Codependence: Painful Adult
Behaviors Learned in Childhood

H. Dan Smith, EdD, MFT (co.di.pen´.dens) n. [root ME. dependaunce < OFr. dependance or ML. dependentia < L. dependens]. Also written co-dependence. The condition or fact of being codependent; specifically, a) tendency to place the needs and wants of others first and to the exclusion of acknowledging one's own, b) continued investment of self-esteem in the ability to control both oneself and others, c) anxiety and boundary distortions relating to intimacy and separation, d) difficulty expressing feelings, e) excessive worry how others may respond to one's feelings, f) undue fear of being hurt and/or rejected by others, g) self-esteem dependent on approval by others, h) tendency to ignore own values and attempt to adhere to the values of others.

Codependence is a serious concern for many women and men in our culture. Most affected individuals do not fully realize the impact codependence has on their lives until they are adults and attempting to form and sustain stable relationships; maintaining effective relationships with their own children is also extremely stressful. Prior to adulthood, codependent persons may realize there is something wrong, but this dull sense of awareness is often rationalized as "adolescence," or the problems of growing up, or a number of other easily discounted symptoms.

The development of codependence occurs over a fairly long period of time, and has its roots in a dysfunctional childhood upbringing. The early literature on codependence almost exclusively focused on alcoholism in the family of origin. The label "codependent" was given to a spouse or child of an alcoholic who exhibited the typical reactions of becoming responsible for the alcoholic parent or spouse by covering up his or her alcohol use for fear of discovery, and by suppressing feelings within the home at any cost. Current literature relating to upbringing in an alcoholic home refers to codependent persons as "adult children of alcoholics" or "ACA." By its label, one can see that the problems noted by ACAs are most prominently recognized in adulthood.

Another type of family that appears to induce codependence is one that is overly rigid, dogmatic, or autocratic, where there may be no alcohol abuse or dependence. These over-controlled families emphasize discipline, regimentation, and order as primary values, and the only rewards given are for compliance with strict and often illogical family rules. In such families, children soon learn that any positive feelings about self are dependent on the mood of someone else, usually their father or mother. From the outside, these families may appear to be well organized and smoothly run, but there is a great deal of pain and secrecy behind the public veneer.

An alarming number of dysfunctional families are also characterized by the presence of physical and/or sexual abuse of children, a condition where the child's personal respect and integrity are continually compromised by the threat of impending physical or sexual violence. In later years, these individuals may find themselves emotionally unable to handle the demands of adulthood, and complain of their inability to establish and maintain emotional (and physical) boundaries in relationships.

Ironically, many of the subtle clues exhibited in childhood and adolescence that might indicate there is a codependent-in-the-making are highly valued and rewarded behaviors. Children who are extremely compliant, overly willing to please, and easily yield to the wishes of others are frequently seen as "good kids." Parents love them, teachers love them, too. Only later in life when compliance means that their own needs never get met, does one come to realize that always being a "good kid" somehow relates to the misery of codependence in adulthood. This is not to suggest that all "good kids" become codependent adults. Only those children with the underpinnings of a dysfunctional upbringing are susceptible to becoming codependent.

Many adults have been raised in homes described above, particularly alcoholic or overly rigid homes. An autocratic style of parenting was the accepted mode of child rearing in the '40s and '50s. Order was commended and quiet, compliant children were viewed as content. Unfortunately, children raised in autocratic or abusive homes may later find themselves in a particular bind as adults and parents. Not only must they struggle with the day-to-day effects of their codependence, they only know one method of parenting--the way that was demonstrated by their parents and is now at the core of their own emotional turmoil. Parenting is always quite a chore for codependent adults. They know something is dreadfully wrong and many seek help in order to develop better parenting skills.

Research indicates there is greater incidence of codependence for females than for males. One view on this phenomenon is that males have a broader range of options for expressing the effects of their dysfunction than do females. Due to differences in upbringing, boys have the "option" of expressing their pain through rage and various forms of antisocial or violent behavior. Also, while drug and alcohol abuse and dependence is catching up among females, men still hold the lead in these areas. A typical adulthood scenario illustrating the difference between a boy and a girl raised in the same dysfunctional home might be that while she is miserably unhappy in her marriage and painfully aware of her own codependence, he is an abusive alcoholic.

Is codependence a mental disorder? "Yes" and "no." Many mental health professionals advocate for "yes," because codependence carries with it all the trauma of a mental disorder--codependence seriously limits one's ability to live a satisfying and productive life. While there are various national committees working diligently for inclusion of "codependent disorder" as a bona fide mental condition, thus qualifying for treatment supported by health care insurance, it presently is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). Since "codependent disorder" is presently not a recognized diagnosis, persons seeking treatment from the effects of codependence are often diagnosed with one of a number of associated conditions, including depression, anxiety, or dependent personality, among others.

There are many excellent references on the subject of codependence. Among these are:

  1. Beattie, M. (1987). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. San Francisco: Harper/Hazelden.
  2. Beattie, M. (1989). Beyond codependency, and getting better all the time. San Francisco: Harper/Hazelden.
  3. Cermak, T.L. (1988). A time to heal. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.
  4. Fossum, M.A., & Mason, M.J. (1986). Facing shame. New York: W.W. Norton.
  5. Lerner, H.G. (1986). The dance of anger. New York: Harper & Row.
  6. Mellody, P., Miller, A.W., & Miller, J.K. (1989). Facing codependence. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
  7. Norwood, R. (1985). Women who love too much. New York: Pocket Books.
  8. Schaef, A.W. (1986). Co-dependence: Misunderstood--mistreated. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
  9. Whitfield, C.L. (1987). Healing the child within: Discovery and recovery for adult children of dysfunctional families. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
  10. Whitfield, C.L. (1991). Co-dependence: Healing the human condition. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

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