The term “codependent” has its origin in the AA movement. The idea is that someone who lives with an alcoholic or drug addict often ends up developing an unhealthy dependence on the substance user. We think there are a lot of problems with this term and want to look at it critically.
It is important to note that the word “codependent” is not a medical or psychological term. It is simply a label that some people have come to use to describe what they see in the behaviour of those who live with addicts. What is it they see?
Codependency, as defined by Codependence Annonymous is “a tendency to behave in overly passive or excessively caretaking ways… It also often involves putting one’s needs at a lower priority than others while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others… Codependency may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, and/or control patterns.
If your partner is abusive and is an addict, this is going to have a hugely negative impact on your life. You are going to have to pay a great deal of attention to his needs and demands in order to keep you and your children as safe as possible. You will have to put your needs at a lower priority than his if you are to try to avoid explosions. So what some people describe as “codependent” behaviour, we believe, can be better understood as the impact of living with an abusive person.
The AA movement encourages people to emotionally “detach” from the addict’s behaviour but this assumes a number of things. It assumes that “detaching” is an option. If you try to detach, your partner may become more angry and more abusive. It may not be safe to “detach”. It also assumes that you have choices that you may not have. Abusive men tend to take away all the good choices, leaving women with just bad choices. For example, you probably do not want one more dollar of your money to go towards his addiction but if you choose to withhold your money he will make you pay a big price. The “choices” you have are to give him money for his addiction or to be punished for not giving him money. There is no good choice. Your partner likely has more physical, financial and social power than you so the price he makes you pay for not giving him money may be very high. You might try to make decisions to create some space between you and your partner but none of those decisions will be made without cost. You will need to weigh them all out with your safety in mind.
But perhaps what bothers us the most about the term codependent is it suggests that something is wrong with you and that you need to change. We are clear that the problem is your partner’s abuse. You are not to blame and you do not need to change. Furthermore, there is nothing you can do to change him.
Our concern is that if a woman is told she is codependent, this puts the focus on her behaviour and leaves her working hard (once again) to try to improve things in the relationship. We believe that a term like “codependent” simple muddies the water and does nothing to promote women’s safety and well-being.