What It Really Means When Someone Says You're 'Codependent' (And Why It's B.S.)

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Codependent People Don't Exist, Only Victims Of Emotional Abuse & Manipulation By Narcissists

As someone who's been through her fair share of codependent relationships, I've spent significant time researching the concept of codependency, and let me tell you, if there was a cure to be found, I would drink that juice down in a heartbeat no matter how awful the taste.

Codependency, however, is not something that can be cured, because it is not a disease, a disorder, a syndrome or an illness.

What is codependency, you might ask? 

It is a relationship dynamic, and an abusive one at that.

Meaning that, in a codependent relationship, there is an abuser and a victim of abuse. Quite often the abusers in these relationships have an underlying mental health issue, such as an addiction disorder or a personality disorder. The victims may or may not have disorders of their own, such as anxiety disorders or depressive disorders.

But codependency in and of itself is NOT a disorder, and adding the label of being "a codependent” to someone already suffering from anxiety, depression, and now-likely trauma, not only provides the abuser with an excuse for their inexcusable behavior, it re-victimizes and further traumatizes the partner in need of intensive healing and repair.

To illustrate my point, here’s an example of how that label was once used against me:

A while back, I met a guy I enjoyed and who seemed to be digging me too. Turns out not so much. Which was totally cool with me. No one can be everyone’s type, and I don’t take it personally if after a man decides he’s just not that into me. We'd only gone out a few times and told me respectfully, without any weird, dragged out silence, so no harm, no foul in my book.

Until a week or so later, when he randomly decided to send me an article about the Gottman Institute’s well-known study of newlywed couples and his findings on predictors of marital success. It's an interesting study about which I have plenty of opinions, but this guy and I had never discussed it, and I wasn’t sure why he sent it to me, given we were no longer a potential newlywed couple. So I asked.

Turns out he was trying to "assist me" by sharing his own interpretation of the study, which was as follows:

  • If you want to have a happy marriage, you need to marry someone who is “happy”
  • Because I have been in codependent relationships in the past, I, according to him, obviously lack the inherent self-esteem necessary to ever be “happy”
  • I am therefore a poor candidate for a relationship with him... and most likely for anyone else ever.

OK, that's totally not what Dr. Gottman said, but, it does bring me to my point...

It turns out that this fine gentleman, who had already presented indicators of both alcoholic and narcissistic tendencies, has read a great deal of material about codependent relationships over the years, simply for the purpose of validating his victim-blaming hypothesis that emotional abuse would never exist if it weren’t for the fact that these spineless fools lack the self-esteem to stand up for themselves and just be happy.

His world view is quite beautiful in its sheer simplicity, i.e., there would be no abusers if no one ever allowed themselves to be abused.

I agree that it would be nice if the world worked that way, but see, it just doesn’t.

Here’s a break down of just six ways referring to individuals as "codependent" is both incorrect and dangerous.

1. Co-dependency has already been proposed for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and it was rejected.

In 1986, Dr. Timmen Cermak a wrote book titled Diagnosing and Treating Co-Dependence: A Guide for Professionals, in which he posited that codependency should be included in the DSM-III as a distinct personality disorder. His proposal was rejected, and in the now 30 years following, no one has yet made a convincing case that it should be recognized as a category of a mental health disorder.

Cermak’s book did lead to the establishment of a twelve-step program called Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), which has certainly served as an effective mechanism for healing the wounds of some people working to better understand what they endured in their relationships, how they got there, and how they can learn, grow and trust themselves again. But a support group does not a diagnosis make.

2. A codependent relationship is always a two-way street, as the word itself implies mutuality.

If someone has obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, etc., the symptoms manifest themselves regardless of whether or not that individual is in a healthy relationship, an unhealthy relationship, or no relationship at all.

It is impossible to be codependent in isolation.

Diagnoses are not applicable to couples, families or friendships. They are applicable to individuals and their own personal functioning. Codependency does not and cannot apply to any one person in particular, only to a type of relationship someone is in, and only for the time in which they are in it.

RELATED: 7 Signs You're In A Relationship With A Guy Who's Trying To Manipulate And Control You

3. Assigning someone a false diagnosis may prevent or delay their receptivity to treatment for an appropriate diagnosis for which they could actually receive effective treatment.

Social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or a specific phobia may or may not apply to any given victim of an abusive relationship.

These are very real medical conditions, all of which can be treated effectively with medication, therapy, and a variety of other interventions, but only if the professionals offering support to these men and women look beyond the surface presentation of someone who just can’t seem to stand up for themselves.

4. Assigning someone a false diagnosis may prevent or delay their abuser’s receptivity to treatment for an appropriate diagnosis for which they could actually receive effective treatment.

Conduct disorder, an alcohol- or substance-related disorder, or a personality disorder may or may not apply to any given abuser in a codependent relationship.

Placing the label of codependent on the victim is similar to calling a rape victim a “tease,” a “slut,” or even a “fuckboy.” Victims’ behavior cannot be allowed to mask or justify abusers’ actions.

RELATED: 15 Undeniable Warning Signs That Your Relationship Is Abusive

5. Not everyone who becomes involved in a codependent relationship does so because they lack self-esteem or because they have mental health disorder.

Many people who become involved with emotional manipulators do so because they have both high self-esteem and high empathy levels and they want to be of service to others. They enter the relationship with a healing mindset, either because they overestimated the power of their own best intentions or under-estimated the degree of pathology in the person they fell for.

This doesn't happen as the result of some genetic or behavioral-development related flaw. It happens because emotional manipulators are extremely well skilled at emotional manipulation. It is their survival mechanism.

People who have finally freed themselves from an abusive relationship don’t need to help “curing” their codependency. They need to be treated with compassionate dignity as they heal from the abuse they endured.

6. The false promise that someone can be cured of codependency only increases vulnerability to future victimization.

The best way to walk yourself right into a brick wall is to feel so positive you already took it down that you haughtily walk forward with your eyes closes, not bothering to check and see if another construction crew decided to pick up where you left off when you weren’t looking.

OK, I don’t know if that ever happens, but you get what I mean.

If you survived an abusive relationship, put a good portion of the blame on your own codependency disorder, receive treatment and then consider yourself cured, why would you ever consider that any future relationship troubles would manifest? The problem was you and the problem is solved, right?

Who needs to watch for someone else’s red flags if they have it all under control?

You do. We all do.

Looking inward to do work on yourself is crucial, but much of the work is in learning how to look outward as well.

Senior Editor and happily-former divorce coach and mediator Arianna Jeret is a recognized expert on love, sex, and relationships (except when it comes to her own life, of course). Join her Sundays at 10:15 PM EST when she answers ALL of your questions on Facebook Live on YourTango's main page.

This article was originally published at The Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission from the author.