November 15, 2013

Codependency as a sign of anti-cocooning

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.


  1. Just last year I was talking to a girl who mentioned her codependency. I argued that I'd like to see a little codependency in a woman. She gave me extreme cases in which I agreed it was unhealthy, but I always wanted a woman to kinda depend on me and lean on me. At this point I shouldn't be shocked we also agree on this!

    That relationship never went anywhere, but it was interesting to get another's opinion. She is 29, like me. I suppose you could say I'm a bit turned off by the "grrl power", really independent types. And I think they might not be as attracted to me as well! Although I can find a couple cases to the contrary.

  2. My boss is 49 years old. That would make him 23 in 1987. The amount of sweaty upper lip codependency he expresses is gross. Every day its "we should do this, right?" Or "that sounded good, right?" Or "You want to do this, right?"

    Its like a sperg constantly asking a woman each step of the way, "you like me right?" "Do you like to kiss?" "You would like to go home with me right?"

    Codependency is simply not masculine.

  3. "Codependency is simply not masculine."

    You're right, but at the same time, somebody is going to have to submit for anything to get done. (Though I agree, it shouldn't be the boss). Agnostic has written how Millenials have problems making friends with each other. I guess part of the reason is that nobody is willing to become codependent.


  4. Maybe not full-blown co-dependent, but at least willing to, some of the time, let someone else call the shots.


  5. For instance, most soldiers are trained to be codependent towards their superiors. Yet nobody would say they weren't masculine.


  6. "Codependency is simply not masculine."

    Right, but for the same reason it wasn't very common among men in the old days. It primarily affects women.

    It was only that handful of guys who would have had no trouble playing the "sensitive guy" part in an '80s teen / young adult movie, who listened to The Smiths, etc.

    The childishness of today's dismissive avoidants is more widespread and noxious.

  7. "I suppose you could say I'm a bit turned off by the "grrl power", really independent types."

    At the time I couldn't put my finger on why, but I never liked those girls either. Now I see that they weren't about "girl power" in a collective or communal sense, but about cocooning -- let's each of us girls isolate herself from the boys.

    We'll periodically check in with each other, give lip service support from a distance, etc., but not really be open to one another or depend on one another. We have to stand strong on our own.

    All that talk about sisterhood was really about isolation and hibernation.

  8. "For instance, most soldiers are trained to be codependent towards their superiors. Yet nobody would say they weren't masculine."

    well, codependent is the wrong word in teh this case. but, the point is that, in more dangerous(high crime) times, people have to be more willing to depend on others if they want to survive.



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