By Darlene Lancer

The controversy around codependency is divided into two camps — for and against. At one end are mental health professionals who advocate that codependency is a widespread and treatable disease. On the other is an array of critics of codependency, who argue that it’s merely a social or cultural phenomenon, is over-diagnosed, or is an aspect of relationships that doesn’t need to change.

Those in the “against” camp state that it’s natural to need and depend upon others. They claim that you only really thrive in an intimate relationship and believe that the codependency movement has hurt people and relationships by encouraging too much independence and a false-sense of self-sufficiency, which can pose health risks associated with isolation.

Other naysayers disparage the construct of codependency as being merely an outgrowth of Western ideals of individualism and independence, which have harmed people by diminishing their need for connection to others.

Feminists also criticized the concept of codependency as sexist and pejorative against women, stating that women are traditionally nurturers and historically have been in a nondominant role due to economic, political, and cultural reasons. Investment in their relationships and partner isn’t a disorder, but has been necessary for self-preservation. Still others quarrel with Twelve Step programs in general, saying that they promote dependency on a group and a victim mentality.

Committees have lobbied for codependency to be recognized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, which would allow insurance coverage for treatment. A major obstacle is the lack of consensus about the definition of codependency and diagnostic criteria. For insurance purposes, clinicians usually diagnose patients with anxiety or depression, which are symptoms of codependency.

Here are some things to think about, to help put the naysayers’ points in ­perspective:

  • Codependency’s detractors are correct to claim that people are meant to need, love, and care for others. Yet, when you look at codependent relationships up close, you discover that many of the benefits of healthy, intimate relationships elude codependents due to their dysfunctional patterns of interacting.

    Instead of feeling supported and enhanced by relationships, the symptoms and consequences of codependency provoke anxiety in relationships and cause pain. Codependents complain of feeling lonely and unhappy in their relationships.

    Similarly, a “false sense of self-sufficiency” is part of codependency. Codependents ignore their needs and depend upon others and frequently self-sacrifice to an unhealthy degree. They care for others in a way that leads to control, resentment, and conflict. The concept of codependency isn’t to blame for the increase in divorce, loneliness, and unhappiness. Codependency itself limits our ability to have satisfactory intimate relationships.

  • Some recovering codependents choose to leave an abusive or painful relationship as an act of self-preservation. Remaining in such a relationship may also pose health risks from the chronic stress. Separation doesn’t have to lead to isolation. It’s untreated codependency that can cause people to isolate. In contrast, recovery helps individuals cope with loneliness in healthy ways by reaching out to others.

    The goal is to create healthy, nurturing, interdependent relationships. Thus, recovery from codependency doesn’t necessitate ending a relationship to become independent. The aim is to be able to function better and to enjoy more intimacy and independence in your relationships. Calling codependency what it is doesn’t create the problem.

  • Finally, the term codependency shouldn’t be used to judge people. It arose out of Western socio-political thought and should be considered in a cultural and ethnic context. There may be instances where codependency is adaptive, and change would be disruptive. This poses a problem as American and European ideas spread to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.