Codependency and Addiction: It Takes Two to Tangle

Most people have heard the saying “It takes two to tango.”  Although this can have a variety of meanings, when taken literally it makes total sense.  The tango is a sensuous dance, with intricate exchanges that both participants agree upon as they move together in a sinewy partnership that blends the roles of both victim and master, follower and leader, submitter and conquerer.  To think of only one person doing the tango all alone makes no sense – there have to be two dancers playing off each other to make the sparks fly.

When I think of codependency and addiction, I see very similar dance steps.  And although one person appears to be submitting and the other person leading most of the time, I actually think that they both change and shift in the same way the roles do in the real tango.  In order for relationships between codependents and addicts to continue in their majorly dysfunctional ways, both partners have to agree to the steps of the blueprint for the arrangement to thrive.

My simple definition of a codependent person is someone who allows their personal needs, wants and desires to be put on the back burner, on a fairly consistent basis, in order to let someone else’s needs and wants take center stage.  In most cases, the person with the addiction begins to behave so poorly that these become the actions that everyone notices.  And when this occurs more regularly, the codependent starts putting up with very disagreeable conduct from the addict.  In fact, the more of this that the codependent will abide, the more of this the addict will bring to their dance.

In other words, the more the enabler enables, the more stuck in addiction the addict remains.

And The Beat Goes On.

In many cases, the codependent partner is seen as a victim – an ever-suffering, “good person” who tolerates the actions of the person who is misbehaving – and is glorified for that by the people who know them.  “She would do anything for her son” or “He would give you the shirt off his back.”  What this really means is that the codependent does not set healthy, self-respecting boundaries with the person who is trying to manipulate as much out of their dance partner as they can, at any given time.  

But — there is a flaw in seeing it this way.  Although people with codependent tendencies generally are “nice” people, they simply aren’t that nice.  They are really giving the shirts off their backs and doing everything for everybody for two basic purposes: 1) To look like a “good” person, and 2) To not have to deal with any conflict from anyone.  When codependents go along to get along, they are doing this as a self-protection, not because they are so very nice.  When the codependent person finally learns how to deal with conflict assertively and effectively, they can keep their shirts on their own backs, where they actually belong!  And when that begins to happen and the addicts begin to hear boundaries – as well as the consequences that need to be attached to those boundaries in order to have any real meaning or incentive for the addicts – the dance steps start to change – sometimes with a lot of resistance and frustration from both parties thrown into the mix.

What we know for sure is that the vast majority of addicts who are choosing to remain in active addiction will not come to their codependent dance partner and say “Please set some healthy boundaries for me!”  It just doesn’t work that way.  Addicts who are choosing to remain in active addiction are doing that because they are terrified of having to face the world without their addictive behaviours.  They have an investment in the codependent staying in the sick and twisted dance they’ve both been wrapped up in for so long.  The addict wants to stay in addiction out of fear, and the codependent agrees to continue being manipulated and gaslighted so that they don’t have to risk the possibility of having to deal with their own dreaded fear of conflict.

It’s a match made in… well, hell.  And it doesn’t end until one of them stops dancing and says “Enough is enough.  I want to learn how to be emotionally healthy now.”

The Enabling Dance Steps

When we pay the rent for someone who can, and should, be working to pay their own rent – as an example — this is part of the ritual of the Codependency / Addiction tangled-up dance.  When, on a consistent basis, we do for someone else anything they can – and should – be doing for themselves, we are basically enabling.  And the vast majority of enabled addicts will not choose to recover because, really – why should they?  So the dance of manipulation and enabling continues for as long as both partners agree to do those steps with each other.

But this particular dance is not a pretty one to watch.  It doesn’t have the rich and sensuous overtones that the tango has.  It is neither fluid nor sinewy nor classy.  However, before you become discouraged, thinking that these dysfunctional ways will undoubtedly go on forever, please wait – there IS good news!

The truth is that this Codependent/Addict dance – which I like to call “The Tangle” – shifts and changes as soon as one of the participants decides to stop dancing.

Yes, it’s that simple.  Not always easy, but definitely simple.

It Only Takes One to Un-Tangle

It takes two to Tangle, but only one to Un-Tangle.  If you are in a codependent relationship with an addict of any kind – including a narcissist who seems addicted to trying to make you feel badly about yourself – you can untangle.  You can make a decision that this is not the way you want to live your life.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to leave the person you’ve been tangling with or write them out of your life – but you can choose to start doing things differently in these relationships.

Often, in order to do this, people need to reach out for some help – either just to help themselves start going in a different direction or perhaps to do some deeper healing so that they can start to attract other kinds of healthier relationships into their lives.  Either way, please know that change is absolutely possible, as soon as you decide to un-tangle and learn how to live with more joy and self-respect.

And if not now, when?

By Candace Plattor, M.A.

Learn more about Candace here:

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