Saturday, March 24, 2007

How the Codependency Movement is Ruining Marriages

I was counseling an unhappy wife one day. She had already admitted that the difficulties were not coming from her husband. "I have a codependency issue," she said glibly to me.

"No," I assured her firmly, much to her surprise. "You don't!"

Although codependency is a favorite pop-psychology term, it is not listed in the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic manual, which is an industry standard. In fact, many mental health professionals do not believe that it exists. This label originally came from the 12-Step Program, and is usually used to excuse away bad choices and behaviors. "Oh I can't help it," it is often said or implied. "I'm a codependent."

In a time when we don’t like to believe in right and wrong any more, codependency is a convenient diagnosis.

Codependency has been bantied about so often on TV and in books that it has become an accepted diagnosis. It was popularized in Melody Beattie’s wonderful books “Codependent No More” and “Beyond Codependency.” But although Melody writes well and gives much sage advice, she is primarily responsible for the growing misuse and misdiagnosis of codependency.

Codependency does not exist. However, it is an “easy” diagnosis that most people prefer, because it often allows them to avoid confronting their true inner conflicts. People who are misdiagnosed with codependency seem to fall into two categories:

1. UNHEALTHY: This person is very troubled. He’s in a toxic relationship due to his own mixture of unhealthy practices, values, and beliefs which he has formed that prevents him from living a happy and productive life.

2. HEALTHY: This person may have some mild issues that she's dealing with. However, she is mistakenly diagnosed as "codependent" when the root cause could be something completely different. Often, the source of her problems might be anxiety or depression or other troubles that can be solved with medication and/or counseling. When she is treated successfully for the underlying cause(s), her "codependency" is solved.

Sometimes a perfectly healthy individual (with no issues whatsoever but old-fashioned loyalty and fidelity) might be mislabeled as codependent. It becomes a risky diagnosis, because levels of loyalty and love vary from one person to the next. Who dares to measure how "healthy" it is to love deeply and love well? Mind you, I'm not addressing obsessive preoccupation with a loved one: I'm saying that many different people experience many different degrees of love. Devotion in a relationship should not be automatically labeled as "codependent".

It is very possible for a primarily healthy person to find herself suddenly in a relationship with an unhealthy person. Both partners may be misdiagnosed as codependent, when the situation is much more complicated than that.

Let me illustrate this:

Adam and Barbara have only been married for a short time. Each of them came into the marriage with a certain set of expectations and preconceptions. Adam assumed that marriage was merely a continuation of their dating relationship. He still expects to tee-off with the boys every Saturday morning and go fishing with his best friend, Ted, every other Sunday.

However, Barbara grew up in a family in which her parents were exceptionally close and never did anything without each other. She believes that her partner is her best friend as well as lover and roommate. Since Adam and Barbara have the weekends off together, she is growing to resent Adam’s playtime with the boys. While Adam is off with his friends, she either sits at home alone or goes on outings with friends and family. But the problem is that most of her friends have marriages in which their own families come first, so they are often too busy to commit to her. And, her family is always asking where Adam is.

Barbara begins to regularly demand that Adam spend less time with the boys. Adam grows resentful of this and tells her that she’s being “codependent”. This escalates into a regular series of arguments in which Barbara nags ineffectively, and Adam dismisses her concerns. Barbara says that she never would have agreed to get married if she’d known that she was going to be neglected. Adam says that he would never have married Barbara if he’d known that she was going to change overnight. Neither one wants a divorce, because it’s against their religious beliefs.

Are Barbara and Adam “codependent”? No. It’s more complex than mere “codependency.” First, both partners need to work on their communication skills and should learn the art of compromise and conflict resolution.

Adam is currently being selfish and inflexible. He made the vow to Barbara that he was going to forsake all others, but he isn’t doing so.

Barbara is also being unfair. She allowed Adam to blithely walk into the marriage under the assumption that no changes were expected. Perhaps this was unconscious on Barbara’s part, but if there is poor communication in a relationship, both partners need to take responsibility for it.

