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Codependency And The Family System: Related Terms And Synonyms

The notion of codependency is predicated upon and encompasses earlier ideas about family functioning. These concepts have included the notions of family homeostasis, interlocking family pathology, the over-adequate/inadequate marital functioning, the one-up/one-down marital relationship, the marital quid pro quo, and marital complementarity. A brief discussion of these concepts will be helpful in clarifying and understanding the nature and scope of codependency.

Family homeostasis ( Jackson 1957) refers to the observation of significant changes in other family members in response to the behavior changes that take place in an identified patient undergoing some form of psychotherapy. For example, the mother of a boy in therapy for low self-esteem may not be entirely pleased by his recent success in winning an achievement award ( Jackson 1957). In such an instance, the mother may rely on her son's low self-image and neediness to enhance her own feelings of usefulness and self-esteem, in which case the mother's subtle discouraging behavior may serve to maintain the boy's problem of poor self-esteem rather than to improve it. Family therapists, who anticipate the family's interdependent needs, are generally prepared for such an upset in the mother in response to such desired gains in treatment by the identified patient (in this instance, her son with low self-esteem). The family, and its interaction patterns, is a homeostatic system that remains in a constant state of balance with respect to one another.

One reason for this homeostatic mechanism in family functioning is that people tend to seek out marital partners whose neurotic needs and emotional issues fit with their own. This observation, which has been termed also the interlocking pathology (Ackerman 1958) in family relationships, is based upon a psychodynamic view of the family. This perspective highlights the interdependence and reciprocal effects of disturbed behavior among the various members of a family, rather than focusing on the emotional distress or internal conflicts of a single family member who is seen exclusively as "the patient." Ackerman (1958) asserted that an individual's personality should be assessed not in isolation, but within the social and emotional context of the entire family group.

A codependent marital relationship has been termed by various family therapists as over-adequate versus inadequate functioning of each of the spouses (Bowen 1960). This configuration has been described similarly as a one-up versus one-down marital relationship (Haley 1963). One-up denotes a dominant position (i.e., the one who is "in charge") in the family hierarchy, while one-down denotes an inferior position (i.e., the one who is being "taken care of") in the power arrangements within the family (Simon, Stierlin, and Wynne 1985). Murray Bowen (1960) points out that these functional positions are, in actuality, only family "facades" rather than representative of the actual abilities of each of the spouses, each one appearing to occupy reciprocal positions in the family relative to the other. Thus, the over-adequate spouse presents a picture of an unrealistic facade of strength in the marriage. Likewise, the inadequate spouse presents a picture of helplessness in relation to the other. In actuality, spouses who have been married for any appreciable length of time usually have comparable emotional strength and maturity (Goldenberg and Goldenberg 1980). The codependent spouse, therefore, occupies the "appearance" of being over-adequate in relation to the inadequate position of the alcoholic spouse.

The above-noted ideas about family systems, upon which the popular concept of codependency is based, are clinical terms that have emerged from the field of family psychotherapy. As a result, code-pendency and its related concepts are a way of describing various kinds of family dysfunction or problem families in which there is some sort of mental health concern. However, degrees of psychopathology, or abnormal behavior, typically exist upon some continuum from the "severely pathological" (e.g., psychotic behavior or suicidality in a given family member) on one end versus relatively "normative social behavior" on the other, with various forms of human behavior falling somewhere in between these two poles. Thus, codependency as a dysfunctional form of family interaction is likely to fall on the pathological end of the continuum. However, this basic pattern of family behavior, in less extreme forms, can be seen in families at the normative end of the continuum, as well.

The concept of marital complementarity (Bateson 1972) has been used to describe dyadic (i.e., two-person) relationship patterns in which an individual's behavior and coping strategies differ from that of their spouse, but the two styles or patterns of behavior fit together in a dynamic equilibrium or active balance with one another (Simon, Stierlin, and Wynne 1985). In addition, the notion of complementary needs among potential spouses has been cited as an important factor in selecting a mate (Winch 1958). Likewise, Don D. Jackson (1965) has applied the legal term, quid pro quo, in the sphere of marriage to describe the type of "bargain," or complementarity, to which couples typically arrive in an agreement to marry. Literally translated from Latin as "something for something," marital quid pro quo implies that arrangements in the marriage generally function best over the long run if a suitable agreement that is genuinely collaborative in nature can be reached by the spouses. For example, to run relatively smoothly, agreements typically need to be made in the "division of family labor," which takes into account the sum total of the labor (both income-producing, as well as maintenance of home life) with sufficient fairness and acknowledgement of the contributions made by both. Only when this division of family functions becomes polarized and taken to the extreme (e.g., breadwinner versus homemaker roles), does such a quid pro quo risk rigidity, misunderstanding, and proneness to family pathology. Codependency is one such form of polarized marital role behavior (e.g., the "helper" versus the "sick" role) that signifies pathological complementarity and family dysfunction.

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