The Evolution of the Term 'Codependence'

"The phenomenal growth of AA and the success of the disease concept in the treatment of Alcoholism generated the founding of treatment centers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These early treatment centers were based on what had been successful in early AA. They focused on getting the Alcoholic sober and paid very little attention to the families of Alcoholics.

As these treatment centers matured and evolved, they noticed that the families of Alcoholics seemed to have certain characteristics and patterns of behavior in common. So they started to pay some attention to the families.

A term was coined to describe the significant others of Alcoholics. That term was "co-alcoholic" - literally "alcoholic with."

The belief was that while the Alcoholic was addicted to alcohol, the co-alcoholic was addicted in certain ways to the Alcoholic. The belief was that the families of Alcoholics became sick because of the Alcoholic's drinking and behavior.

With the drug explosion of the sixties, Alcoholism treatment centers became chemical dependency treatment centers. Co-alcoholics became co-dependents. The meaning was still a literal "dependent with," and the philosophy was much the same.

In the mid-to-late seventies, however, certain pioneers in the field began to look more closely at the behavior patterns of families affected by addiction. Some researchers focused primarily on Alcoholic families, and then graduated to studying adults who had grown up in Alcoholic families. Other researchers started looking more closely at the phenomenon of Family Systems Dynamics.

Out of these studies came the defining of the Adult Child Syndrome, at first primarily in terms of Adult Children of Alcoholics and then expanding to other types of dysfunctional families.

Ironically this research was in a sense a rediscovery of the insight which in many ways was the birth of modern psychology. Sigmund Freud made his early fame as a teenager with his insight into the importance of early childhood trauma. (This was many years before he started shooting cocaine and decided that sex was the root of all psychology.)

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What the researchers were beginning to understand was how profoundly the emotional trauma of early childhood affects a person as an adult. They realized that if not healed, these early childhood emotional wounds, and the subconscious attitudes adopted because of them, would dictate the adult's reaction to, and path through, life. Thus we walk around looking like and trying to act like adults, while reacting to life out of the emotional wounds and attitudes of childhood. We keep repeating the patterns of abandonment, abuse, and deprivation that we experienced in childhood.

Psychoanalysis addressed these issues only on the intellectual level - not on the emotional healing level. As a result, a person could go to psychoanalysis weekly for twenty years and still be repeating the same behavior patterns.

As the Adult Child movement, the Family Systems Dynamics research, and the newly emerging "inner child" healing movement expanded and developed in the eighties, the term "Codependent" expanded. It became a term used as a description of certain types of behavior patterns. These were basically identified as "people-pleasing" behaviors. By the middle to late eighties the term "Codependent" was associated with people-pleasers who set themselves up to be victims and rescuers.

In other words, it was recognized that the Codependent was not sick because of the Alcoholic but rather was attracted to the Alcoholic because of his/her disease, because of her/his early childhood experience.

At that time Codependence was basically defined as a passive behavioral defense system, and its opposite, or aggressive counterpart was described as counter dependent. Then most Alcoholics and addicts were thought to be counter dependent.

The word changed and evolved further after the start of the modern Codependence movement in Arizona in the mid-eighties. Co-Dependents Anonymous had its first meeting in October of 1986, and books on Codependence as a disease in and of itself started appearing at about the same time. These Codependence books were the next generation evolved from the books on the Adult Child Syndrome of the early eighties.

The expanded usage of the term "Codependent" now includes counter dependent behavior. We have come to understand that both the passive and the aggressive behavioral defense systems are reactions to the same kinds of childhood trauma, to the same kinds of emotional wounds. The Family Systems Dynamics research shows that within the family system, children adopt certain roles according to their family dynamics. Some of these roles are more passive, some are more aggressive, because in the competition for attention and validation within a family system the children must adopt different types of behaviors in order to feel like an individual.

A large part of what we identify as our personality is in fact a distorted view of who we really are due to the type of behavioral defenses we adopted to fit the role or roles we were forced to assume according to the dynamics of our family system.

