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Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) is a fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healthy relationships. CoDA is modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) using the same twelve steps as AA with the substitution on one word in the first step, "We admitted we were powerless over others" (not alcohol) "-- that our lives had become unmanageable." It was founded in 1986 by Ken and Mary, long term members of AA in Phoenix, Arizona, who felt a need for an AA-type fellowship to cope with their codependent behaviors.
After AA was founded in 1935, similar groups were formed to address other forms of chemical addiction, Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA) etc. More groups formed, at first addressing the family effects of chemical addiction: Al-Anon, AlaTeen. Then they were joined by Gamblers Anonymous (GA), Debtors Anonymous (DA) etc., addressing what came to be called process addiction. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) formed in 1979 preceded CoDA in adding a more therapeutic and family systems orientation, by acknowledging past trauma as sources of present struggles.
In doing this, ACoA (now called Adult Children Anonymous, ACA) departed fundamentally from AA’s goal of returning the alcoholic to conformity with familial and societal norms. ACoA initially served the offspring of what has been called the Alcoholic Family in family therapy, and members as co-alcoholics. But the patterns of perfectionism, people-pleasing, rescuing and low self-esteem were recognized by many from families without significant alcohol or other substance involvement. These patterns came to be labeled codependency.
AA, Al-Anon and even, at the time, ACoA, because of their focus on substance use, present or past, did not provide congenial enough support to those wanting to focus on their codependency. This experience by Ken and Mary (last names retained for sake of anonymity) at AA meetings and by Ken’s therapy clients attending Al-Anon and ACoA meetings, convinced them to initiate a new Twelve Step fellowship, Codependents Anonymous.
The first CoDA meeting attended by 30 people was held October 22, 1986. Within four weeks there were 100 people and before the year was up there were 120 groups. CoDA held its first National Service Conference the next year with 29 representatives from seven states. By the time of her writing, probably in the mid-1990s, sociologist Leslie Irvine could report nearly four thousand meetings in the United States alone.
The timing was right for such explosive growth. The expansion of the meaning of codependency was happening very publicly. Janet Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics had come out in 1983 and sold two million copies while being on the New York Times best seller list for forty-eight weeks. Then Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much, 1985, sold two and a half million copies and spawned Twelve Step groups across the country for women “addicted” to men. Then, the same year of CoDA’s founding, Melodie Beattie’s Codependent No More came on the market, eventually selling eight million copies and being translated into multiple languages.
CoDA has shrunk in size from the heady early days but has stabilized at about a thousand meetings in the US and another thousand or so in about 60 countries, all searchable on an interactive database Six other countries maintain their own databases. There are also 37 online and phone meetings stationed in the US and overseas.
The understanding of codependence has continued to evolve within CoDA while definitions have been avoided. The organization has instead assembled The Patterns and Characteristics of Codependence provided by members and periodically revised or expanded. At the 2010 CoDA Service Conference (CSC), this list went from 22 items in four Patterns termed Denial, Low Self-Esteem, Compliance and Control, to 55 items divided into the same groups with the addition of Avoidance Patterns. Here are examples of each of the Patterns: . “I have difficulty identifying what I am feeling…. I judge what I think, say or do harshly, as never good enough…. I put aside my own interests in order to do what others want…. I freely offer advice and direction to others without being asked… I use indirect or evasive communication to avoid conflict or confrontation”.
It is difficult to determine the effectiveness of twelve step programs for addicts, so it becomes even more difficult to objectively determine the effectiveness of Co-dependents Anonymous. Relationship satisfaction, unlike alcohol or drug abuse, is an internal fact, not externally measurable. This is a common conundrum not only for twelve-step groups but for mental health practice generally. The only measures are subjective, accessible through the testimony of the individual, or evidenced by clinical assessment of behavior thought to be associated with the internal state. A search of Highbeam Research's 1080 academic journals in October, 2011 using the term Co-Dependents Anonymous turned up not one article focused on the fellowship.
Even anecdotal data is problematic since there is no way to compare the experience of those who stay with the program to those who do not stay. The only evidence we have is that CoDA meetings have continued to be held, week after week, for a quarter century for those who respond to its promise of improved relationships.