Codependency has become a common catch-all phrase in addiction recovery circles. It’s a way to sum up the dysfunctional family dynamics of addiction, including many (if not all) of the unhealthy ways in which family members cope with a loved one’s substance use disorder (SUD). But what, more specifically, is codependency, and how do you recognize its signs and symptoms?
In the context of a drug or alcohol addiction, codependency describes the ways in which one person, typically a loved one, enables another person to maintain their addictive behavior. (By its very definition, then, codependency can refer to a pretty broad range of relational patterns that crop up within SUD-affected families.) And, in a recent article for PsychCentral, the licensed marriage and family therapist, Darlene Lancer, gave voice to this widely shared view among clinicians. Lancer has authored the books Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies, and has written extensively on the subject. In her words, codependency is “a personality style where the individual constantly focuses on other’s needs instead of her own need.”
“Do you expend all of your energy in meeting your partner’s needs? Do you feel trapped in your relationship? Are you the one that is constantly making sacrifices in your relationship?” Lancer wrote. “Then you may be in a codependent relationship.”
And, as Lancer also noted, the term “codependency” has been around for decades, having first originated as a way to describe the “co-alcoholic” spouses of alcoholics. Since then, the much-studied phenomenon has found wider application: families experiencing other mental health disorders or physical illnesses that demand a high level of care and/or compensation on the part of one or more family members have also been found to suffer from codependency. For example, multiple studies have found a high correlation between depression and codependency.
What Codependency Is Not
As a personality style, codependency is not technically a disease or disorder the way that a SUD is. That’s an important distinction to make, because it affects therapeutic approaches to codependency; it’s also a distinction that is relatively recent.
In the not-so-distant past, clinical approaches have often sought to understand and treat codependency within a disease model. This approach has evidently raised problems. Today, the more accepted view in the clinical world seems to be that codependency is not itself a treatable disease or disorder in the same way addiction is. (That’s at least evidenced by the fact that the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V)—the gold standard textbook for diagnosing and treating psychiatric disorders—does not diagnose codependency.)
However, codependency bears some of the same hallmark features of the DSM-5 diagnosis known as Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD). DPD refers to “an excessive and pervasive need to be taken care of, submissive, clinging, needy behavior due to fear of abandonment.” And, as a personality disorder, DPD tends to be co-morbid (in other words, often co-occurs) with drug or alcohol abuse. People with DPD, according to Lancer:
“… tend to volunteer to do things for others although it may not be pleasant for them, and they do this in order to not lose other’s support. They have difficulty expressing their disagreements with others out of the fear of losing other’s approval. They have such a hard time doing projects on their own because of their lack of confidence in their abilities.”
Some of the same tendencies describe codependency.
Other Signs of Codependency
Other common signs of codependency can include:
- Low self-esteem/poor self-confidence — There is an established correlation between low self-esteem and co-dependency.
- Loneliness and poor social supports — These, too, are often associated with codependency.
- “People-pleasing” — This tendency often equates with a chronic inability to say “no” to others’ requests.
- Negative emotions — Depression, as mentioned, correlated with codependency. So do other difficult, painfully tinged emotions, such as shame, anger, resentment or a sense of helplessness or no way out.
- Control issues — Codependent people often feel like they have to control situations, outcomes and/or even the behavior of those around them. This compulsion often stems from inner fears or anxieties. (In fact, anxiety can be another commonly occurring emotion that characterizes codependency.)
- Poor boundaries and “reactivity” — Reactivity is a term Lancer uses in association with poor boundaries. Someone who is codependent will find it easy to internalize other people’s opinions, judgments or emotional states, making them their own. A codependent’s mood and/or sense of self-worth can thus fluctuate with whatever the external “room temperature” may be, depending on who is in the room.
The “Spann-Fischer Codependency Scale” and Co-Dependents Anonymous Checklist are other helpful tools for measuring and recognizing codependency. The Spann and Fischer scale has been around since 1991, when the researchers (Spann and Fischer) first published it in the journal Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. The scale takes the form of a short questionnaire that lets respondents rate their answers to 16 questions and then determine where they fall on a scale or continuum for codependency. Alternatively, the detailed checklist from Co-Dependents Anonymous lays out patterns and characteristics of codependency.
Help for Codependency
Recognizing the signs of codependency can be a first step in getting help. Many people with codependency have gone on to find hope and healing through groups like Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA). Find a meeting in your area today.