The Role of Codependency in Addiction

Codependence is sometimes described as an addiction to another person, rather than a substance. When substance abuse develops into addiction, even the closest interpersonal relationships erode. It can be very difficult for someone suffering from addiction to build and maintain healthy relationships — as a result, codependence and addiction often occur together.

It’s often difficult to determine which one came first, as each disorder perpetuates the other. A clearer understanding of the root causes of both addiction and codependence can make it easier to see when it’s time to seek help.

Table of Contents

  1. How Codependence Developed
  2. Codependence and Addiction
  3. Codependent Relationships and Addiction
  4. Are You Codependent?
  5. Safe Ways to Help Your Addicted Partner
  6. Recovery Begins at Tranquil Shores

How Codependence Developed

In the early days of addiction treatment, a certain behavioral pattern emerged that led to the discovery of codependence. While alcoholics were treated by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), their spouses sought support with other partners of alcoholics in Al-Anon, a non-therapeutic peer group. This treatment paradigm eventually revealed that the spouses of alcoholics shared some common traits, and that the relationship between alcoholics and their spouses can affect their recovery.

In many cases, people who are married to alcoholics “need” their spouses to be addicted. You might derive a sense of purpose and self-worth from caring for them in their addicted state. Taking on the role of comforter, and working to make everything okay when your spouse gets drunk or acts inappropriately, can make you feel important. Your caretaking ways allow your alcoholic spouse to ignore their problem and continue in their addiction.

The term “codependent” was eventually coined to describe the mutual dependence an addict and his or her spouse had on each other’s dysfunction. The alcoholic was considered the primary dysfunctional party, and the codependent was the supporter, who presumably developed his or her issue as a result of the alcoholic’s influence.

Our understanding of the dynamics of codependent relationships has evolved over the years, and now focuses more on a balance between the two roles. Both an addict and a codependent are now seen as equal members of a codependent relationship, and the term “codependent” has expanded to include different types of relationships.

Codependence is a condition marked by the forfeiture of one’s power to choose and decide what’s right for her. Codependents tend to be people-pleasers who put their relationship with someone else above their own interests, often to the detriment of both parties.

Codependents tend to enable addicts because, subconsciously, they believe they need that addict to remain sick. Their existence thrives on the conflict and turmoil created by a relationship with an addict. On the other hand, addicts need codependents to continually justify their addiction. Codependents and addicts are attracted to each other and toxic for each other at the same time.

Codependence and Addiction

Adding to the confusing relationship between these two diseases is the fact that they can exist in one person. Recovering addicts often find that codependency is one of their underlying issues. Substance abuse and dependency lead to guilt and shame — two emotions that can also lead to codependency.

Most emotions fade in time — unless you avoid them or try to hide from them. Shame, especially, can be a very destructive emotion if it persists. It can compound and create thought patterns that ultimately move you to behave in ways that are harmful to yourself. Shame can manifest in beliefs such as:

– I am not a good person.

– I am uniquely flawed.

– I’m the failure my mother always warned be I’d become.

– I am not genuine.

– I haven’t earned any happiness.

– I don’t matter.

– No one loves me because I’m unlovable.

Shame is a deeply destructive emotion that creates fear and anxiety. People who experience extreme shame can end up sabotaging themselves in their relationships and even at work.

They can be afraid to say what they mean, because they have little or no confidence in their own opinions and beliefs. They can blame others rather than taking responsibility for mistakes, while at the same time apologizing for everything to avoid any possible confrontation. Shame can lead to addiction as you strive to hide from yourself. It also leads to:

– People-pleasing

– Guilt

– Low self-esteem

– Perfectionism

– Dysfunctional communication

– Control

Along with addiction, a person could also suffer from codependence. The two conditions can become entwined in an unhealthy cycle of behavior that’s rooted in some destructive thought patterns. In addition, the addiction scenario could include another person who’s codependent and adds another layer of entanglement to the mix.

Codependent Relationships and Addiction

Where there’s someone suffering from addiction, you can usually find a codependent, as well. It’s important to first recognize that no one is responsible for an addict’s behavior except himself. Being codependent does not mean you caused someone else’s addiction. In fact, if you’re codependent, you have your own set of behavioral concerns to focus on.

Recognizing codependency in a relationship can be very helpful in overcoming addiction. Similar to other co-occurring conditions, like addiction and depression, codependency and addiction need to be treated simultaneously to restore a healthy relationship. Here are some signs of codependency to watch out for:

– Controlling with words or deeds

– Highly emotional reactions

– Desiring to please others

– Needing to fix someone else’s life

– Weak or non-existent sense of boundaries

– Perfectionism

– Always taking the blame

In a relationship with someone suffering from addiction, a codependent can appear to be loving and helpful. You help the addict hide their behaviors from themselves and others by making excuses or perpetuating the lies they tell to cover up their actions. You clean up after them to be sure they’re never confronted in the morning with the mess they created the night before.

