Codependence doesn’t make the grade as a psychiatric disorder for many reasons. For one, there’s no accepted way to measure it. Other diagnoses better integrate personality traits like being controlling and overly self-sacrificing that are sometimes ascribed to codependency. Moreover, feminists have long noted that the idea itself maligns caring — and by extension, women — by blaming people for their partners’ addiction and failing to recognize that women may “enable” their partners because they need their economic support.
Parents have even described being labeled sick because they refused to leave their kids homeless or have them arrested, even though both situations can worsen addiction. When someone is ill with any other disorder, relatives are not shamed for obsessively caring or rearranging their lives to help. Instead, those who abandon suffering loved ones are stigmatized. But when it comes to addiction, parents are told that their loving kindness is pathological because they somehow benefit psychologically from keeping their children addicted. Only letting them hit rock bottom will allow recovery, the thinking goes.
When one woman, Susan Ousterman, tried to comfort her son by sending him care packages in rehab, she was told by addiction counselors and others that she was “going to love him to death.” Detach and let him hit bottom, she said they insisted. Her son, Tyler Cordeiro, died of an opioid overdose in 2020 at age 24.
“The tough love narrative taught to parents was absolutely a factor in his death,” she said, describing how being rejected by his family left him hopeless and demoralized. These days, she spends her time advising other parents to think differently.
Policymakers and professionals would do well to follow her lead. Research does not support the idea that families of people with addiction have a unique syndrome that drives them to enable it. Worse, concern about enabling is frequently used to bolster counterproductive tactics like arrest and incarceration and stymie compassionate, proven harm-reduction strategies like medication treatment and syringe service programs.
Even the idea of “enabling” is poorly defined. Haranguing people to quit is viewed as enabling, because it sustains a dysfunctional cycle: He nags, so she drinks; she drinks, so he nags. But being supportive, particularly financially, is also suspect because it might prevent someone from “bottoming out.” The only way codependent people can be sure they aren’t enabling is by leaving, proponents argue.