Becoming Emotionally Mute: The Psychology of Co-dependency



The following study (1) for a number of years ago is a very good introductory article into the Psychology of Co-dependency.

This study empirically investigated the construct validity of codependency, observing differences between young adults who scored in the high, medium and low ranges on a measure of codependency compared to various other variables.

They found that compared to individuals who scored low on codependency, those who obtained high scores reported significantly more family of origin difficulties and parental mental health problems; problematic intimate relationships including relationships with chemically dependent partners; and personal psychological problems including compulsivity.

Results suggest that co-dependency is one aspect of wider multigenerational family systems problems which are not unique to families where drug and alcohol abuse or physical and sexual abuse are major concerns.

“The term codependency was initially used to denote the psychological, emotional and behavioural difficulties exhibited by the spouses, and subsequently the children, of alcoholics who inadvertently enabled maintenance of the drinking problem. It replaced the less inclusive term’s co-alcoholic, para-alcoholic and enabler (Cermak, 1991; Hands & Dear, 1994; Harper & Capdevilla, 1990; Miller, 1994; Whitfield, 1984; Wormer, 1989). The concept was subsequently expanded to include individuals significantly affected by drug addiction, gambling, sexual addiction and any other stressful family of origin experience which rendered them prone in later life to forming dysfunctional care-taking relationships with addictive, compulsive, or exploitative individuals (Potter-Efron, & Potter-Efron, 1989; Prest & Protinsky, 1993; Schaef, 1986).

Definitions of codependency tend to be diverse, lacking in rigor and none are universally accepted (Gomberg, 1989; Irwin, 1995; Krestan & Bepko, 1990). Spann and Fischer (1990) operationally defined codependency as a pattern of relating to others characterised by an extreme belief in personal powerlessness and the powerfulness of others; a lack of open expression of feelings; and excessive attempts to derive a sense of purpose through engaging in personally distressing caretaking relationships which involve high levels of denial, rigidity and attempts to control the relationship. This definition acknowledges both the intrapsychic and interpersonal aspects of the construct of codependency (Cermak, 1986a, 1986b, 1991).

The lack of empirical validation for any of the definitions of codependency is a major source of scepticism (Gierymski & Williams, 1986; Gomberg, 1989; Morgan, 1991; Wright & Wright, 1990). Furthermore, many authors have rejected the concept on the grounds that it is denigrates women and blames innocent victims of substance abuse (Asher & Brissett, 1988; Frank & Golden, 1992; Haaken, 1990; Harper & Capdevila, 1990, Krestan & Bepko, 1990; van Wormer, 1989; Webster, 1990).

However the phenomenon to which the concept refers remains an all too common clinical reality. Consequently there is a need to conceptualise and explore codependency in a way that enhances our understanding of it while avoiding the pitfalls highlighted by critics.

This study aimed to empirically investigate the relationship between codependency and family of origin experiences, intimate relationship functioning and personal adjustment. Relevant literature concerning these areas is reviewed below.

Codependency and family of origin experiences

Roehling, Kobel and Rutgers (1996) found the correlation between codependency and parental alcohol abuse to be mediated by emotional and physical abuse. Thus the professed association between codependency and parental substance abuse may be the product of dysfunctional aspects of family life which are related to, but conceptually distinct from, the presence of a chemically dependent parent. These findings, on the whole, challenge the universal application of the codependency label to the family members of substance abusers. Researchers have identified the following family of origin experiences as fostering and maintaining codependency: childhood abuse (Carson & Baker, 1994); parental coercion, non-nurturance and maternal compulsivity (Crothers & Warren, 1996); authoritarian paternal parenting style (Fischer & Crawford, 1992); dysfunctional parenting (Kottke, et al.,1993); repressive family atmosphere and physical and verbal abuse (ZuboffRosenzweig, 1996); lack of acceptance (Fischer and Crawford, 1992; Kottke et al., 1993), communication, satisfaction and support (Fischer and Crawford, 1992; Fischer et al., 1991; Spann & Fischer, 1990); and high levels of control and enmeshment (Fischer and Crawford, 1992; Fischer, et al., 1991).

