Thursday, July 12, 2007

Codependence. No More!

I recently listened to a Mars Hill Audio Conversation called Self, Society, and the Diagnosis of Addiction in which Ken Myers spoke with sociologist John Steadman Rice (author of A Disease of One's Own: Psychotherapy, Addiction, and the Emergence of Co-Dependency) about the concept of codependency. Rice maintains that codependency is not an objectively existing condition like a disease but rather a discourse that people adopt in order to make sense of their lives, particularly to describe the relationship between the self and society. Codependency, then, is not something that people have but is rather a conceptual framework that people choose in order to account for intra- and interpersonal problems.

Rice went on to describe how widespread the concept of codependency has become and how its definition has broadened since its origin in recovery groups such as Al-Anon. Melody Beattie, perhaps codependency's greatest popularizer, offers the following definition of a codependent person in her Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself:

A codependent person is one who has let another person's behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behavior (Hazelden, 1986, p. 36).
Beattie continues by listing a variety of ways that codependency manifests itself including obsessive helping, caretaking, low self-worth bordering on self-hatred, self-repression, excessive anger and guilt, and focus on others to the abandonment of one's self. Incidentally, to give you an idea of how influential a voice Beattie's is, Codependent No More, originally published in 1986, had sold more than six million copies by the summer of 2001 and, according to Rice, enjoyed a 152-week stint on Publisher Weekly's bestseller list. Beattie's own site boasts that an average of 15,000 people per month are purchasing copies.

Rice believes (I think with good reason) that the train of thought espoused by Beattie and another noted advocate of codependency theory, John Bradshaw (whose seminars you may have caught on public television), is dependent upon the thinking of Abraham Maslow (whose influence on Christian thought I blogged about here) and Carl Rogers whom Rice refers to as "liberation psychotherapists." Maslow, Rogers, and the contemporary heralds of codependency theory share two foundational assumptions. The first is that human nature is intrinsically either benign or benevolent. The second is that psychological and relational problems are the products of repression of the true self by external, familial and/or societal forces. Since the true self is at least morally neutral and at best predisposed to kindness, then any corruption of the self must be the result of its having been stifled by others. Referring to Beattie's description of the codependent person, the tendency to be obsessed with controlling others' behavior is not due to any intrinsic moral flaw in human nature but is rather the consequence of repression of the authentic self. The remedy to such repression is the pursuit of autonomy, liberation from the constraints of norms, expectations, and moral judgments that come from external sources.

It always disturbed me to find that Beattie's book was carried by so many Christian booksellers since there is nothing Christian about her diagnosis of or prescribed remedy for the phenomena to which she attaches the label "codependency." There are some scattered references to the Bible and "God" in Codependent No More but by no means are the Scriptures functionally authoritative in Beattie's framing of the issues. On the two pages in which Jesus is mentioned, there is nothing said about his redemptive mission. Instead, he serves as a spokesman for codependence theory. Commenting on Jesus' response to Martha that her sister Mary had made a better decision by sitting and listening to him (Luke 10: 38-42), Beattie writes:
His message might be that Mary made the right choice because it's more important to enjoy people than it is to cook and clean. But I also believe there's a message here about taking responsibility for our own choices, doing what we want to be doing, and realizing how we become angry when we don't. Maybe Mary's choice was right because she acted as she wanted to. (Hazelden, 1986, pp. 92-93)
In her more recent work, Finding Your Way Home: A Soul Survival Kit, Beattie claims that she considers herself "a member of the Christian faith," but it's obvious that she does not regard the Bible as any more authoritative or divinely inspired than any other religious text. In a section in which she advises readers to feed their faith, she states that she is comforted by reading the Torah and the Koran "in addition to the Bible." Never mind the fact that Christians consider the Torah to be part of the Christian Scriptures. Beattie claims that the holy books are "powerful texts" and advises readers not to worry if they don't understand them with their conscious minds because:
These books are deeply encoded with messages that will activate time capsules of faith in our Super Consciousness. The holy books speak the language of the soul (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, p. 193).
Earlier in the book, on the same page on which she approvingly cites The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, Beattie's religious relativism is undeniable:
Whether you subscribe to the tenets of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Bahai, Hinduism or any other religion, the common ingredient is faith. It is the unseen force that strings together this thing called life. It makes religion work. It makes life work. It opens the door to miracles" (p. 190)
Beattie's popularity is due, in part, to the fact that she addresses attitudes and behaviors that are virtually universal. Who can't find him or herself somewhere in her sweeping definition of a codependent? Which of us doesn't let the behavior of others affect us and which of us can honestly claim that we do not sometimes try to manipulate the people in our lives so as to have them respond to us in desirable ways? Beattie has astutely observed how sinners act but her view of human nature as intrinsically pristine leads to her being greatly mistaken about the why and consequently about the resolution. As Ed Welch notes in When People Are Big and God is Small:
She obviously hit on a topic that was important to many people, yet it was basically the fear of man in a secular garment. Melody Beattie talked about the problem in terms of being controlled by or dependent on other people, and her prescription was to love yourself more (P & R, 1997, p. 18).
Beattie's solution is a conglomerate of humanistic pop psychology and New Age mysticism. Nevertheless, she is frequently presented to the Christian community as a trustworthy guide to help them interpret and resolve their problems. Consider, for example, that four of her titles, including the two mentioned above, are sold by (CBD) with three of them (at least at the time of this writing) listed as being on the top of their bestseller list.


