psychology of co-dependency

Family Stressors as Predictors of Codependency


According this study (1) from a number of years ago “THE CONCEPT OF CODEPENDENCY has been approached primarily from a qualitative and clinical standpoint.

“Many researchers have criticized the ambiguity of studies of codependency (Chiazzi & Liljegren, 1993; Frank & Bland, 1992; Gierymski & Williams, 1986; Gomberg, 1989) because those studies have not measured codependency systematically… much of the existing literature on codependency consists of critical and clinical analyses of the concept, including a variety of possible definitions.

What Is Codependency?

Unfortunately, although codependency seems to be a disorder that can be experienced by anyone with unhealthy relational patterns, researchers have not agreed on a definition.

Many of the more recent researchers agree that codependency involves relationship patterns, with two people meeting each other’s needs in dysfunctional ways (O’Brien & Gaborit, 1992). Codependency is considered an excessive preoccupation with the lives of others (O’Brien & Gaborit; Whitfield, 1991, p. 3).

Similar to the notion of codependency as addictive love in a relationship, O’Gorman suggested “learned helplessness” as a definition (1993, p. 199), suggesting that this definition will make codependents feel comfortable enough to seek treatment, because the syndrome is learned and can be treated.

O’Gorman, like others, considered codependency a relationship disorder. O’Gorman and Oliver-Diaz (1987) suggested in their definition that codependency involves a learning system in which family habits are passed down, one generation teaching those behaviors to the next generation.

Fischer et al. (1991) also provided a definition regarding dysfunctional relationships. They referred to codependency as “a dysfunctional pattern of relating to others with an extreme focus outside of oneself, lack of expression of feelings, and personal meaning derived from relationships with others” (p. 87). Their definition for codependency is the one used in the present study, and the scale that they developed to measure codependency is the one we used in this study.

Criticisms of the Study of Codependency

The existing literature makes clear the ambiguity of the term codependency. Thus, it is not surprising that the word has come to be overused in the self-help literature (Asher & Brissett, 1988; Frank & Bland, 1992; O’Gorman, 1993). Many authors have discussed the need for more systematic research, and then they have noted the overuse of the term (Gomberg, 1989), the labeling (Chiazzi & Liljegren, 1993; Frank & Bland; Gomberg; Van Wormer, 1989), and the self-diagnosis (Asher & Brissett; O’Gorman).

Some of the critics of the concept of codependency have questioned its validity. Chiazzi and Liljegren (1993)referred to codependency as 1 of 11 “taboo topics in addiction treatment” (p. 311). These authors questioned whether codependency is a disease and suggested that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tavris (1992) even suggested that women are “eager” to take on the addiction (p. 203). This position is in agreement with O’Gorman’s (1993) definition of codependency as learned helplessness.

This perspective relates to the notion that many define themselves as codependent, a topic that has become popular in self-help literature. Frank and Bland (1992) commented that many of their clients self-diagnose codependency.

Asher and Brissett (1988) studied wives of alcoholics and found that the participants took the term for granted and used it freely, and that self-labeling occurred through “retrospective reinterpretation of their lives with their alcoholic husbands” (p. 331)…  it is not uncommon for women to see themselves as displaying deviant behavior according to the concept of codependency (Asher & Brissett; Chiazzi & Liljegren, 1993; Tavris, 1992, p. 197; Van Wormer, 1989).”

Results and Discussion

As predicted subjects in this study from with environmental stress (families with an alcoholic, physically ill, or mentally ill parent) tended to score more codependent than those from families without environmental stress.

…other types of environmental stress, not exclusively alcoholism, may lead to codependency.

This finding is consistent with findings of other studies that related codependency to several types of family dysfunction or trauma.

Another interesting point  of this study was that none of the family background variables (parental alcoholism, birth order, mother’s co-dependency) were significantly related to subject’s codependency scores.

The authors prediction that the first born would tend to be more codependent was not demonstrated. There were no main effects of birth order….

Limitation of Study

As with many studies, the subjects were a college student sample which limits generalizability.



  1. Fuller, J. A., & Warner, R. M. (2000). Family stressors as predictors of codependency. Genetic Social and General Psychology Monographs, 126(1), 5-24.




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