Codependency Isn't A Disorder, It's A Relationship Dynamic

This covert victim-blaming further damages self-esteem and gifts abusers with an excuse for the inexcusable.

As someone who has been through her fair share of codependent relationships, and has coached and mediated numerous clients out of and onward from codependent relationships of their own, I have spent significant time educating myself further on the concept of codependency.

If there was a true cure for codependency to be found, I would drink that juice down in a heartbeat.

Codependency, however, is not something that can be cured, because codependency is not a disease, a disorder, a syndrome or an illness. 

Codependency is a relationship dynamic and an abusive one at that. Meaning that, in a codependent relationship, there is an abuser and a victim of abuse. Quite often the abusers in these relationships have an underlying mental health issue, such as an addiction disorder or a personality disorder. The victims may or may not have disorders of their own, particularly anxiety disorders or depressive disorders.

But—again—codependency itself is not a disorder. Adding the label of being a codependent to someone already suffering from anxiety, depression and/or now-likely trauma, not only provides the abuser with an excuse for their inexcusable behavior, but also re-victimizes and further traumatizes the partner in need of intensive self-esteem repair.

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Here’s an example of how the codependent label was used against me — after I had freed myself of my last codependent relationship. 

Somewhere around a year ago I met a guy I enjoyed and who seemed to be digging me too. Turns out not so much, which was totally cool with me. No one can be everyone’s type, and I don’t take it personally if after a man decides he’s just not that into me. We had only gone out a few times, and told me respectfully, without any weird, dragged out silence, so no harm, no foul in my book.

Until a week or so later he randomly decided to send me an article about the Gottman Institute’s well-known study of newlywed couples and predictors of marital success. It is an interesting study about which I have plenty of opinions, but we had never discussed it and I wasn’t sure why he sent it to me, given we were no longer a potential newlywed couple. So I asked.

Turns out he was trying to assist me by sharing his own interpretation of the study:

A) If you want to have a happy marriage you need to marry someone who is “happy.”

B) Because I have been in codependent relationships in the past, I obviously lack the inherent self-esteem necessary to ever be “happy.”

C) I am therefore a poor candidate for him—and most likely for anyone else ever.

OK, totally not what Dr. Gottman said, but it does bring me to my point.

It turns out that this fine gentleman, who had already presented indicators of both alcoholic and narcissistic tendencies, has consumed a great deal of material about codependent relationships over the years—simply for the purpose of validating his victim-blaming hypothesis that there would be no co-dependent relationships if it weren’t for the fact that those spineless fools, the codependents, lack the self-esteem to stand up to themselves and just be happy.

His world view is quite beautiful in its sheer simplicity: there would be no abusers if no one allowed themselves to be abused.

I agree that it would be nice if the world worked that way, but see, it just doesn’t.

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Here’s a break down of 6 ways referring to individuals as codependent is incorrect and dangerous.

1) Codependency has already been proposed for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – and it was rejected

In 1986, Dr. Timmen Cermak a wrote book titled Diagnosing and Treating Co-Dependence: A Guide for Professionals, in which he posited that codependency should be included in the DSM-III as a distinct personality disorder. His proposal was rejected, and in the now 30 years following no one has yet made a convincing enough case to establish that codependency fits into the medical category of a mental disorder.

Cermak’s book did lead to the establishment of a Twelve-step program called Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), which can certainly serve as an effective mechanism for healing the wounds of people working to better understand what they endured in their relationship, how they got there, and how they can learn, grow and trust themselves again.

2) A codependent relationship is always a two-way street—the word itself implies mutuality.

If someone has obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, etc., the symptoms will manifest themselves regardless of whether or not that individual is in a healthy relationship, an unhealthy relationship, or no relationship at all.

It is impossible to be codependent in isolation.

Diagnoses are not applicable to couples, families or friendships. They are applicable to individuals and their own personal functioning. Codependency does not and cannot apply to any one person in particular, only to a type of relationship they are in, and only for the time in which they are in it.

3) Assigning someone a false diagnosis, such as codependent, may prevent or delay their receptivity to treatment for an appropriate diagnosis.

Social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or a specific phobia may or may not apply to any given victim of an abusive relationship. These are very real medical conditions, all of which can be treated effectively through medication, therapy, and a variety of other interventions, but only if the professionals offering support to these men and women look beyond the surface presentation of someone who just can’t seem to stand up for themselves.

4) Assigning someone a false diagnosis, such as codependent, may prevent or delay their abuser’s receptivity to treatment for an appropriate diagnosis.

Conduct disorder, an alcohol - or substance-related disorder, or a personality disorder may or may not apply to any given abuser in a codependent relationship. Placing the label of codependent on the victim is similar to calling a rape victim a “tease,” a “slut,” or even a “fuck-boy.” Victims’ behavior cannot be allowed to mask or justify abusers’ actions.

5) Not everyone who becomes involved in a codependent relationship does so because they lack self-esteem. Or because they have  mental health disorder.

Many people who become involved with emotional manipulators do so because they have both high self-esteem and high empathy levels, and they want to be of service to others. They enter the relationship with a healing mindset, either because they have over-estimated the power of their own best intentions or under-estimated the degree of pathology in the person they have fallen for.

This does not happen as the result of some genetic or behavioral-development related flaw. It happens because emotional manipulators are extremely well skilled at emotional manipulation. It is their survival mechanism. 

People who have finally freed themselves from an abusive relationship don’t need to help “curing” their codependency, they need to be treated with compassionate dignity as they heal from the abuse they endured.

6) The false promise that someone can be cured of codependency only increases vulnerability to future victimization. 

The best way to walk yourself right into a brick wall is to feel so positive you already took it down that you haughtily walk forward with your eyes closed, not bothering to check and see if another construction crew decided to pick up where you left off when you weren’t looking.

OK, I don’t know if that ever happens, but you get what I mean. If you survived an abusive relationship, put a good portion of the blame on your own codependency disorder, receive treatment and consider yourself cured, why would you ever consider that any future relationship would manifest? The problem was you, and the problem is solved, right? Who needs to watch for someone else’s red flags if they have it all under control?

You do. We all do. Looking inward to do work on yourself is crucial, but much of the work is in learning how to look outward as well.

This article originally appeared on the The Good Men Project. Get the best of The Good Men Project delivered daily or weekly, or become a Premium Member!

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