What is Codependency?
Addiction. It’s a disease that affects the entire family. When a person suffers from addiction, it creates a detrimental impact on one’s life, and it can be difficult to watch someone you care about go through this.
But let’s face it: it’s common for family members to take it upon themselves to try to heal a loved one struggling with addiction. Without proper treatment, this can turn into a toxic, codependent relationship.
A Codependent Relationship
Individuals in a codependent relationship rely on each other for unhealthy reasons. On one hand, individuals who will not care for themselves will depend on willing loved ones to do it for them. They become dependent on that loved one to function normally. On the other hand, the other half of the codependent relationship struggles to say “no.” When their loved one reaches out for help, they will push their own needs aside to care for them.
Codependency is driven by the agreement that, “I will work harder on your problem in your life than you will.” That is the single best definition I’ve ever heard for codependency. Addicts and alcoholics enjoy the benefits of having somebody else care for them so they don’t have to care for themselves. But the truly hard part for the codependent person is that if they let go of the addict or the alcoholic and allow them to start suffering the consequences of their actions, it puts the codependent person out of a job.
Even further, telling someone who’s codependent to let go of the addict or alcoholic absolutely terrifies them. Why? The person who is codependent is terrified of the addict or alcoholic’s reaction, and they believe if they don’t take care of that person, then no one will.
The response I always have for people in this situation is, “I totally understand what you’re saying. However, if you don’t stop taking care of your adult child or spouse, they will never learn how to start taking care of themselves.”
After all, why would anyone stop allowing someone else to do their laundry, cook their food, clean their room, pay their bills, care for their children, and so on when they don’t have to? You have to give the addict and the alcoholic incentive to change – and you can do this with love and compassion. It doesn’t have to be by slamming the door on their fingers. Instead, you can tell them that you love them, but you’re no longer going to participate in their chaos. And if they want to get help, you will help them get help, but you will no longer be the caretaker and the problem solver.
People struggling with codependency show several symptoms, including:
● Poor self-esteem
● Poor boundaries
Without the support of a codependency treatment program, this relationship can spiral out of hand. In the eyes of the codependent individual, and potentially other family members, they may not see that they’re doing anything wrong. To them, they’re being a good, reliable loved one. However, caring for someone you love has limits.
Putting the needs of someone else above your own, especially to the point of neglecting yourself, is dangerous and unhealthy.
Codependency and Addiction
The really amazing thing is with every family of an addict I work with, codependency is present. It’s always been a generational family trait as far back as anyone can remember. Codependency and addiction are like peanut butter and jelly – they just go together perfectly.
The person with the addiction relies on their loved one to care and provide for them, while the loved one feels responsible for healing the individual with the addiction. Codependency treatment helps families identify these kinds of relationships in a family and what they need to do to overcome it.
If a family has a codependency problem due to addiction, then the family will never completely heal. Loved ones will continue enabling the addicted individual and blaming themselves if they relapse. A codependency treatment program is necessary for the entire family to overcome addiction.
The number one thing every family I work with wants to know is, “What’s the thing I can do to help my loved one that is struggling with addiction?” And the answer that I always give them is to get into your own recovery! Nothing has a greater impact on the life of an addict or an alcoholic and if their family system changes.
Managing codependency is a critical step to healing the entire family system – not just the addict from addiction. Therapy is a great step toward helping the family identify codependent behaviors.
Additionally, other self-paced resources, such as an online course and e-books can help you understand the dual-impact of addiction and codependency, and take steps toward healing.
Weekly family support meetings available through your loved one’s treatment center, support groups such as Al-Anon, CODA and Nar-Anon, and reading books can also help.
By beginning to value themselves, a person in a codependent relationship can learn self-compassion, as well as healthy methods for helping their loved one overcome addiction.
By Kevin Petersen, MA, LMFT