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What Codependency Is, and What It Isn't

... and why this expert will stop using the label.

I'm known as an expert on codependency, with two published books on the subject. In recent years, however, I have become disturbed by the random overuse of the label and the confusion about its true definition. Some clients relate to it and think it is a permanent condition. Others find it insulting and demeaning. The truth is that what had been labeled in the past as codependency is actually human beings doing what comes naturally—loving.

Recently, I was contacted by a woman I'll call "Lynn," who was told by a friend that she was controlling and enabling her son and husband who struggled with addiction and mental-health issues, respectively. She identified herself as “hopelessly codependent," reporting that her 17-year-old son was using heroin despite completion of several treatment programs. He had overdosed and nearly died on two occasions.

She worried constantly, lost sleep, and followed him around with Narcan (an injectable drug used in an emergency to reverse a heroin overdose), hoping to prevent his death. Lynn’s husband, who suffered from bipolar disorder but managed it well with medication, did not support her efforts to help her son, frequently telling her that she was crazy. Her self-esteem was plummeting and she wondered if he was right. Their marriage was strained.

Lynn was guilty of two things: Loving her son, and being terrified that she might lose him. Although some of her efforts to help him were ineffective, they were not dysfunctional or abnormal under the circumstances. From an attachment perspective, the behaviors she described did not require a label of codependent or controlling, and both terms made her feel ashamed.

The nature of parent-child attachment is one of protecting and nurturing. The thought that her son might die of his addiction paralyzed Lynn. In her mind, the only solution was to save him. Even though her actions were ineffective, her fear and panic were normal reactions. She needed professional help to change the direction of her helping, and a support system to guide and encourage her.

I have found it more helpful for my clients like Lynn to view this pattern through the lens of insecure attachment. Any good parent is going to feel anxious and insecure if a child is in distress; it brings out the “Mama Bear” in anyone. Attachment to a child is innate to human beings. To aid our survival, we are wired to love and protect our children. If we are basically secure otherwise, we will still have a strong reaction when our children are threatened. Similar reactions occur when we lose a significant relationship. That is normal, not codependent.

Some adults who did not feel safe or attached to their parents as children may have an ongoing struggle with insecurity in their relationships. They may feel unwanted, uncertain of their attachment to others, worried about possible rejection, or afraid they will lose someone they love.

When they find themselves with a partner who is abandoning or inconsistent (for whatever reason), they respond and behave in a fearful way. They may become hyper-vigilant, dwelling on the problems of the people they love, or angry, isolated, jealous, possessive, or obsessed with trying to change or help their partner or child. In the process, they begin to lose their way and find themselves hurting and alone. Since the late 1970s, this was called codependency.

The term became commonplace and evolved into a caricature of a passive victim, compulsive caretaker, controller, or enabler often blamed for causing the problem. Because codependency is often misunderstood, many professionals are seeking a new way to describe this pattern of loss of oneself and difficulty with regulating emotions—one that does not have a stigma or cause shame.

Codependency is not permanent, and not all people with the diagnosis or label are the same. Those who had a stable home life and secure attachment as children will navigate a problematic relationship better than those who feel insecure and unlovable for most of their lives.

Some adults feel insecure in all of their relationships. Some feel occasional insecurity when they are with an inconsistent or unreliable lover or friend. When we are secure, we believe that we deserve to be treated with kindness, compassion, and consideration. When things are not going well, secure people do not get as anxious, agitated, angry, or obsessed when they experience a moment of separation or rejection; insecure people do. Anxiety is a normal emotional response and it is important to acknowledge it when it arises. Hoping that your loved ones will change their feelings and choices to help you feel better is an insecure approach.

Source: Nadino/Shutterstock

How do you become secure? It takes a while to learn to manage your instinctive reactions to the activities of those you love. When we feel more secure, we will be able to calm ourselves without the use of substances or compulsive behavior. Then, we are able to approach our loved one from a place of security and make better choices. In most situations, others do not have to change for you to feel secure. Seeking counseling can make the process of change easier and faster.

What you need to know:

  • It is normal and naturalnot codependent—to seek the comfort of those we love when we are hurting and to feel anxious when we are separated or abandoned, regardless of the cause. Whether from addiction, mental illness, or chronic stress, fear changes our behavior in a way that is intended to protect and preserve our attachment to those we love.
  • When a person or family is dealing with an ongoing problem of any kind, anxiety increases and they begin to live in a survival mode. Over time, they develop patterns that are an attempt to decrease anxiety and increase attachment, but that may be ineffective and make the situation worse.
About the Author

Ann Smith is the author of the books Grandchildren of Alcoholics and Overcoming Perfectionism.