The Myth of Codependency

At least once a week in my psychotherapy practice someone claims to either have “codependency problems” or have a partner who is codependent.  Today I am writing to debunk the myth of codependency.

The great psychologist Sue Johnson says “there is no such thing as codependency, there is only effective and ineffective dependency.”  This statement resounds with the truth that

we are dependent on each other

whether we like it or not.

If you, like me, were brought up in a western society that values autonomy, such as the U.S., dependency may be a dirty word for you.

You probably think you should be fine without a partner and that you should be able to handle whatever life throws at you by yourself.

Guess what?

You’re wrong.

Please understand this:

We are not wired to be alone.

We do need each other, and this need is not codependency.  It is an innate, wired-in biological need.  Simply stated,

we would die without each other.

So stop questioning yourself when you start to feel attached to someone.

You are not weak or codependent, you are human.

To attach safely to another and to be effectively dependent is one of the most healthy things we can do.

If you’re not effectively dependent on your partner, you are ineffectively dependent on each other.  Your relationship may be insecure or unstable.  You may question whether it will last.

As a result of such instability, you may act in away that embodies ineffective dependency, but that you or your partner may label as “codependent” behavior.  For example, you may feel excessively clingy or “needy.”

If someone I meet with is exhibiting such behavior, it is clear to me that their needs are simply not getting met.

Maybe because of a history of trauma, or a lifetime of not having a safe someone to connect to (which is traumatic in itself), their level of “neediness” is higher than others, but this does not make them co-dependent.  It means they needs aren’t getting met. Perhaps they don’t have a template of how to be effectively dependent on another.

We’re all dependent.

In fact, to not attach to another and to be chronically lonely is more of a health hazard than obesity or even smoking cigarettes.

Mayor Bloomberg in NYC is all about banning super sized soft drinks.  How about focusing on educational opportunities on healthy relationships and how to be effectively dependent on each other?

If you’re getting your real biological needs met by having a healthy relationship, you probably won’t be as apt to drown yourself in in crappy foods or drinks like gazillion ounce sodas anyway.  (And by biological needs, I don’t mean sex, but your sex life will definitely improve with a healthy effectively dependent relationship as well.)

So let’s call a moratorium on the word “co-dependent” and accept the fact that we cannot outsmart our biological needs.  At the end of the day, we are all animals.

effective dependency

We happen to be animals who are stronger and better when connected to each other.

Cheers to effective dependency and how it can help you create your best relationship,

Jenev-sig

34 Comments
  1. Grace 5 years ago

    Wow! thought provoking, sensible and well stated.

    • mbr_admin 5 years ago

      Thank you, Grace! Sorry for the late reply – somehow I missed your comment.

  2. Art 5 years ago

    Thanks for your brief, clear explanation of Sue Johnson’s take on Codependency, Jenev. That’s exactly what I was looking for!

    • mbr_admin 5 years ago

      Hi Art, thanks so much for commenting. I’m glad it was helpful. Sue puts things in a way that make so much sense — we are all so very lucky for her work!

  3. Karamella 5 years ago

    Glad to find another soul that doesn’t believe in the whole co-dependency label! My son has the disease of addiction and if I ever dare to express my anxiety over his condition, or share the grief it has caused for me and my family someone tells me to get help for “co-dependency”. As if everyone who is the parent of a child with the disease of addiction “catches” co-dependency automatically. Maybe it’s their way of saying they don’t want to hear what I’m saying, or don’t understand that parents of addicts often have “Anticipatory Grief” and PTSD like problems from the trauma of never knowing when the next “shoe” will drop. If my son had any other life threatening, chronic, progressively worsening disease and I expressed concern over things I was faced with because of the disease no one would call me co-dependent, I’d be a “good parent concerned about my child”. But if the child has an addiction the parent my have “co-dependency” if they care about their child.

    • mbr_admin 5 years ago

      Thanks for your comment–and I’m sorry to hear that you are so misunderstood by others in your life and that they think you “caught” co-dependency! There is definitely a huge stigma out there around addiction. (Here’s a quick article I wrote about common myths about addiction – though I’m sure you know this already! http://mentalhealth.about.com/od/problems/fl/Five-common-myths-about-addiction.htm)

      It only makes sense that you are anxious about your son, and that your life is altered as a result of this problem. Now, if your life stopped all together because of this, and you were giving him money to use and doing whatever you felt you needed to in order to keep him close, even if it was at your expense (and/or his), one might consider that “ineffective dependency” (more commonly referred to as “co-dependency”), but it certainly doesn’t sound like that’s the case.

      I hope he gets help, and hope you are taking care of yourself too! I guess the lesson here is to be mindful of who you share this with. Some people just don’t understand. Al-Anon or something like that might be helpful to get support from people who understand a bit more about where you’re coming from.