To their credit, Adam and Barbara were devoted, not codependent. They chose to put each other’s needs and desires before their own, and worked out a healthy compromise. Barbara is now taking golfing lessons and driving the cart when Adam and the boys go golfing, which they now only do once a month. And when Adam goes fishing with Ted, they bring their wives along or they cut the trip short so that Adam can spend some quality time with Barbara.

There are couples like Adam and Barbara that are misdiagnosed as “codependent”. But if these couples hide behind such pop-psychology, and don’t get to the root of their problems, their marriages are doomed to fail.


michelle said...

I like the part about the couple that does nothing without each other. My hubby says this...

"Go out with the girls. It is cheaper on our finances because you can get a free drink from the guy at the other end of the bar."

However, I don't think he wants the guy at the other end of the bar to came to my side of the bar.

You know my hubby Saur, he cracks us up all the time.

The Lazy Iguana said...

That idiot on the TV "Dr." Phil likes to say "codependent" a lot. I always knew that fool was full of shit :)

By the way - shameless plug for my blog time!

My operatives uncovered the current version of The Bill Of Rights, with all the Bush signing statements included. The statements are written in crayon so we know it is authentic.

Senor Caiman said...


I wish my problem was this simple. I just want to have sex with every hot woman I see.

I will say that white people with depression are the ones that always catch me off guard. I think if a person has depression they should have to wear a certain colored hat.

Carly said...

Please Come to my blog.

Hans said...

You clearly sound like you know much more about the subject than I do.

I often find myself counseling both genders on relationships, for what reason I have no idea since everyone I’ve been in (including 1 marriage) has ended. Some badly. I suppose it’s because I’m both a master of the obvious and my non judgmental nature allows me to say what I think without being offending. It has been my experience that what most guys are looking for is permission FROM ANOTHER GUY to be that guy that their woman expects. My gender is capable of putting a lot of pressure on each other. Ball busting is very common and the last thing some guy wants to hear from his boys are “dude your whipped” or better “dude your p***y whipped” or even better yet to hear the sound of the whip cracking. What they want to hear FROM A GUY is “dude what the f**k, if you don’t start spending some time with that girl some other guy will”. It gives him permission FROM A GUY to be where he really wants to be. We are really not very complex, immature but not complex. On the other hand you ladies are a complete f**king mystery to me. Although I’ve given a lot of different women relationship advice I don’t suspect they’ve taken it seriously. I end up being an ear to vent to. Which is just fine with me.

Have you ever heard the expression that a man enters a marriage expecting that his wife won’t change and she does, while a woman enters a marriage expecting her husband will change and he doesn’t. Sounds like your example.

For the record the best dig on a man is not bastard it’s cock. Not dick but cock. As in “that guy is a cock”. Dick is to cock as pussy is to c***. Put that away on your hard drive.

Anonymous said...

I think in a broader scope the whole idea of labeling something makes people feel validated in their actions/thoughts/feelings and it can stop the process of digging deeper to find the real root of the issue. If you label me as having chronic depression I can let it stop there or figure out really why I am depressed. If I just accept the fact that I have chronic depression it makes me feel like I can say, well that is my ailment, that justifies my actions and there isn't a whole lot I can do about it. I really feel that our need to label things is really our downfall. Although to an extent we do need to understand emotional/mental conditions I think there is a point to which our society definitely goes overboard and most of the time people are too mindless to question what they are being told, especially in the case of Dr. Phil, why on earth do people listen to that quack? Just my two cents.


The Lazy Iguana said...

If Dr. Phil is really a doctor, then I am the friggin POPE!

Jenn said...

Sounds like a classic case study.

I remember an Everybody Loves Raymond episode with a similar script.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Jenn, such problems really are timeless. I don't know if they're universal (I doubt they are) but they're certainly very true in the USA.

Pope Lazy, er, just kidding. Anyway, I am definately checking out your site today! Yeah, Dr. Phil is an idiot.