Behavioral Defenses

I am now going to share with you some new descriptions that I came up with in regard to these behavioral defenses. We adopt different degrees and combinations of these various types of behavior as our personal defense system, and we swing from one extreme to the other within our own personal spectrum. I am going to share these with you because I find them enlightening and amusing - and to make a point.

The Aggressive-Aggressive defense, is what I call the "militant bulldozer." This person, basically the counter-dependent, is the one whose attitude is "I don't care what anyone thinks." This is someone who will run you down and then tell you that you deserved it. This is the "survival of the fittest," hard-driving capitalist, self-righteous religious fanatic, who feels superior to most everyone else in the world. This type of person despises the human "weakness" in others because he/she is so terrified and ashamed of her/his own humanity.

The Aggressive-Passive person, or "self-sacrificing bulldozer," will run you down and then tell you that they did it for your own good and that it hurt them more than it did you. These are the types of people who aggressively try to control you "for your own good" - because they think that they know what is "right" and what you "should" do and they feel obligated to inform you. This person is constantly setting him/herself up to be the perpetrator because other people do not do things the "right" way, that is, his/her way.

The Passive-Aggressive, or "militant martyr," is the person who smiles sweetly while cutting you to pieces emotionally with her/his innocent sounding, double-edged sword of a tongue. These people try to control you "for your own good" but do it in more covert, passive-aggressive ways. They "only want the best for you," and sabotage you every chance they get. They see themselves as wonderful people who are continually and unfairly being victimized by ungrateful loved ones - and this victimization is their main topic of conversation/focus in life because they are so self-absorbed that they are almost incapable of hearing what other people are saying.

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The Passive-Passive, or "self-sacrificing martyr," is the person who spends so much time and energy demeaning him/herself, and projecting the image that he/she is emotionally fragile, that anyone who even thinks of getting mad at this person feels guilty. They have incredibly accurate, long-range, stealth guilt torpedoes that are effective even long after their death. Guilt is to the self-sacrificing martyr what stink is to a skunk: the primary defense.

These are all defense systems adopted out of a necessity to survive. They are all defensive disguises whose purpose is to protect the wounded, terrified child within.

These are broad general categories, and individually we can combine various degrees and combinations of these types of behavioral defenses in order to protect ourselves.

In this society, in a general sense, the men have been traditionally taught to be primarily aggressive, the "John Wayne" syndrome, while women have been taught to be self-sacrificing and passive. But that is a generalization; it is entirely possible that you came from a home where your mother was John Wayne and your father was the self-sacrificing martyr.

Dysfunctional Culture

The point that I am making is that our understanding of Codependence has evolved to realizing that this is not just about some dysfunctional families - our very role models, our prototypes, are dysfunctional.

Our traditional cultural concepts of what a man is, of what a woman is, are twisted, distorted, almost comically bloated stereotypes of what masculine and feminine really are. A vital part of this healing process is finding some balance in our relationship with the masculine and feminine energy within us, and achieving some balance in our relationships with the masculine and feminine energy all around us. We cannot do that if we have twisted, distorted beliefs about the nature of masculine and feminine.

When the role model of what a man is does not allow a man to cry or express fear; when the role model for what a woman is does not allow a woman to be angry or aggressive - that is emotional dishonesty. When the standards of a society deny the full range of the emotional spectrum and label certain emotions as negative - that is not only emotionally dishonest, it creates emotional disease.

If a culture is based on emotional dishonesty, with role models that are dishonest emotionally, then that culture is also emotionally dysfunctional, because the people of that society are set up to be emotionally dishonest and dysfunctional in getting their emotional needs met.

What we traditionally have called normal parenting in this society is abusive because it is emotionally dishonest. Children learn who they are as emotional beings from the role modeling of their parents. "Do as I say - not as I do," does not work with children. Emotionally dishonest parents cannot be emotionally healthy role models, and cannot provide healthy parenting."

next: Codependence as Delayed Stress Syndrome

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 23). The Evolution of the Term 'Codependence', HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 18 from

Last Updated: August 7, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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