Does the old label of codependency have validity today with the new information we have about how personalities navigate relationships? Discover the new findings.

In her book Codependent No More, Melody Beattie talks about the codependent roles of people in unhealthy relationships. Her conclusions grew out of work with alcoholic couples and families. In her 1992 updated book, she defines a codependent person as “…one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” Does her label and viewpoint hold up today? What new have we discovered about relating since the publication of her original book?

 My colleague, Homer B. Martin MD, and I studied psychologically pathological relationships for eighty years. Our new findings about dependent and overly strong people are in our book, Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships. We discovered people respond automatically and emotionally to one another based on how they were emotionally conditioned in childhood by their parents.

Defining a Dependent Role, Impotent Person

A dependent person is one who is helpless in the way he views himself or herself. He or she depends on others to be and do what he believes he cannot. This applies to men equally with women. There is no gender distinction in this role.

We call this the impotent role. This role includes people who feel inept and inert in doing for others and themselves. Such people become good at depending on or relying on other people to do and care for them.

Can Dependent People Carry Out a Relationship Together?

Two dependent people in a relationship would both act needy and helpless. Who would be the “dependee” in the relationship, the one who is depended upon? Who would be the dependable, strong one, who takes care of the helpless one? Neither one would fulfill this role in the relationship.

A strong, or “dependable,” person has to be the other person in such a relationship for the relationship to gain traction. One of each role is required––dependent and dependee. I refer to one person as the dependee because the other person is the “dependent” one. For the relationship to work––even poorly––one dependent, or weak helpless person, must have a dependee or strong person to carry out their emotionally conditioned roles of being helpless and being helpful.

Relationships Form by People in Opposite Roles

Dr. Martin and I discovered people cannot be in codependent relationships. Both people cannot be in dependent roles. Commonly a relationship has one dependent person and another person to act as dependee or controller for the dependent person. Thus, dyads form in marriages and romantic relationships of “dependee-dependent” roles, one person of each emotionally conditioned role or personality.

Melody Beattie observed astutely the symbiotic dance in relationships between two opposite types of people. But she confused the picture with her choice of the codependency label. We have since found that Beattie’s codependent people are strong, dependable dependees, who care for weaker role people, who are dependent. Codependents are not two “dependent” people at all, as her labels implies.