If you are involved in any kind of addiction recovery, you will hear a lot about codependency. Codependency is a word used to describe an extremely broad range of behaviors. People who have difficulty with their relationship with themselves (self-esteem) or with other people are likely to be called codependent.


The word began to be used in the 197Os when professionals who saw alcoholism as a family disease began treating family members also, observing the effects of alcoholism on them. Alcoholics and drug addicts were grouped under the name chemical dependency, and family members affected were called codependents. Other terms, such as co-alcoholics or para-alcoholics have also been used, but codependency is the term that won out.

Helping Recovery

There is little doubt that many people in our society who are self-searching and looking for ways to grow can find some help in the ideas of the codependency movement. There are many valuable books that can help with such things as self-worth, assertiveness, spontaneity, relationships, intimacy, and feelings. Almost any addict can identify with characteristics of codependency.


Though it may be a misnomer, the word codependency has made it easier for people reluctant to seek help for emotional problems. Some people who would have been labeled with a psychiatric diagnosis may now feel comfortable relating to codependency instead.


Pia Mellody (1989) says that codependents have difficulty:

  • Experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem
  • Setting functional boundaries
  • Owning and expressing their reality
  • Taking care of their adult needs and wants
  • Experiencing and expressing their reality moderately

To see how these develop in a dysfunctional family, look at each of the natural characteristics of a child:

Valuable All children are valuable, but when they are abused they survive by acting worse than or better than others. These survival roles in adulthood create difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem. To recover means to build self-esteem.

Vulnerable All children are vulnerable, but surviving abuse usually entails acting either too vulnerable or too good/perfect. Adults then have difficulty setting functional boundaries. Recovery teaches them to be vulnerable, but with protection (functional boundaries).

Imperfect Children, like other life forms, are imperfect. In dysfunctional families, some play a “bad” or “rebellious” role, while others get trapped in perfectionism. As adults most have difficulty owning and expressing their own reality and imperfections. In recovery, however, they can become accountable for imperfections and can look to a Higher Power for help with these imperfections.

Dependent Children are dependent, needing, and wanting. If abused they tend to become either too dependent, or antidependent (needless, wantless). These children grow up having difficulty taking care of their adult needs and wants. Recovery allows them to become interdependent and to get their needs and wants met appropriately.

Immature All children are immature. In response to abuse they usually act extremely immature (chaotic) or overmature (controlling). As adults it is hard for them to experience or express their reality in any moderate fashion. Recovery allows them to gain maturity at their own age level.

Full Circle

Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse (1989), a pioneer in codependency, defines codependency as: “a toxic relationship to a substance, a person or a behavior that leads to self delusion, emotional repres- sion and compulsive behavior that results in increased shame, low self-worth, relationship problems and medical complications.” This definition is compatible with our description of addiction itself. A broader and more inclusive treatment of addiction will cover much of what is now addressed as codependency.

Ruling-Out Priority

We encounter many addicts who identify themselves as struggling with codependency issues and often wonder where they need to put the emphasis in their recovery We suggest a ruling-out priority system when deciding about treatment, counseling, and recovery

Primary addiction First, is there a primary (basic) addiction still rampant? Alcohol, other drugs, eating, tobacco, strong excitement, or other primary addictions should be treated as addiction, not as a problem resulting from growing up in an addictive family. In fact, some practicing addicts “hide out” in other Twelve-Step groups, like Al-Anon or ACOA, or even codependency treatment.

Addiction conspiracy disorder If there is no primary addiction that requires attention, you may have what we call an addiction conspiracy disorder. This is the classic Al-Anon type disorder, which is probably the most accurate target for programs for codependency. This is a person so enmeshed in others’ addictions that they qualify as a coconspirator. If they get rid of the addict (or addicts) in their lives, they may quickly find another.

An interesting description of the dynamics of this disorder can be found in the “Rescue triangle” in which the persecutor, rescuer (enabler), and victim roles are interchangeable, as the system rolls on.

Addiction stress disorder If not a conspiracy disorder, the stress of living with one or more addicts can result in psychosomatic illness and intense stress and strain. There are people who come from healthy homes who may find themselves married to an addict. This will result in frustration, stress, and other problems. If the person has self-esteem, knows it is not their fault, they may get out of the situation and not choose to get involved with an addict next time. Because they are not a part of the addiction mechanism, they will probably look for a person who shows no signs of active addiction.

Adult Children of Addiction The following characteristics, from author Janet Woititz, indicate growing up in a strongly addicted family:

  • Guessing at normality
  • Lacking follow-through
  • Lying when truth would be as easy
  • judging oneself without mercy
  • Having difficulty having fun
  • Taking oneself too seriously
  • Difficulty with intimate relationships
  • Overreacting to things one can’t control
  • Constantly seeking approval and affirmation
  • Feeling different from other people
  • Being either super responsible or super irresponsible
  • Being extremely loyal, even when undeserved
  • Being very impulsive

(Note: the “Horoscope effect” of such broad statements results in most people being able to relate somewhat to many of them. To require treatment for being an Adult Child of Addiction, you should be able to relate very strongly to most of them.)


Those who are not active addicts and are not reacting strongly to addiction in others may simply have a dependent personality disorder. But watch out for extreme examples of “women who love too much.” That disorder might be addiction to excitement or addiction conspiracy disorder somewhat disguised.

Other Personality Disorders

Some people being treated for codependency do not have an addictive disorder at all. They have what used to be called neuroses, and their treatment needs to be tailored to their problems.


Few people fit neatly into one of the above categories. Addiction includes many dynamics. For example: a man in recovery from drug addiction marries a woman who is recovering from alcoholism. Both their fathers were alcoholic. After a few years of marriage her eating gets out of control and she becomes obese. He is embarrassed and he shames and criticizes her. She is hurt, defiant, and frustrated. They may have trouble applying what they know about chemical addiction to the present problem of her eating addiction and his codependency.


Active addiction inhibits the growth of relationships. If you live with an active addict, it may help to review what Al-Anon has learned over the years — that blame and shame are ineffective. While you probably cannot make the other person change, you can work on making your own life more useful to yourself and those around you. Though denial and delusion protect the disease, you can replace control with support, fear with love, and blame with information and understanding.

Codependency, see also: Abuse, Addiction model (PEMS), Al-Anon and Alateen, Amends, Assertiveness, Children of addicts, Control, Crisis, Defenses, Detachment, Emotional aspects, Enabling, Family, Family of origin, Humor & fun, Incest, Intimacy, Love & caring, Power, Psychological problems, Relationships, Resentments, Self-image, Survival roles.

Updated 11 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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