Codependency has been referred to as “relationship addiction” or “love addiction.” The focus on others helps to alleviate our pain and inner emptiness, but in ignoring ourselves, it only grows. This habit becomes a circular, self-perpetuating system that takes on a life of its own. Our thinking becomes obsessive, and our behavior can be compulsive, despite adverse consequences. Examples might be calling a partner or ex we know we shouldn’t, putting ourselves or values at risk to accommodate someone, or snooping out of jealousy or fear. This is why codependency has been referred to as an addiction.
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist. She is a relationship expert and author of “Codependency for Dummies” and “Conquering Codependency and Shame: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You,” as well as five ebooks. She has worked extensively in the field of addiction and codependency. Her work is informed by training in Self-Psychology, Voice-Dialogue, Dream Analysis, Jungian Therapy, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Somatic Work, EFT, and Hypnosis. She has also previously supervised other therapists as an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and practiced law as an entertainment attorney.
Experts agree that addiction is a disease, similar to other medical conditions. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a chronic, progressive brain disease, affecting the reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. It’s characterized by craving, denial, dysfunctional emotional responses, and inability to consistently abstain and control behavior. To diagnose a mild substance use disorder, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V) requires only two out of 11 symptoms, which can vary in severity on a continuum. (See “Living with an Addict” for the diagnostic criteria.)
However, there isn’t universal consensus on the definition of “disease” itself. Previously, the definition required that it be chronic and progressive. Now, the American Medical Association defines disease as a condition that impairs normal functioning, creates harm, and has distinguishing signs or symptoms. In 1956, it decided that addiction was a disease, and in 2013 also named obesity a disease. A prime motivation in both cases was to de-stigmatize these conditions and encourage treatment.
Is Codependency a Disease?
In 1988, psychiatrist Timmen Cermak suggested that codependency is a disease noting the addictive process. Psychiatrist and doctor of internal medicine, Charles Whitfield , described codependence as a chronic and progressive disease of “lost-selfhood” with recognizable, treatable symptoms– just like chemical dependence. I agree with Dr. Whitfield, and in Codependency for Dummies refer to codependency as a disease of a lost self. In recovery, we recover our selves.
Codependency is also characterized by symptoms that vary on a continuum similar to those associated with drug addiction. They range from mild to severe and include dependency, denial, dysfunctional emotional responses, craving and reward (through interaction with another person), and inability to control or abstain from compulsive behavior without treatment. You increasingly spend time thinking about, being with, and/or trying to control another person, just as a drug addict with a drug. Other social, recreational, or work activities suffer as a result. Finally, you might continue your behavior and/or the relationship, despite persistent or recurring social or interpersonal problems it creates.