You might even accept tired apologies from an addict even when you know they’ll repeat the same offenses again.

From there, addictions escalate to more serious behavior. It is likely that an addict might lose his job, get arrested, spend the family’s savings on drugs or face lawsuits for his behavior. If you were in a relationship with someone suffering from addiction and their behavior got to this level, you might draw the line and try to separate yourself from them.

This is much more difficult in a codependent relationship, however. In that case, you might continue to support them to try to solve these problems, even if, at the same time, you were telling them they need to get help for their addiction.

The difference in many cases comes down to one’s self-esteem. With low self-esteem, you’re more likely to take the codependent approach and try to make everything okay. You might not have the strength to hold your addicted partner responsible for his own actions. Instead, you crave his approval so badly that your main goal is to show him you support him, no matter what he does.

In extreme cases of codependence, the struggle to support an addict might feel ennobling. You might derive some increased sense of self-worth from your ability to persevere, however imperfectly. When you’re able to keep life moving forward, despite the turmoil bubbling just below the surface, you may feel important and useful for the first time in your life.

That is the point at which codependence and addiction begin a very dangerous entanglement. Any improvement in the behavior of the addict would mean lowering the self-esteem of the codependent. You need them to remain sick — your sense of self-worth depends on it. Subconsciously, you may even try to sabotage his recovery.

If you’re suffering from addiction, being in a codependent relationship can jeopardize your recovery. Although your partner is well-meaning and loving, their subconscious need for you to continue your addiction may make it impossible for you to overcome it.

It can be especially hard to walk away from a codependent relationship when you’re suffering from addiction. Despite everything in your life that is going wrong because of your drug use, your codependent partner is right there by your side. They’ll always makes you feel better about yourself, even when you know you’re not doing very well.

If you’re serious about your recovery from addiction, though, the codependent relationship has to change. Your codependent partner needs to get treatment if you’re to remain together. Addiction is a life and death situation, and you cannot let anything come between you and your goal to survive and thrive.

A codependent partner, in some ways, is part of the addiction. The codependence can be treated with your addiction if both partners are willing to work together. Without a cooperative effort to overcome both the addiction and the codependence, your relationship will likely never be a healthy one.

Are You Codependent?

If you’re in a relationship with someone suffering from addiction, there’s a high probability you’re codependent. When you love someone, it can be hard to separate your desire to help and take care of him with his own responsibility to care for himself. Addiction doesn’t affect just one person, and it may erode your self-esteem over time.

Your partner does not have to be an addict for you to be suffering with codependency. You may have brought these traits into the relationship from an earlier life experience, or there could be some codependent or addictive traits in your partner that have not been identified yet. The presence of a diagnosed addiction in the relationship is not the only sign of codependence. Here are some others:

– Your partner provides the only happiness in your life, and you feel you’re not truly happy unless your partner is with you. You can’t imagine not having them in your life.

– You blame your partner when you’re unhappy. When you feel sad, you believe it’s your partner’s fault. If they didn’t say or do things that made you unhappy, life would be great.

– You’re waiting to be rescued. You expect your partner to make you feel better when you’re sad, or to save you when you feel overwhelmed by life. He’s the only one who can change your mood, and it’s his job to do so.

– You take care of your partner. You’re a combination wife, mother, housekeeper and confidante. You tend to his needs before he realizes he has needs, and you make everything okay in his life.

– You always put yourself last. You tend to your partner’s needs before your own. He gets all of your energy, love and wisdom.

– You require certain behavior from your partner. You expect him to be what you need him to be. You love him and feel loved by him only when he acts a certain way.

– You cannot live without your partner. You hate to be separated from him for a whole day or overnight. You never go too long without calling or texting. If he doesn’t call every hour, you feel unloved.

Codependence may be triggered by a close association with people suffering from addiction. If you were raised by alcoholic parents, for example, you may have developed traits that could lead to codependent relationships later in life. The personality of your mate might determine whether those traits manifest in your relationship or whether they remain dormant. A crisis in the relationship, severe injury, addiction or infidelity could trigger your codependence.

Often, codependence becomes a pattern in relationships. It may have started with the example your parents set for you and could continue through all of your adult relationships. Certain life experiences might exacerbate your condition. It might develop into depression or an anxiety disorder, or it could co-exist with another mental illness.

Codependence not only makes it very difficult to maintain healthy relationships, but it can also be a serious condition that requires treatment. As codependence worsens, all of those self-shaming thoughts can lead to a serious depression. People suffering from codependency have a tendency to take their pain out on themselves, and can become self-destructive.

