The Myth of Codependency: Why What You Know About Codependent Relationships Might Be Wrong

Friday, January 10, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

According to most modern definitions, codependency is characterized by people-pleasing behaviors, care-taking tendencies, strong emotional responses to partners--including high sympathy and empathy--a need to be liked and a fear of rejection. But codependency is severely misunderstood, and this may be triggering depression and anxiety in women who incorrectly label themselves as codependent.

It isn't that codependent behaviors don't exist at all. This series will cover the evolution of codependent behaviors, triggers to codependency, modern definitions of codependent relationships and boundaries. However, because I like to go a little against the grain, I have decided to begin with codependency misunderstandings. Not only is it a subtle way to stick it to the man, but it is just as important to understand what codependency isn't as what it is.

Okay, so, last things first. 

Codependency and Depression

Research conducted at Kent State University looked at levels of depression and codependency to see if one was predictive of the other. They found that codependency was predictive of depression and that depression itself was significantly correlated with low self-worth and self-hiding measures. Self-neglect scales predicted less independence overall1

So, women who identify themselves as codependent get more depressed, feel worse about themselves and take worse care of themselves. Fair enough. 

Another Explanation?

However, this research, and other studies like it, may be indicative of a larger societal issue. The problem? Those who attribute their feelings to a disorder, as opposed to a normal situational response, may feel worse about themselves as a result. 

Logical, right?

Codependent behaviors are real. However, "codependency" has become a catch phrase. Probably a tenth of my female clients sought therapy at least partially because they thought they might have been codependent. Most were not even close, but that didn't stop them from suffering self-esteem shifts or depression because they believed that the way they felt was a sign of mental illness. 

Codependency is not feeling bad for your partner or wanting to help them. It's not wanting to be liked or crying when someone else does. Strong sympathy and empathy for partners are sometimes misinterpreted as codependent traits, but these are not the traits that define maladaptive responses in therapy circles. The way we see those traits may simply be a reflection of a society that incorrectly labels feminine tendencies as disorder.

Women Be Trippin'

Researcher Dr. Scott Anderson notes that the codependency label itself may have come about due to the American tendency to pathologize (treat like illness) traits that are associated with the fairer sex2

And by "fairer sex" I mean those that have a vagina. 

According to Anderson's study, published in "Social Work", the codependency model may ignore actual imbalances of power and resources2.  These imbalances in power can lead to behavioral differences through modeling or cultural expectation, which we might then label as "codependent".

For example, working women and stay-at-home mothers alike tend to maintain the bulk of the household chores and care-taking behaviors of children and other family members, according to anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher in The Anatomy of Love5. Fisher notes that American society--more so than most others--serves as an illustration that advancements in one arena--such as presence in politics or voting rights--does not necessarily translate into equality in all other realms, regardless of how much we'd like it to. 

Unfortunately, many of the responsibilities we shoulder are not ones we are biologically driven to embrace. 

Caring for children or a spouse when they are sick = yes
Scrubbing raisins out of the carpet = not so much

Whether we end up doing more due to cultural norms, a history of subordination or because of innate drives to assist, "not wanting to seem codependent" seems like a great get out of housework excuse.

But it isn't just physical actions like care-taking behaviors that have become pathologized. According to Anderson, female emotional responses tend to be seen as disorder as well. 

Other researchers agree with Anderson's assessment, including Mallory and Berkery. In their own study3, codependency was found to be a label that turned female traits, such as high sympathy and empathy, into a disease by seeing it through a predominantly male lens. They argue that modern definitions of codependency "may devalue some of women's greatest strengths" by assuming that achievement of personal growth is measured by focus on the self as opposed to on oneself within relationships. Selfishness over empathy, or there is something wrong with our brains. 

But that isn't how we are wired. 

Women Be Trippin'...If By Trippin' You Mean Evolvin'

Women evolved to develop fully within a social context that encourages relationship development over the severe independence  thrust upon modern individuals, according to primatologist/anthropologist Dr. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, in The Woman That Never Evolved4. After all, during the periods of rapid brain development that made us human, an independent--or alone--woman and her children were probably food for a passing predator. Our need to connect and fight with a group also led women to develop a unique stress response that includes the hormone oxytocin (AKA the love hormone), something not present in males (read more about the "Tend and Befriend" stress response here).

Ancestral independent = one dead mother fucker

We maintain these drives towards connection and closeness which trigger us to focus on relationships by empathizing with those around us or taking care of others, things that deepen bonds between people to ensure later assistance should we need it. It is no surprise that isolation and lack of relationships can trigger all manner of psychological issues from anxiety disorders to postpartum depression. We need other people for support, our brain knows it, and we respond as if we actually care about our relationships.

Perish the thought. 

So, we enjoy a society that pushes imbalances in power and favors working fathers and dependent spouses. We also have working women and stay-at-home mothers alike who may feel conflicted because of the way society defines the care-taking behaviors we tend to complete more of. We also treat innate emotional responses--like sympathy, empathy, drive to be liked and a desire to resolve conflicts--as pathology. Then, because of the way we see mental illness in general, we shame these women for the depression, anxiety or lower self worth that may come about due to her perceived "codependency disorder", and deepen the cycle further. 


Too bad the label is often wrong entirely.

This is not to say that there are not limits to care-taking or nurturing behaviors, and those limits generally revolve around being severely taken advantage of, or engaging in tendencies that are negatively affecting your life. That's not cool either and should be addressed. But it is a strange paradigm when the behaviors seen in women are defined by male standards and yet we still don't see those behaviors as codependent in men.  

A women who seems to be letting someone take advantage of her may be labeled as a codependent. But not a man.

We might call him a sucker, but not codependent. Maybe pussy-whipped, but rarely codependent. More likely, we'll go ahead and blame the woman again, particularly if the abuse is financial. 

"I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger...oh wait....yeah, I am..."

It's an interesting diagnosis indeed when the general public labels it differently based on whether the person has a penis.

Codependent behaviors may have some merit within certain contexts, which we will get to in the next post: What Causes Codependency? How To Create A Codependent Relationship. But, the drive to provide support and empathy do not necessarily mean that something is wrong with us. Empathy and sympathy should instead be seen as things that are right. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

The Anatomy of Love
An in depth look at a history of human mating. Sex, anthropology and more sex. What more could you want?

The Woman That Never Evolved
Monkeys, anthropology, girl power and evolution.

Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships With Narcissists, Sociopaths, & Other Toxic People
A guide to overcoming abusive relationships with narcissistic or psychopathic individuals

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the complex relationships between two people and how personal assessments of situations may lead to better overall functioning within couples...or the drive to separate.

Famished: An Ash Park Novel
Everyone's hungry for something. Some are more famished than others.