Book Review: Codependent No More

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Codependent No More


Author: Melody Beattie

Author’s web site:


Date: 1987


Publisher: Hazelden Foundation


ISBN: 0-89486-402-5


Length: 231 pages


Quote: “As an alcoholic and addict, I stormed through life, helping create other codependents.”


Melody Beattie entered the drug rehabilitation field as a peer counselor, and her book also reached success by what might have been considered the back door; it’s one of a very small number of privately published books that’s become a slow steady bestseller, even adding words and phrases to our language.


More than twenty years after the fact, we can see both good and bad results. On the good side, Codependent No More is a very realistic, down’n’dirty book written in street language. Addicts and alcoholics could understand this book; they could relate to it. The ones seriously interested in recovery could even use it. The family lives of addicts usually are messed up, often could benefit from this book, and often did.


On the bad side, as Beattie admits on page 29, “some therapists have proclaimed: ‘Codependency is anything, and everyone is codependent.’” People who wanted to sweep all the unpleasant feelings under the rug, rather than recognizing that unpleasant feelings are nature’s way of telling most of us we need to make changes, rushed to identify all unpleasantness as a form of codependency.


“You don’t need to persuade your neighbor to stop throwing his trash in your back yard! What you need is to stop feeling so ‘codependent’ about your neighbor’s choices! Either persuade yourself to enjoy having your neighbors’ trash in your back yard, or move!” was probably actually uttered by some therapist somewhere. Furniture movers, not to mention divorce lawyers, boarding schools for problem children, and all kinds of groups aimed at “helping” the newly homeless, made mucho dinero from the ever-expanding definition of codependency.


Beattie did not intend for her book to be used as an excuse for breaking commitments and ending relationships. Street language presupposes that listeners have a certain amount of “street sense,” which people who really wanted a counselling relationship to last for years did not necessarily have. From time to time Beattie reminds readers: “By ‘attachment,’ I don’t mean normal feelings of liking people, being concerned about problems, or feeling connected to the world” (page 52), “Detachment is not…shirking of our true responsibilities…severing of our relationships” (page 55); “Detaching…means we learn to love, care, and be involved without going crazy” (page 57), and so on throughout the book.


However, the genuinely codependent personality tends to seek out ways to identify with others, often by projecting its own struggles onto others. Many of us first heard of Codependent No More, and its special vocabulary, through acquaintances whose therapy and recovery processes were obviously incomplete. One example of a person who was harmed by misusing the ideas in this book happens to be the last person who asked me for financial help (which I’m not able to give) before I wrote the first draft of this article, and since her situation annoys me I will tell her story anonymously here.


This was the church lady, age 61 at the beginning of this story, whose 63-year-old husband developed a slowly disabling disease. During the years when he was adjusting to life without certain physical abilities, he didn’t want to attend church or to be left alone at home while his wife went to church. Pastors and religious teachers I respect (e.g. Charles Swindoll) would have told this lady to spend as much time as possible at home with her husband, get other relatives whom he trusted to stay with him when she needed a break, and possibly retrain others in the “church family” so that the disabled gentleman would not feel too uncomfortable to attend an occasional service too.


This church, however, prided itself on keeping in touch with the latest medical and psychological news. I don’t know how many of the other church ladies were in fact codependent, and how many had just read Codependent No More as a nonfiction bestseller…anyway, they told our friend, “He’s ‘dependent’ on you, and you don’t want to be ‘codependent’! Isn’t it time you thought about yourself after all these years? He needs to be alone! You still look and feel so much younger than he is, you really seem to belong to a different generation! Come to church three times a week, be in every social group in town, and you really ought to get a job and not depend on his pension! If he keeps making you feel guilty about leaving him alone at home, divorce him!”


Well, she was youthful and energetic for age 61. She got a job. And a divorce. And lots of attention from other men, some only in their forties. But she didn’t find another man she wanted to live with. She renounced all claim on her husband’s pension, feeling that she could make more money on her own as a private nurse. She didn’t seem to imagine that (a) geriatric nursing jobs are by nature temporary, and (b) a 60-year-old who looks 40 can still become an 80-year-old who looks 75. Age crept up on her, and she found herself unemployed before she’d paid enough into Social Security even to meet her mortgage payments—never mind food, utilities, or transportation. She has had to seek handouts from churches, social groups, friends, neighbors, family, and Social Services to survive. She still expresses love for her late ex-husband, too…her own plight became dire just a few years after he died.


Why does this situation annoy me? Because I see an unhelpful trend of people being urged to feel an excessive degree of pseudo-independence from their families by way of a genuine, harmful dependence on an overburdened Welfare State. Emotional detachment from someone’s disease process must never be confused with destroying the family relationships on which people need to rely. It is unlikely that one person in a thousand will be able to retire “independently,” even via Social Security, after working only ten years. The false counsellors who encouraged this woman to give up a pension for which she would have been qualified, on which she could have lived well, in order to achieve “independent” destitution fifteen years later, deserve to be held responsible for her current financial need.


Many of us could tell other stories about how much harm the inappropriate use of quotations from Codependent No More have done; I could tell others besides this one. So it’s almost surprising to refer back to the original book and remember that, when used as Beattie intended—to help people catch their emotional breath while encouraging friends, relatives, or spouses to stay in the painful recovery process—it was helpful. Perhaps it should have been packaged with stronger warnings, such as “If the other person’s behavior that is upsetting you has been addressed in a court of law, you may have a mood disorder and/or a codependent personality, but codependency is not the primary problem in your relationship.”


Nevertheless, Codependent No More is warmly recommended to anyone who is still beating self over the head with thoughts like “If I’d been a better friend (or family member), s/he wouldn’t have felt so bad and gone back to the drug.” (If it were written today, the book could cite documentation of how withdrawal from certain drugs can be a long slow process in which, after six weeks or six months of sobriety, the addict feels unbearable pain and depression, which can cause backsliding no matter how supportive other people are.) Used carefully, as the author intended, it can help you continue to be a good, faithful friend, family member, or recovery buddy to this person.

This book has been so successful, and Beattie is so famous, that she’s had to post anti-codependent-type messages on her web page. “Use the forums” indeed–I doubt very much that a question about “Would the author like to comment on this review?” has been addressed in the forums. But she’s as busy as she wants to be. I’m glad for her. Anyway, Codependent No More is a Fair Trade Book: $5 per copy + $5 per package, of which Beattie or a charity of her choice will receive $1; if you want four copies, you send $25 to the address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, and Beattie or her charity will get $4.

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