Codependents are also at risk of developing addictions. The same low self-esteem, shame and guilt that exist in codependence are common in addiction. Codependents may reach a point where they just want to escape from their emotions, and that’s exactly the thought process that often leads to substance abuse and addiction.

Safe Ways to Help Your Addicted Partner

If you’re in a relationship with someone suffering from addiction, it’s natural to want to help. It’s very difficult to watch someone you love go through tough times.

This desire to help your loved one suffering from addiction can easily result in enabling behaviors. Often, family members do things out of love that actually perpetuate the addiction rather than move it toward resolution:

– You may lend your addicted loved one money, not realizing he will spend it on drugs.

– If your loved one loses his apartment, you offer him a place in your home so he won’t be out on the street. You don’t realize that you’re protecting him from the consequences of his drug abuse.

– When your spouse comes home drunk again, you get him off the floor, put his pajamas on him and tuck him into bed. You save him from the embarrassment of waking up the next morning on the kitchen floor.

– You cover up your spouse’s drug abuse when the neighbors enquire about his behavior at the annual block party. You’re embarrassed for him, and for yourself.

– You lie to your children about the reason your spouse hasn’t gotten out of bed in the morning, because telling them he’s sick seems kinder than letting them believe their father is suffering from a mental disease called addiction.

Loved ones of addicts often play certain roles in the addiction cycle, some include. To learn more, please visit our Family Roles in Addiction page. 

All of these enabling behaviors might seem like kind gestures you would extend to a loved one, but all they really do is enable them to continue their addiction. Without facing consequences, it can be very difficult to change bad behavior. Most addicts live in denial that they’re doing anything wrong, or that they’re hurting anyone but themselves. If you help them continue that fantasy, you’re not helping them get any closer to recovery.

It is possible, however, to help an addicted loved one and not become codependent in the process. The key is to evaluate the ways in which you’re lending aid. Before you can safely help your loved one fight his addiction, you have to accept some facts of life:

– Addiction is a serious issue that makes people say and do things that are completely out of character. Your partner has not changed — he’s just being controlled by a disease that has taken over his brain. You cannot take anything he does or says too personally. Ultimately, it’s not about you.

– You did not cause this addiction, and you cannot cure it. Addiction happens for a number of reasons, most of them related to brain chemistry and behavior. Your partner’s behaviors are ultimately his own responsibility.

– You cannot cure an addiction. Addiction requires professional treatment. Your love and support can be a helpful part of the recovery process, but you have to bring in the experts. The addiction is not your secret to keep. In fact, talking about it with the right people can facilitate a quicker and longer-lasting resolution.

Separating yourself from your partner’s addiction is crucial for maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationship. As those boundaries start to blur, and you become too involved in the problem and the potential solutions, codependence can creep in. You need to constantly re-evaluate your urge to help, to be sure you’re remaining objective.

There are, of course, some things you can do to help your partner fight his addiction. He will need your unconditional love and support to get through the rehab process and into recovery. Think of maintaining your objective separation from the problem as one of the ways you can help.

Here are some other ways to help:

– Get help for yourself — Put yourself first this time, recognizing that this addiction is affecting you in turn. Contact a support group for people who are suffering from addiction, and find out when and where they meet. These meetings will help you learn more about addiction and put you in contact with others who are going through the same things.

From there, you can find support groups dedicated to helping you avoid falling into codependent behaviors in the presence of addiction.

– Refuse to be a rescuer — This step may seem like it’s only for your benefit, but it will likely help your addicted partner even more. Do not harbor a loved one who is actively abusing drugs. If his behaviors result in arrest or homelessness, do not rescue him. Let your loved one know that you cannot be part of his addictive lifestyle and that you will not lend him aid while he’s actively using.

As long as he refuses to get into a recovery program, you will not be available to bail him out of any bad situation.

– Withhold financial support — People who suffer from addiction will do or say anything to get the money they need to buy the drugs they crave. By lending them money under any pretense, you’re prolonging your loved one’s addiction. The first step they need to take is to get into detox to clean the drugs out of his system and begin the recovery process.

Instead of giving your loved one money, provide him instead with the information he needs — or even a ride — to get into detox and begin this journey.

Recovery Begins at Tranquil Shores

Addiction and codependence can send you down a path that’s to navigate on your own. For more information and help with these two conditions, contact Tranquil Shores in Tampa, Florida. Through an evidence-based integrated recovery model of treatment, we, along with our medical partners, can help guide you or your loved one through a pain-free detox — the first step of recovery — and all that comes next.

Let us answer your questions about codependent relationships and substance abuse and guide you through your journey towards reclaiming your life. Contact us today to take the first steps toward a healthier and more fulfilling life.

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