Ange, exactly! BTW, I'm gardening a lot this weekend so I'll be outdoors a great deal. But if you want to email me, I'll check it today.

Hans, I truly am glad you keep stopping in. I think you have good contributions. Isn't it funny how those of us who know how to make a relationship work somehow have troubles putting it into practice? I have one failed marriage and 3 ex-fiances. Although the ex-fiances are exes for good reason, I had to sit back and evaluate each relationship so that I could be relatively sure I wouldn't step into those tiger traps again. But, new ones are always around the corner. ;o) were the bikini-clad babes? How long have you lived in this area? What do you think of that new construction?!

Carly, I did, baby. Hope my ideas helped! :D

Senor, If depressed people have to wear colored hats, I think it should be blue. I recommend a hat with bright polkdots for manic depressives.

Michelle, I miss you and your hubby. You both are also very devoted to each other. It's such a pleasant (and rare) thing to see. How are the boys? I need to call you. It sux that we've both gotten so busy!

The Lazy Iguana said...

So do I get a cool new hat now? I also want a ring I can use to seal documents with a wax stamp and that is smashed with a holy hammer when I die, a pimpin cool cane, and a sweet new ride.

Actually scratch the ride. I want a Pope-Mo-Boat.

Hans said...

The babes are a little younger every year. The bikini cuts change, the hair styles change, the music changes but the kids are just as stupid and cocky as we were. Some things never change. I'm not a big fan of all of the ink. I see a lot of kids with regrets over the permanent reminders of their temporary feelings 10 years from now. The construction just adds to the chaos out there. Normally I prefer to head out in the morning. Get the fresh air, sunshine and exercise knocked out early.

I’ve been in the area almost all of my life. A regular local boy.

Three Score and Ten or more said...

I think that we might not agree on a clear definition of co-dependent, but I certainly agree that neither Adam nor Barbara are co-dependent. I tend to group (what I would call )codependents with enablers.

I will say, on the basis of my experience (fifty years in the fall or 08) that successful marriages are build on communication (actually on honest listening) and commitment.

As a communication teacher, Dr. Phil gets pretty high marks from me (I don't know diddly about psychologists but have been in therapy a couple of times and broke them off because the therapist didn't really listen to me and I DID listen to the therapist. There is some sarcasm in there, if you recognized it ;-> ) WHen you (I) have taught communication for years, it is counter productive when you are sitting there thinking "The next question or thought that will come up will be . . . ." and then be correct.

Anonymous said...

I love this blog. I went searching online to find something to show an online acquaintance about misdiagnosing codependency. As a teen I was told by a doc I was codependent. By textbook descriptions every teenage girl is! I think people like to grasp to an idea so that they can just use it as an excuse instead of focusing on the real issue(s) at hand and find the way to make things right for them. I could technically say my children are codependent on me. They fit all the 'criteria' so I should probably rush them out to get in therapy and let them blame all their problems on it right? The word is overused today and it's no different than saying you have a cold. So common and misdiagnosed that you can never truly heal until you find out what the real issue is. Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above poster. There is 'codependency mania' sweeping the country. I can understand this term in the context for what it was originally intended and that was for the 12-step program. Now days though this catch all phrase is regurgitated over and over again to explain away every little problem in relationships. Oh you love you spouse - you must be codependent! You do nice things for them - better rush out and therapy. I believe this whole craze is doing a lot more harm than good because the real problems are never addressed.

Anonymous said...

No, Barbara and Adam aren't codependent; Barbara and her FAMILY are codependent. She's unfairly imputing upon her marriage the same dynamic she grew up with, complete with all the expectations, which, as a licensed therapist, you know creates a large portion of the discontent in marriages.

On the flip side, it's equally unfair for Adam to treat the marriage as 'dating continued.' He's hurting and dishonoring his wife with this behavior!

I will say this much from experience, codependency is a real phenomenon the destroys potentially good relationships through triangulation.