There are an increasing number of articles present on the internet that doubt the existence of the concept called codependency. Most are based around its non-inclusion in the DSM, the diagnostic bible of mental health. For many therapists, psychiatrists (especially) and indeed, the managed care systems, if it isn’t written there, it doesn’t exist. They quickly explain it away in terms of symptoms of more recognisable disorders (BPD is a common one) and of course, there is a pill for that. We also know that most therapists billing an insurance company have to have a DSM code in order to get paid. While the industry needs strucure and frameworks in order to protect, that is just how powerful this book is.

Despite all this, I firmly believe that codependency is firmly routed in childhood trauma, relational and developmental trauma. In a sense, we staystuck in what John Bradshaw says, in his excellent book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, in the codependent formative phase where we need someone to guide us.

People who suffer from childhood relational trauma are able to trace the origin of their insecurity, lack of trust, and inability to form successful relationships to the treatment they received at the hands of their parents or other carers when they were children. Relational trauma can be caused by a variety of forms of abuse, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as parental neglect or abandonment.

A common cause of relational trauma is inconsistent parenting or caregiving, which may include periods of neglect or abuse interspersed with periods of more positive treatment. Children who are brought up in such a manner are prone to experiencing frequent confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, depression, and feelings of unworthiness (they tend to blame themselves when things go wrong), and as they grow into adults, they continue to bear the scars of mistreatment from childhood. It makes them believe that relationships are based on insecurity. Children suffering from Relational Trauma are taught that their needs come second to their parents. Foregoing needs is a key element of codependency.

When we are children, our brains are still in the process of developing, and the physiology and brain circuitry (neural pathways) that develop during this time are influenced by traumatic experiences. This indicates that Developmental Trauma influences not only how we see ourselves but also how we experience others, how we comprehend our feelings, and how we comprehend the world around us.

Because of our immature dependency on other people to fulfil our requirements, this kind of traumatic experience is especially harmful. During these formative years, the disruption of our attachment to our primary carers as a result of their neglect can be just as detrimental as physical or sexual abuse.

The only form of adaptation that is even remotely possible for us is to freeze because we lack the ability to advocate for ourselves, to fight, or to flee. We get stuck there, in a preverbal understanding of the world as being dangerous; this understanding is stored in our bodies and is trapped within our unconscious memory.

In the beginning, we might not recognise that this is the result of trauma; however, as time passes, these patterns continue to emerge, and telltale signs start to show up. Dissociation, derealization, difficulty concentrating, anger or irritability, shame, anxiety, self-blame, isolation, and feelings of sadness or hopelessness , in addition to a host of physical symptoms.

Here is a selection of things I have recently read:

  1. Codependency does not have empirically sound psychometric properties Codependency has never had a standard definition from the time it was first conceived, and it still does not have any such properties today.
  2. It frequently attributes responsibility and enablement to the female identified partner. The feminist critique of codependency would argue that labelling women as codependent is yet another way to deny the accountability of men and to continue the oppression of women. And that the majority of the literature on codependency fails to identify the other factors that contribute to problematic substance use. These factors include, to name just a few examples, government policies, cultural messages, and social acceptance.
  3. Labelling: Another criticism is that the over-inclusiveness of the codependent label has led many people to adopt the identity for themselves for no reason other than the fact that they are in a relationship with someone who is struggling with substances or in some cases has healthy personal autonomy. This is an example of the over-inclusiveness of the codependent label. This assumption puts at risk the strengths of the involved person’s relationships, as well as their values and preferences. (Something I believe the DSM also does)
  4. It pathologizes supportive behaviour in relationships: Some researchers see it as concerning that our culture has a tendency to pathologize behaviours that are viewed as being helpful to others.

There are many misconceptions and myths surrounding codependency that need to be cleared up. It presents itself as a dysfunctional relational behaviour, despite the fact that it is not formally recognised as a mental health diagnosis in the DSM-V. Codependency originates from an innate need for interdependence, which can become warped when combined with compulsive control behaviours or fears of losing something important to the individual.

It is a reflection of an attempt to manipulate our external environment in an effort to change the emotional state that is occurring internally. Codependency can be unintentionally encouraged by the structures of our society and even by certain professions, such as the legal profession. As a consequence of this, it is not unusual to identify codependent tendencies either within oneself or amongst one’s peers.

