While browsing around the stacks, I saw a spine labeled Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. I thought, Oh great, another one of those intentionally outrageous titles trying to over-hype how sexually active girls are these days, when they'd rather diddle their phone than flirt with boys.
But then "1980s" caught my attention on the first page, referring to how common it was then for adolescents to have divorced parents. Oh OK, this is going to be a look back at a time when sluts and nymphos could still be found stalking the high school hallways. I read the first chapter of about 10 pages and flipped through parts of the rest.
The takeaway is that giving herself over to an endless series of interchangeable guys, whether she truly desired them or not, and rarely enjoying a moment of pause where she wasn't pursuing or hooking up with some guy, came from her need for attention, fear of being alone, and wanting to be taken care of emotionally by someone more effectual, in order to alleviate an ever present gnawing anxiety about being left to fend for herself in an uncaring world. She is a textbook case of codependency.
That's not the kind of personality we'd like to see in our daughters, and such behavior would worry us if she were our friend. Still, these extreme cases are useful to infer how approaching vs. cocooning the general population is. The farther we are toward the approaching and self-denying side, the higher the fraction who will exceed the threshold of codependence. The farther toward the cocooning and self-focused side, the lower the fraction.
Looking at how this fraction grows or shrinks therefore tells us where the entire population is moving toward. In times when the fraction is higher, it doesn't mean the average person is way off in the codependent extreme -- that's a hysterical exaggeration of the same type that says Thank God we're out of those highly homicidal 1980s, as though we all fought off murderers every time we stepped out the door. Rather, it means that the average person was simply more approaching toward others, and was more willing to set aside their personal wants in order to satisfy those of others.
Unfortunately, public surveys don't ask these kinds of questions, let alone over a long time span. However, let's take a look at how common the term "codependency" has been in Google's digitized library of books (Ngram):
You can't tell because of the scale, but there are sporadic hits in the 1960s and '70s, before it soars during the '80s and early '90s. When you un-smooth the curve, the peak year is 1992. And it's come crashing down over the last 20 years. The same pattern shows up no matter what variation on the term you choose.
That fits with the publication of the most popular books on the topic. If you google "codepen..." it will suggest the title of the mega-selling self-help book, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. Two others by the author on the same topic appear in the suggestions at Amazon. All were published between 1986 and 1990, foreshadowing the reversal of the phenomenon starting in the mid-'90s.
What has replaced the needy, clingy codependent since then? Their opposite: the dismissive avoidant type. In the framework of attachment theory, the clingy type has a view of others that is positive -- others are effectual and deserving of support -- and a view of self that is negative -- ineffectual and unlovable. The dismissive type is their inversion -- others are incapable and worthless, while I'm so awesome at what I do, and you'd have to be delusional not to love me.
We would like for everybody to be within the healthy, normal range of personality and behavior, but in real life those traits are distributed in a bell-shaped curve, so that we're always going to have some kind of extreme cases with us. The open question is -- what type of extreme will they be? I don't know about you, but I'd rather go to school, work, and bed with someone who was needy and self-effacing rather than a dismissive egomaniac.