Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blaming the Victim: Domestic Violence and the Codependency Model

The Codependency Model: An Overview

The early literature on women with alcoholic husbands outlined a predominantly negative view of these women. Such women were seen as neurotic, poor copers who were obsessed with controlling their husbands' drinking. They were seen to have partnered alcoholic men in order to satisfy their own pathological needs (Kalashian 1959; Whalen 1953). It was further asserted that some women would sabotage the drinker's attempts to abstain in order to continue meeting these needs (Futterman 1953). Edwards, Harvey & Whitehead (1973) termed such notions the disturbed personality theory. They criticised the lack of empirical support for such notions and cite a number of research findings which support the alternative view: that it is the stress created by the drinking which affects the partner's psychological functioning. Subsequent reviews cite further research supporting the stress model and refuting the disturbed personality model (Finney, Moos, Cronkite & Gamble 1983; Gomberg 1989; Watts, Bush & Wilson 1994; O'Farrell, Harrison & Cutter 1981).

When the term chemical dependent emerged as the new label for both alcoholics and drug addicts, the term codependent was coined to describe their partners (Beattie 1989; Bradshaw 1988; Cermak 1986; Mendenhall 1989; Rothberg 1986; Schaef 1986). Rothberg (1986) articulates the notion that problem drinkers and their partners develop complementary relationships in which each reinforces the pathological needs of the other. Such notions were developed from a crude and simplistic adaptation of systems theory incorporating aspects of the disturbed personality model which Edwards et al. (1973) had discredited more than ten years earlier.

Adults raised in families affected by parental problem drinking were also labelled codependents. It was argued that living in such a family results in the person learning the dysfunctional coping responses seen in the partners of alcoholics and developing a similar personality profile (Cermak 1986). The central theme of the vast literature on codependency is that all members of any family in which one member has a drinking problem are psychologically disturbed and in need of treatment. There is no doubt expressed by any of the proponents of the codependency model that there exists a distinct syndrome of maladjustive coping behaviours and that this can be observed within every family in which a drinking problem exists. Some writers are explicit in describing codependency as a personality disorder (for example, Cermak 1986) and others go so far as to describe it as a disease (for example, Schaef 1986; Young 1987).

The term has been further generalised to also refer to the partners of anyone with any form of major behaviour problem (excessive gamblers, violent and abusive men, workaholics, psychiatrically disturbed individuals, etc.) and to anyone who had grown up in a family affected by any major disturbance (Bradshaw 1988; Schaef 1986; Subby & Friel 1984).

Treatment programs for codependents have been developed and hundreds of self-help books on codependency have been published. Typically these books comprise discussions of the characteristics of the codependent person, disclosures of personal experience, case histories of codependents, explanations of why long-term therapy is seen to be required, and advice on self-change strategies. Such books sell extremely well and an entire industry has developed around them. Leading writers tour the world conducting workshops and seminars, therapists advertise that they provide treatment for codependency, and numerous support groups and family counselling services have developed programs based on the codependency model.

Such developments have all taken place in the absence of any research support for the model and the lack of an accepted formal definition for the proposed syndrome. A number of other criticisms of the model have also been raised:

*that the model is incorrect in asserting that there is a distinct coping pattern found among the partners of problem drinkers (Gierymski & Williams 1986; Gomberg 1989; Haaken 1990; Hands & Dear 1994).
* that the model is at odds with the research on family coping in that it promotes the notion that most family members adopt ineffective and pathological coping responses (Gomberg 1989; Haaken 1990; Hands & Dear 1994; Raven 1994; Watts et al. 1994).
* that the model is demeaning to women in that it describes socially sanctioned feminine role behaviours as evidence of personal inadequacy and dysfunction (Appel 1991; Haaken 1990; Hagan 1989; Hands & Dear 1994; Krestan & Bepko 1990).

Despite such stringent criticism, and the complete lack of any research support, the model continues to be widely used in the alcohol and other drug field. It is also becoming more common in other areas of the health and welfare arena, and continues to be a prominent concept in the personal growth industry.

- by Greg Dear

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