Academic journal article Family Relations

The Self-Perception of Women Who Live with an Alcoholic Partner: Dialoging with Deviance, Strength, and Self-Fulfillment*

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Self-Perception of Women Who Live with an Alcoholic Partner: Dialoging with Deviance, Strength, and Self-Fulfillment*

Article excerpt


The purpose of the present study was to learn about the self-perception of women who live with alcohol-addicted partners. It was hoped that avoiding to label the women in advance as codependent would facilitate a better understanding of their lives and self-perceptions. The qualitative naturalist methodology used was based on a feminist framework. In-depth interviews with 10 women living with alcoholic partners were conducted and analyzed. The findings revealed 3 central dialogues around which the women's self-perceptions evolved-with deviance, with strength, and with self-fulfillment. Findings are discussed relative to the ongoing discourse between the codependency approach and other social, psychological, and gender conceptions in this domain. Clinical implications and directions for future research are offered.

Key Words: addiction, alcoholism, codependency, feminism, wives of alcoholics.

Life with an addicted partner is demanding and difficult and often requires professional support. For the past 20 years, a dominant approach for intervening with the partners of alcoholic men has been based on the theory of codependency, which holds that the women share their partners' illness (Asher, 1992; Babcock & McKay, 1995; Byrne, Edmundson, & Rankin, 2006). In recent years, there has been a growing, mainly feminist, critique of the use of the codependency approach. In response to this critique, we sought to study the self-perception of women who live with alcoholic partners, without labeling them in advance as codependent, in the hope that this would shed new light on their lives and on ways of helping them.

The Codependency Perspective

Early works on the partners of alcoholics were guided mainly by the psychodynamic approach and depicted them as suffering from a disturbed personality or an emotional disorder that not only caused them to choose problematic partners but also contributed to the partners' continuing addiction (e.g., Edwards, Harvey, & Whitehead, 1973; Futterman, 1953; Whalen, 1953). The systems theory approach to the phenomenon of addiction, which was consolidated during the 1970s, also attributed some of the responsibility for the man's addiction to his female partner. According to the systemic view of the "alcoholic family," the addiction is not only a problem of the addicted individual but a symptom of a "familial illness" arising from dysfunctional family relations around which the family life becomes organized (Stanton & Todd, 1982; Steinglass, 1987; Usher, Jay, & Glass, 1982). The addict, defined as "the family problem," is shunted aside and his functions are reduced, whereas his partner plays a complementary part of a "rescuer," a "problem solver," or a "martyr" (Bepko & Krestan, 1985). Focusing attention on the contribution of the female partner to the alcoholic's addiction laid the groundwork for the development of the concept of codependency.

Practitioners and researchers alike view the wives of addicts as "codependents"-women who are focused on and constantly preoccupied with the alcoholic's behavior and the affirmation by other people, as means of attaining security, self-esteem, and identity (Beattie, 1987; Subby & Friel, 1984). According to this viewpoint, although the male partner may be addicted to alcohol, his spouse becomes addicted to the obsessive preoccupation with drinking and the attempts to control it. This process may go so far as to take on the symptoms of a physical or mental illness. The woman's behavior patterns of addiction persist independently from the alcoholism, and she might be unable to stop her nonfunctional behavior even when her partner has overcome his addiction (Cappell-Sowder, 1984; Gorski & Miller, 1984; Schaef, 1986). The concept of codependency has become so widespread and influential, particularly in the United States, that some regard it as a social movement sustained by profitable business (Collins, 1993; Messner, 1996). …

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