Patterns of codependence are common in many different types of relationships, but they become particularly obvious when one of the parties in the relationship struggles with addiction, mental health issues, physical ailments, or legal complications. This characteristic can be developed if a child is exposed to conflict during childhood, which can lead to the belief that one’s feelings and actions can influence the outcomes of situations. There are tools available, such as the Friel Codependency Assessment Tool, which can help identify behavioural tendencies like these. But before we get into the assessments, let’s debunk some of the more common misconceptions.

The common misconception is that codependency is synonymous with neediness or clinginess, but this is not the case. The latter phrase may describe a propensity for constant companionship, but it does not automatically imply that the person is neglecting themselves. Codependency goes deeper; it’s an obsessive drive to cater to the needs of another person, often putting one’s own well-being on the back burner. People who are codependent frequently condition their happiness and sense of self-worth on the condition of another person; their joy is dependent on the other person’s happiness. Unfortunately, even if they go through significant personal upheavals, these tend to be overshadowed by the needs of the other person.

It’s important to keep in mind that codependency isn’t a permanent state of being. The term “codependent” cannot be used as a definitive label because its manifestations lie on a spectrum. Occasionally, a person will go too far and try to fix the problems of another person, or they may become completely consumed by the life of another and centre their decisions on that person.

The idea that codependency is irreversible is probably the most harmful myth there is. Contrary to this belief, ingrained behavioural patterns, such as codependency, are amenable to change when treated appropriately, which may involve participation in either individual or group therapy. These therapeutic approaches make it easier to identify triggers, place an emphasis on emotional well-being, and realign behaviours. Individuals can forge a profound connection with themselves and with those around them by investigating past traumatic experiences and choices. There is an infinite amount of room for improvement, which enables people to develop the ability to recognise what they want from their romantic partnerships rather than just blindly searching for it. Recognising the need for change is an essential first step on the road to recovery, and therapeutic interventions have the potential to actually make a difference in a person’s life.

CODEPENDENCY MYTH #1: CONFLICTS LEAD TO RELATIONSHIP TERMINATION. Reality Check: Genuine relationships withstand periodic conflicts. The foundation of a lasting bond is love and respect, not fear.

CODEPENDENCY MYTH #2: A TRUE FRIENDSHIP REQUIRES ONE PERSON TO MAKE MORE EFFORT. Reality Check: Constantly seeking approval by putting in extra effort means devaluing yourself. A balanced relationship thrives on mutual respect.

CODEPENDENCY MYTH #3: NO CONFLICTS EQUAL A PERFECT, LOVING RELATIONSHIP. Reality Check: Avoiding conflicts often arises from the fear of being left. Genuine relationships require occasional disagreements to maintain sincerity. Uniform agreement makes one party redundant.

CODEPENDENCY MYTH #4: MUTUAL ATTRACTION IS A GIVEN IN RELATIONSHIPS. Reality Check: It’s a misconception that attraction ensures mutual feelings. Relationships require effort and understanding, and sometimes attraction might stem from other underlying needs or desires.

CODEPENDENCY MYTH #5: IF SOMEONE FAILS TO MEET A PROMISE, I’M TO BLAME. Reality Check: Believing the world revolves solely around us is a fallacy. Taking responsibility for everything is both impossible and unhealthy. We can’t control every aspect of life.

CODEPENDENCY MYTH #6: GENUINE COUPLES AVOID CONFRONTING WRONG ACTIONS. Reality Check: A true connection values honesty and will point out flaws for your betterment. Addressing issues head-on signifies care, and though confronting might risk the relationship, it usually results in growth.

CODEPENDENCY MYTH #7: AN UNHEALTHY RELATIONSHIP IS PREFERABLE TO SOLITUDE. Reality Check: Unhealthy dynamics mean you’re essentially isolated, even if with someone. Prioritizing health and well-being will naturally draw likeminded, positive individuals to you.

CODEPENDENCY MYTH #8: LOVED ONES SHOULD ANTICIPATE MY NEEDS. Reality Check: Believing in the concept of mind reading is flawed. Recognizing and expressing our needs is essential. Assuming others should instinctively know them fosters negligence. True connection requires transparent communication.

Subscribe to Dr Jenner's Blog via Email