes without saying that this is not at all what I am promoting in this article. I am advocating for the attention to the language bleeding into daily life and for the “de-pathologizing” of necessary, common, human interaction because language shapes thought, and our thoughts shape our brain. 

So, what are the problems with the concept of co-dependency?

  1. It pathologizes supportive behavior in relationships: to label someone as codependent when they exhibit the same behavior that a spouse would exhibit with an illness other than an addiction, like cancer for example, is a flaw in the codependent concept. To attempt to pathologize supportive or helping behaviours in our culture is quite troubling. Especially in a time when we are recognizing that interpersonal connection is more important than ever. 
  2. Codependency lacks psychometric properties, meaning you can’t measure it. This is not to say that it should be dismissed, but when attempting to pathologize human care, support and concern, I would at least like to see some consistent, testable scientific confirmation. As indicated earlier, codependency has lacked a common definition from its inception, and to this day lacks empirically sound evidence. There is no scientific research supporting the concept of codependency and it has never been accepted for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, despite many attempts. 
  3. Collectively labelling a group of symptoms or pattern of behaviours as codependent inhibits our capacity to discover alternate explanations, underlying causes and complementary approaches, and prevents us from examining the individual and socio-political structures that may accompany it. People’s efforts to do what’s best for their children, the family and their partners should be validated, respected, and supported. If it’s not at the cost of the individuals physical and mental health, we should encourage, not pathologize, what gives meaning to people’s lives.

Largely, the “symptoms” used to label co-dependency are just human behaviours. For example, being controlled or manipulated within a relationship is not specific to any group or class. Actually, researchers have observed control and manipulation in virtually all relationships, including among children at play, relationships between adolescents, early adulthood, people who are living together, marital partners and coworkers. So, any relationship, “in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another” appears to be as common as having a relationship. “Co” simply means “with” or “together” and “dependency” means “reliance on” or “need for. ” 

As humans we are designed to depend on one another. And it is not always going to be equilateral at all times. We need each other, for survival, especially in times of distress or vulnerability. That is how the human has evolved. 

Parisa Soltani

Parisa has a neuroscience degree and is a counsellor of Integrated Psychotherapy, works in psychological and physical trauma rehabilitation with a speciality in acquired brain injuries and autism and is currently working on her PhD on the therapeutic implications of indoor skydiving on the brain, specifically cerebral palsy and ADHD.. She's also a personal trainer, yoga and barre instructor and lives on a boat in Abu Dhabi.

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