      • Rick Gabrielly 3 years ago

        Great support Jenev. It is so hard to want to reach out only to meet with resistance from many directions. Thank you for creating a safe space for us to share. Love you angel. xxoo Rick

        • mbr_admin 3 years ago

          Thank you so much for this comment (and the others!). I am late to the game, just seeing these now, but grateful to have your voice here! xo

    • Rick Gabrielly 3 years ago

      Well said Karamella. I can relate as I was in a cycle of addiction from 1981 to 1985. I feel you on this. My family, especially my Mom and Sister had to go through what you’re dealing with. Sending love and support. xo Rick

    • Donna 2 years ago

      I know how you feel.
      I understand, and it makes my blood boil when people take that stance.

      • Faith 2 years ago

        Same here. So very glad to have found this place! Synchronicity at work, I think…

        It’s also important to remember that individuals differ greatly in their wiring, and that some people are just naturally far more sensitive and empathetic than others: we need more connection and deeper intimacy, and we’re never going to be satisfied in relationships with people who are different on this level. I’ve learned this the hard way, and am having much better luck now as I consciously try to steer myself toward people more like me on this level. There’s nothing wrong with us for being “more emotional,” and pathologizing our hardwired nature is both severely misguided and often destructive. Pathologizing *difference* is a very common and very old tendency. But I think we’ve reached absurd heights in this culture, to the point of pathologizing humanity, period.

        I’m healing from the effects of “poisonous pedagogy” as I educate myself. “The Healing Connection” and some of Alice Miller’s books have been really helpful for me.

        • mbr_admin 2 years ago

          Faith, I appreciate this comment so much! I will check out that book “The Healing Connection” as well, I have never heard of it. I appreciate your comment so much I made a video about it 🙂

  4. Preston L. Bannister 4 years ago

    Concise and clear. Good!

    • mbr_admin 4 years ago

      Thanks for your comment, Preston! Glad to hear it was concise & clear!

  5. Dara 4 years ago

    A breath of fresh air this post is! I read Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson. I learned so much. Thanks for writing about this!!

  6. John 4 years ago

    Wow. I Googled “co-dependency myth” and here it is.

    As a father of two daughters, and husband of a substance-abusing wife, I am so entirely sick of being told that I am co-dependant for seeking solutions. It’s as if the entire psychology-field would look at you and tell you that you should not care, lest you be described as the ugly “C” word. My response is to ask what good are wedding vows, then? I’ve found it to be an entirely unhelpful opinion. And when levied in a group session, it has served to enable the substance abuser, who is blaming everyone else around them anyway. “You see! You have a problem! Leave me alone!”

    Meanwhile, children suffer, and the cycle of abuse continues. Add in the other myth that addiction is a disease that the addicted is powerless to cure, and you have an ongoing mess of a life, furthered by the very people who are supposed to be able to help.

    Great article. Thanks very much.

    • mbr_admin 4 years ago

      Hi John,
      Your comment meant a lot to me – I’m so glad this post was helpful for you after you have been hearing so much about the ugly “C” word. Thank you.
      Your children and wife are lucky to have such a supportive, caring and conscientious father/husband. As you continue to be present for your children and model effective dependency to them, THAT will stop the cycle of abuse. Keep it up, and good luck with this difficult situation. Thanks again for your comment.
      All my best,
      Jenev

  7. Kristina 4 years ago

    Jenev thank you!! Thank you for writing this. I have been in heated arguments with friends and family about the myth of codependency. Many people do not realize that this “condition” is not an old one. It was invented by one person in the mid 80’s who, I believe, could not take responsibility for the end of her marriage, and had to make up this “condition” to take the heat off of herself.

    I am so glad that I am not the only person who is aware that we are hard wired to be dependent. I wish more people would educate themselves on the subject.

    You’re awesome!
    Kris Kaylor

    • mbr_admin 4 years ago

      Kris,
      Thanks so much for your comment. I think we are close to the tipping point of getting the message across about interdependency vs. codependency – there’s a love revolution going on, and it involves a recognition that we are social animals and are not built to live in silos. I really appreciate your comment!
      Happy New Year!
      Jenev

  8. chiara 3 years ago

    You wrote a wonderful article. I have always thought the same thing, though I didn’t find a proof to make sure I was right. Now I Know I am. When I read about such ” relationship counselling sites” and “relationship counselors” saying things like “being needy turns guys off” I would always like to punch them all. You know the value of things only when you don’t have them but the majority of people doesn’t know this.

    • mbr_admin 3 years ago

      Yes, Chiara! Thanks so much for your comment. Read “Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships” by Dr. Sue Johnson and you’ll have even more proof that we are wired to connect and ARE ultimately emotionally dependent on one another.

  9. Rick Gabrielly 3 years ago

    Thank you Jenev for your steady hand on this and so many other issues that impact us and our families. YOU are a gift. <3 Love you… Rick xxoo

    • mbr_admin 3 years ago

      Thank you so much, Rick! I can’t take credit for the ideas- just spreading them, so glad this post has generated some engagement. Together we stand on the shoulders of giants like Sue Johnson. I’m so grateful to be on your path and to be love crusaders together — you are a gift too, my friend!! xoxo love you!

