The History of the Term "Codependency"

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The History of the Term "Codependency"
A historical summary of the term and concept of codependency

To quote William Shakespeare, “What’s in a name?” Well, Mr. Shakespeare, in the mental health field, quite a bit! Correctly labeling mental health disorders is powerfully important to the person in their pursuit of seeking help to overcome their problems.

Even with the potential for misuse, such terms are required by the researcher, educator, practitioner and, most importantly, the patient to understand, identify and seek help for a specific mental health-related condition. Diagnoses or mental health terms, when not experienced as derogatory or belittling, have inherent power to lead distressed and suffering people to seek professional help, which has the capacity to be psychologically healing, transformational and even life-saving. Conversely, mental health terms that carry negative stereotypes or connote weakness and feebleness can cause grievous personal and psychological harm.

Like other misunderstood and misused psychological expressions, “codependency” has taken on a life of its own. Once it went mainstream, it was haphazardly and conveniently reshaped to fit our mainstream vocabulary. Since its introduction in the 1980’s, its meaning has unfortunately devolved to describe a weak, needy, clingy and even emotionally sick person. To some, it incorrectly is interpreted as a dependent person who is in a relationship with another dependent person. Thirty years later, the term “codependency” has become a caricature of its original meaning. This is so much the case that many therapists refrain from using it in clinical settings.

To understand the development of the term “codependency,” it is important to trace its origins. In 1936, Bill W. and Dr. Bob created the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) movement. Prior to AA, alcoholism was attributed to a weakness in character and lack of personal motivation to stop it. Thanks to Bill and Dr. Bob, alcoholism was redefined as a disease over which the individual had little to no control. From AA, other 12-Step groups came into being. Thus started the myriad other life-enhancing and life-saving 12-Step groups.

In 1951, Lois W., wife of Bill W., and Anne B. founded Al-Anon, a 12-Step recovery program for the families and significant others of the alcoholic. It addressed the other side of the alcoholism coin – the suffering family members who, like the alcoholic, felt their lives were out of control and littered with obstacles and losses. According to the Al-Anon website (2013), “Al-Anon is a mutual support group of peers who share their experience in applying the Al-Anon principles to problems related to the effects of a problem drinker in their lives. It is not group therapy and is not led by a counselor or therapist; this support network complements and supports professional treatment.”

By the 1970s, alcohol treatment providers began to consider the limitations of the one-dimensionality of the medical treatment model, which typically just treated the alcoholic (treating the disease). As treatment centers began to embrace the emerging practice of treating alcoholism within the context of social networks and family relationships, partners of the alcoholic, or the co-alcoholic, and other family members were included in the treatment process.

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