Past Is Prologue

Welcome Back, Codependency

The term went mainstream in the ’80s and ’90s, and it’s carried a stigma ever since

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

By the time I attended my first Al-Anon meetings as a teenager in the ’90s, I had heard the word “codependency” many times. Where? No one in my house talked about it, nor did friends, but it was ambient in the culture at the time. While researching the genesis of this term and its conceptual underpinnings for a memoir about my own disastrous relationship patterns, I realized I’d probably heard it on the daytime talk shows I sometimes mindlessly watched after school.

Codependency had a moment in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But, sadly, when the term went mainstream, it lost some of its power. These days, I’m seeing it again, mostly on self-care-focused Instagram pages, but it’s not always clear that the people using the word know what it means—or that it takes more than a bubble bath and green juice to deal with it.

Where did “codependency” come from?

The roots of codependency can be traced back to the work of German psychoanalyst Karen Horney, who advanced the idea that some people define themselves through the dependency or approval of others — especially women, who are rigorously socialized to do this. (Horney also challenged the phallocentrism of Sigmund Freud’s work, provocatively arguing that women do not suffer from “penis envy”; rather, it is men who experience “womb envy” and center their lives around achievement to redress this basic power imbalance.)

But the concept of codependency didn’t come into wider use until Alcoholics Anonymous gained traction in the 1940s and ’50s, and Al-Anon, its corollary 12-step program for friends and family of alcoholics, was founded in 1951. At that time, the “friends and family” were mostly the wives of alcoholic men. In history books about the early days of the program, I read that some meetings got started because wives, not trusting their husbands with the car keys, waited outside while the men were in AA meetings and got to talking about their common predicament.

Al-Anon membership grew throughout the 1950s and ’60s, and the program was featured on television programs and written about in magazines like TIME and Life. Advice columnist Ann Landers began writing about Al-Anon in 1962 and continued throughout her career, offering sample quizzes to help codependents self-identify, with questions like “When you kiss the drinker hello, do you secretly try to smell his or her breath for traces of alcohol?” Landers was a lifelong proponent of Al-Anon and Alateen (its youth offshoot), regularly recommending it and rehearsing its tenets in her columns. “It’s in the phone book, and it’s free,” she advised one lonely wife of an alcoholic. “Get going, and let me hear from you. Good luck, dear.”

Self-help mania of the 1980s

In the 1980s, amid a massive boom in self-help literature (and an accompanying frenzy of self-diagnosis), particularly in the field of addiction and recovery, codependency became a catch-all term for a range of toxic behaviors ascribed mostly to women. Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue talked about it on their shows.

In 1985, Robin Norwood’s bestselling Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change was published. In it, Norwood expanded and generalized the dominant understanding of codependency well beyond addiction. And it wasn’t really a surfeit of love she was describing: “Loving too much does not mean loving too many men,” she writes, “or falling in love too often, or having too great a depth of genuine love for one another. It means, in truth, obsessing about a man and calling that obsession love… It means measuring the degree of your love by the depth of your torment.” Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More, which has sold millions of copies, appeared in 1987.

The “folk-psychological discourse” of codependency, in the words of John Steadman Rice, author of A Discourse of One’s Own: Psychotherapy, Addiction, and the Emergence of Co-dependency, began as a way to reform certain behaviors in relationship to addicts and alcoholics, but its meanings were stretched and could be ambiguous. Almost as soon as it was detached from alcoholism and applied broadly to a range of female behaviors, cynicism grew around the concept.

Making fun of codependency

Codependency was strongly feminized, seen as part of a great “softening” taking place in U.S. culture through excessive exposure to therapy. It merged with other self-help and pop-psychological discourses and became, through countless books, seminars, and even in-patient programs, an object of consumption.

Alongside shifting and increasingly complex representations of women (particularly working women) in the 1980s, codependency emerged as a cultural counterweight, a strain of popular thinking devoted to understanding women who seemed to have it together but were still drawn to men who treated them badly. This tendency toward martyrdom in bad relationships was understood as weakness and was cringeworthy to some who simply couldn’t take it seriously. The implicit question of “Why doesn’t she just leave?”—the same one that hangs over domestic violence discourse—animated much of the media response.

“Chances Are You’re Codependent Too,” quipped a New York Times Book Review headline in 1990. In the piece, author Wendy Kaminer laments that “this amorphous disease is a business” and that “recovery is a national grassroots movement” being used to treat everything imaginable. Every minor excess is being needlessly pathologized, she reasons. She quotes child psychologist Robert Coles, who drolly and patronizingly jokes, “I have a feeling we’re soon going to have special groups for third cousins of excessive sherry drinkers.”

Kaminer went on to write I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, an entire book excoriating the 12-step recovery movement, which she saw as perniciously overgeneralized. Kaminer was one of many critics of the codependency “craze,” and her objections were varied. She saw a great deal of irrationality in the movement, but she also rightly observed that the people who’d defined the hazy “disorder” and the people peddling its cure were often one and the same.

Kaminer was careful to point out that those suffering in the immediate vicinity of alcoholics and drug addicts really did have things to complain about. It was the broader use of the concept of codependency — its application to those suffering in unhealthy relationships with compulsive gamblers or compulsive eaters — that she found ridiculous. Isn’t everyone in an unhealthy relationship with someone else? Isn’t everyone trying to control someone? Her perspective was welcomed by a self-help-weary press. “If a Nobel Prize were awarded for clarity and sanity in a world gone mad, Wendy Kaminer would be on her way to Stockholm,” said Newsday.

In this case, the “world gone mad” refers, in large part, to a general feminization of self-understanding, the advent of thinking about the self that centered emotion over reason, that encouraged “complaining” and relief-seeking through talking and “processing.” If you were intelligent, educated, rational, you knew better, went the criticism. You bucked up and endured (“like a man”) the hand you were dealt.

As Trysh Travis writes in her 2009 history of the recovery movement, The Language of the Heart, anxieties about the feminization of recovery were present within AA itself. In the 1970s and ’80s, AA’s membership grew and diversified considerably, and many more women joined the program’s ranks. They were often welcomed warmly, but into the ’90s, some AA traditionalists expressed concern that the message would be tainted by the presence of women. Travis shares the comments of concerned AA traditionalists at the time, who use “gendered metaphors: the ‘emotionalism’ and the ‘weak cup of tea;’ the ‘watered-down’ and ‘tangled-up’ meetings… [they] gestured toward, without actually naming, an amorphous feminine presence that threatened to engulf and destroy everything in its path.” The fear of corruption was also a fear of commercialization, a worry that this vulnerable space of “surrendered masculinity” would become a “narcissistic consumer lifestyle.”

Where we’re at now

These days, the term codependency seems to be making a comeback on the wellness internet. But it’s rarely depicted as a serious problem, as a corrosive and profound “disease of relationships.” Bundled with other remedies peddled on Instagram—from tinctures, salves, and balms to astrology, tarot, and crystals—casual work on “boundaries” is just the latest in lightweight self-care for today’s empowered woman. Is it just part of a narcissistic consumer lifestyle? Maybe, but it also likely helps people.

The concept has been diluted—by its application beyond the context of alcoholism and addiction, by traditionalist fears about the impact of women’s presence in “the rooms,” and by those like Wendy Kaminer, who derisively undermined the pursuit of self-improvement and tried to make people feel ashamed of seeking recovery. It’s a stigma the word “codependency” has never quite recovered from.

Author of Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love. Work in NYT, New Republic, the Guardian, Jezebel, and more.

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