  10. Spoon 2 years ago

    Many thanks for writing this and other articles as well Jenev! In fact I admire that you write this especially that there is a plethora of “codependent people pleaser” articles out there that I would personally put in the bin, they are recycled from one self help book to the next magazine to the next blog post despite there not being a scientific objective evidence for the same – pop psychology! The number of symptoms are ever increasing and can virtually apply to anyone “you liked to be needed” “you are over-caring” , quite loose terminology and even falls under the Forer effect/Barnum theory which can apply to literally anybody and one can’t help but think what is the outcome of applying all of these teachings – an increase in one’s narcissism? I like that you and EFT (Sue Johnson) take an approach of human behavior by dealing with what is rather than what ought to be , what humans do , how we pair and bond , instead of an abstract self-help what-ought-to-be which as Machiavelli quotes – ““How we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.”!

    In fact , even “dependent personality disorder” which according to some is paralleled to codependence , if one were to run a search through Pubmed searching dependent personality disorder using advanced search, combining AND function and searching just the titles , we get around 64 articles published many of which aren’t related to DPD. What I did find are critical reviews of it , including a proposal for omission from the DSM, taking Chen’s “Rethinking dependent personality disorder: comparing different human relatedness in cultural contexts” , they argue – “We argue that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders dependent personality disorder is a culturally related concept reflecting deeply rooted values, beliefs, and assumptions of American individualistic convictions about self and interpersonal relationship. ” , another paper by Disney “Dependent personality disorder: a critical review.” citing “Dependent personality disorder (DPD) has evolved from an abstract idea rooted in a historic and psychoanalytic context to a codified diagnosis in the DSM-IV-TR. The paper concludes with a discussion of shortcomings in the body of research relevant to DPD, along with specific suggestions for improvement in this field of study.”

    One can’t help but wonder how come we get 2 million search terms for “codependence” when searched in google, churned over and over and over again in pop psychology and treated as truth by unsuspecting reader, without an iota of evidence!

    Sorry for the long post Jenev .. my best regards always! xx

    • mbr_admin 2 years ago

      Never apologize for a long post like that! I so appreciate it — and love that you even did your research!! Fascinating – 2 million search terms for codependence when more often than not there’s nothing wrong with us other than what we’ve been brought up to believe…in the words, more or less, of Sue Johnson: “there’s only effective and ineffective dependency” — thanks to her and folks alongside her, we are slowly starting to get it right…!! Thanks so much for your response!

  11. Kate 2 years ago

    Love!!!!!!!!

    • mbr_admin 2 years ago

      Thank you so much Kate 🙂 I appreciate that!

  12. Henry 10 months ago

    Thankyou for the link.

    I do have a question.

    Do you feel that relationships should be nothing but bonuses.

    What if your relationships are what makes your life meaningful? Not necessarily myself.

    So I’m clear I respect myself and try to be the best person I can be. What also gives my life meaning is caring for ‘others’ such as my family. Sure I take time out for me here and there but my main focus is children, wife, loved ones, and yeah I wouldn’t or couldn’t be the same without them. I wouldn’t care to be. Period.

    Maybe I’m taking this too literally. But Reading about co-dependency and self-love from other articles implies that your outside relationships are “bonuses” .. icing on the cake as so to speak.

    But yet aren’t most In serious relationships or with family the cake. Sure taking time out is good too. But we take care of one another.

    To imply that it’s somehow a negative thing and that the focus should be on you first and foremost, in the particular ways its stated… I can not understand how such thing is being taught everywhere.

  13. Bella 9 months ago

    In your article you state; If someone I meet with is exhibiting such behavior, it is clear to me that their needs are simply not getting met. When you say needs what you might be referring too exactly?

    • DrJenev 9 months ago

      Hi Bella – I am referring to emotional needs – needs to feel important, valued, safe, securely connected to another. Thanks for writing in,
      Jenev

  14. Bella 9 months ago

    thanks Jenev. Reason I asked is that I’m a loving and affectionate person. I grew up around alot of loveless relationships. So Ive always taken pride in wanting my partner to feel loved, valued, and important. I believe in putting them first and making compromises.

    For whatever reason my partner is more of the passive or introverted type and that’s fine. Buuuut unfortunately there are times that I still feel a little rejected, unloved, and a little empty. Is that abnormal? But Ive been thinking maybe somethings wrong with me for feeling hurt and Ive even withdrew.

    • DrJenev 9 months ago

      Hi Bella,

      I don’t think anything is wrong with you at all. I hope you guys can figure out your pattern together and make your relationship work for each other. Have you read Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson?

      I think you’ll love it.

      Check it out and I think it will answer a lot of your questions and give you practical tips to understand what’s going on and make it better.

      Good luck – let me know if you read it!

      All my best,
      Jenev

  15. Bella 9 months ago

    No, I haven’t but thankyou for the tip!

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