jc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jc said...

Wow, KP. That Mars Hill conversation is so old, it's only on cassette tape!

It's interesting to learn about the lenses people construct to view their world and interpret their experiences.

KP said...

I was fortunate to be able to purchase an mp3 version a few weeks ago but I'm pretty sure it was a limited offer.

Matthew Anderson said...


Quick question.

You wrote: "Referring to Beattie's description of the codependent person, the tendency to be obsessed with controlling others' behavior is not due to any intrinsic moral flaw in human nature but is rather the consequence of repression of the authentic self. The remedy to such repression is the pursuit of autonomy, liberation from the constraints of norms, expectations, and moral judgments that come from external sources."

Do you really mean intrinsic in that sentence? It seems Beattie's theory (from your description) might be saved by distinguishing between our intrinsic human nature--which is good--and post-lapsarian human nature (similar to the distinction in "nature" that Calvin makes in the Institutes). Sin, then, isn't "intrinsic" but rather a perversion of our "real selves." What do you make of that characterization?

KP said...

Hi, Matthew. Thanks for the question which gives me an opportunity to make a necessary clarification. No, I didn't mean to say that human nature per se is intrinsically sinful in the sense of being essentially so. That would certainly lack biblical support. You're right to distinguish between human nature prior to and following the fall. Perhaps "internal" would have been a better choice of words. My intent was to illustrate how Beattie has no comparable category for a morally corrupt heart in her scheme.

Thanks again for reading and interacting.

amanda said...

Those ARE disturbing quotes. And yet God used Codependent No More to free me from what was not simply a bad case of selflessness, but a terrible prison of reasoning and poor coping skills I had developed over years of traumatic childhood experiences.
I came to call it my 'code.'
Long story short, short of money for counseling I prayed desperately for God to show me what was so wrong.
I was saved. I knew Christ intimately. But I was paralyzed.
I could explain everything but it would take a long time.
Codependency is real. And it nearly killed me. It wasn't simple spoiledness or selfishness.

Codependent No More was the key.

It is probably significant that I purchased the book from a secular store and from the beginning tempered it with scripture. I knew that this was not gospel, but I saw some truth in the logic and the explanations she gave.

I wish that in the Christian community there was a better understanding of Codependency. It is NOT just sacrifice and selflessness. Codependency makes sacrifice and selflessness the ultimate security instead of Christ, His calling, His service, His glory.

I just wanted to throw that out there... said...

Codependancy is idolatry. A lack of proper love for self and others, and a means of self protection. Although I have successfully used the book, I was shocked as I read other books she published. I don't agree that she practices Christianity, however God can use what is in her book for our good if we ask Him to guide us into all truth. I caution others to consider her work biblically because she seems to have embraced other religion.

Janet Cho said...