Alternatively, a number of researchers have found no significant relationship between codependence and traumatic childhood events (Irwin, 1995) or the severity of dysfunctional patterns in the family of origin (Irwin, 1995; Fischer, et al., 1992). From this brief review it may be concluded that questions remain about the link between codependency and parental substance abuse; parental mental health; childhood abuse; and family of origin dysfunction.

Codependency and intimate relationships

O’Brien & Gaborit, (1992) found no significant statistical correlation between codependency and a relationship with a chemically dependent significant other.

However, Prest & Storm (1988), in a sample of compulsive eaters and drinkers, found the spouses of compulsive persons to be codependent. These studies confirm that there is still a lack of clarity about the relationship between codependency and the nature and quality of intimate relationships.

Codependency and psychological adjustment

Empirical evidence of a relationship between codependency and depression (Carson & Baker, 1994; Fischer et al., 1991; Lyon & Greenberg, 1991); anxiety (Fischer et al., 1991; Roehling, et al., 1992); interpersonal sensitivity (Gotham & Sher, 1996); somatisation, (Gotham & Sher, 1996); low self esteem (Fischer & Beer, 1990; Fischer et al., 1991); compulsivity (Gotham & Sher, 1996; Prest & Storm, 1988); and drug use (Teichman & Basha, 1996) have been documented. Although empirical research has shown that individuals with codependent profiles deviate from controls on measures of psychopathology these effects are often only of small to moderate size and tend not to fall within the clinical range.

In addition, other studies have found no association between codependency and depression (O’Brien and Gaborit,1992); self-esteem (Lyon & Greenberg, 1991); or alcoholism (Fischer, et al., 1992).

Taken together, the results of these studies suggest that there continues to be a lack of clarity about the relationship between codependency and personal psychological adjustment.


The hypothesis, concerning greater family of origin difficulties in the high codependency group was partially supported by our results. The high codependency group reported more difficulties with family functioning particularly in the area of task accomplishment and affective expression and there was a higher incidence of parental mental health problems in this group. However, contrary to expectations the high codependency group did not report a greater incidence of parental drug and alcohol abuse problems and childhood physical and sexual abuse.

The hypothesis concerning greater difficulties in the functioning of current or recent relationship, found considerable support in this study. The high codependency group reported greater difficulties with their relationships particularly in the areas of roles, communication, affective expression, emotional involvement, control and values and norms. In addition, more members of the high co-dependency group had chemically dependent partners and they reported higher levels of compulsivity in their partners. 

The hypothesis concerning psychological adjustment problems and codependency was also largely supported by the results of this study. The high codependency group reported more psychological symptoms overall and these spanned a wide spectrum of areas including anxiety, depression, somatic complaints and social dysfunction. In addition they reported greater compulsivity and lower-self esteem. They did not differ from the other groups on level of drug abuse but more people in the high codependency group reported that they did not seek help for their problems. 

Our results suggest that youngsters who grow up in families where there is a lack of clarity about roles and a lack of warm, supportive and appropriate affective expression and where parents have mental health problems find themselves in a family context which promotes the development of codependency. Problematic family roles may engender a belief in personal powerlessness and the powerfulness of others. Difficulties with affective expression in the family of origin may engender difficulties in the open expression of feelings. Experiences with parents who have mental health problems may socializechildren into care-taking roles early in their lives and so lead in adulthood to their excessive attempts to derive a sense of purpose through engaging in personally distressing caretaking relationships which involve high levels of denial, rigidity and attempts to control relationships.


  1. Cullen, J., & Carr, A. (1999). Codependency: An empirical study from a systemic perspective. Contemporary Family Therapy, 21(4), 505-526.

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