Out in the Open

Co-Dependents Anonymous: The 12-step recovery program for people who need to be needed

People who self-identify as 'codependent' say they habitually put the needs of others over their own.
Co-Dependents Anonymous has one membership requirement: "a desire for healthy and loving relationships."

Are you a "codependent" person?

The answer might be "yes" if you're too submissive. Or too controlling. 

Or, if you're hyper-sensitive to others' feelings. Or if you lack empathy.

And you might be codependent if you're selflessly dedicated to the well-being of your friends, family and romantic partners. And if your relationships are falling apart.

The list of characteristics on the Co-Dependents Anonymous website appears to be filled with such contradictions. But somehow, people across the world — including in Canada — are finding something in common at support group meetings.

"I'm not attached to the label," said one woman who attends a weekly meeting in Toronto. "But I know that … coming to these meetings, sharing my experiences with these people, has been life-changing."

Co-Dependents Anonymous, or CoDA for short, is a 12-step recovery program modelled after Alcoholics Anonymous. Whereas AA members are expected to stop drinking, CoDA membership has only one requirement: "a desire for healthy and loving relationships."

But there are other common threads. People who self-identify as "codependent" say they habitually put the needs of others over their own. That compulsion is driven by a lack of self-esteem, which leads them to look for external validation. This is how codependency can manifest as both servitude and dominance — I'll feel better about myself if I can help someone else, whether they ask for it or not. 

'Childhoods of trauma'

The British Columbia-based Co-Dependents Recovery Society lists three weekly meetings in Vancouver, four in Toronto, five in Ottawa and many more in cities large and small across Canada. 

"The sharing portion feels so important to me, in terms of recovery," said the CoDA member, who was interviewed on the condition that she not be named. "One of the main characteristics of codependency is shame, often coming from childhoods of trauma — parents who were addicts, or other kinds of abuse in the family."

Three members of a Co-Dependents Anonymous group are interviewed at a church in Toronto, where they attend a weekly meeting. (Sam Colbert/CBC)

Some codependents trace their behaviours back to a caregiver who was difficult to please, perhaps because that caregiver struggled with mental health problems or substance abuses. Because that relationship was impossible to escape when they were a child, they say they learned to sacrifice on their own needs to please the parent. 

They then carried those tendencies into adulthood. Many describe having a hard time leaving bad relationships. 

"My dad had severe OCD," said the CoDA member. "His anger came out when things weren't just so."

She says she "developed a sense of value from meeting other people's needs." But she now recognizes that total self-sacrifice doesn't work for her adult relationships. "I am doing them the disservice of not allowing them the opportunity to give 50 per cent of what needs to be given."

A diagnosis in dispute

Codependency is a common term in the addictions field. An addict's codependent partner might tell themselves that the problem isn't with the addict's behaviour, but with their own. That leads to an enabling of the addiction.

But some mental-health service providers are wary of the "codependency" concept. It's not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a personality disorder, in part because it's so vague. And some have argued that it pathologizes "normal" behaviour. 

Kim Calderwood, director of Trent University's social work department, warns that the "codependency" label could do more harm than good. (Courtesy of Kim Calderwood)

"I wouldn't want to ever come across as suggesting that there is something wrong with what the individual is doing," Kim Calderwood, director of Trent University's social work department, said of people who attend CoDA meetings. "If they are finding it helpful, then that's great for them. Everybody deals with things differently."

But she worries the codependency "label" places blame on the partners of dysfunctional people. Further, she says it risks stigmatizing normal responses to difficult circumstances. 

And that risk is a high one, given how loosely codependency has come to be defined. 

"The fact that there's no consensus about what it is raises a question about whether it really is even something that exists," Calderwood said.

Regardless of whether codependency is taken seriously by mental health service providers, CoDA members say they have found the meetings helpful. 

"This is a really good place to practice what we learn," said a man who also attends the same Toronto meeting. After feeling closed off from others for so many years, he feels he can finally be his authentic self with other members of the group. 

"I've never been this vulnerable before in my life."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Enablers".