On one hand, addiction is a lonely disease that can eventually isolate substance abusers from their family and friends. But even before that happens, the consequences of problematic drinking and drug use will affect everyone around the addict – warping personal relationships, creating distance between loved ones, hampering close attachments, and destroying trust.
“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” ~ Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself
Those closest to the substance abuser suffer the most, especially spouses and partners. Instead of a healthy, interdependent relationship where each person can rely on the other for support, understanding, and help, their relationship becomes codependent.
What is Codependency?
“Caretaking doesn’t help; it causes problems. When we take care of people and do things we don’t want to do, we ignore personal needs, wants, and feelings. We put ourselves aside. Sometimes, we get so busy taking care of people that we put our entire lives on hold… Caretakers look so responsible, but we aren’t. We don’t assume responsibility for our highest responsibility – ourselves.” ~ Melodie Beattie
A codependent relationship with an addict or alcoholic is unhealthy, dysfunctional, and completely out-of-balance. Its progression follows a familiar pattern: FIRST, the consequences of the addicted person’s actions start to affect both them and the people around them – arrests, financial troubles, problems at work or school, health issues, accidental overdoses, etc. SECOND, their spouse or partner tries to shield them from those consequences – bailing them out, giving them money or paying their bills, covering for them when they miss school or work, paying for their insurance or medical bills, etc. THIRD, because they don’t have to clean up their own messes, the substance abuser is freed up to drink and use even more. They don’t need to worry about money or embarrassment or maintaining adult obligations, because the other person does it all for them. They are enabled by the lack of responsibilities. FOURTH, as the substance abuse worsens, so do the consequences. And the sober partner invests more time, energy, and money into “helping”, essentially becoming the caretaker of their addicted loved one. Soon, they start to ignore their own needs – personal, familial, social, and professional. FIFTH, because their own lives are starting to suffer because of the other person’s addiction-driven actions, the sober spouse starts to become resentful and obsessive. They resort to manipulative and controlling behaviors in an attempt to change the substance abuser’s behavior. They become anxious and depressed, to the point that they are just as sick as the addict.
What are Some of the Signs of Codependency?
“To love an addict is to run out of tears.” ~ Sandy Swensen, author of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction
A person who is codependent might:
- Deny that a problem exists.
- “Walk on eggshells” to avoid conflict.
- Endure physical and emotional abuse.
- Accept sex as a substitute for love.
- Struggle with low self-esteem.
- Find it difficult to accept compliments.
- Avoid expressing their thoughts and feelings.
- Feel both unloved and unlovable.
- Find it hard to say “NO”.
- Experience embarrassment, shame, or guilt because of their loved one’s addiction.
- Put the needs of the addict before their own.
- Neglect personal and professional obligations.
- Assume responsibility for the other person’s feelings.
- Blame the addict for THEIR feelings.
- Are unable to establish adequate personal boundaries.
- Get defensive when others disagree with them.
- Believe it’s their responsibility to “fix” or “cure” the addict.
- Feel rejected when their help or advice is not accepted.
- Reject outside help.
- Put aside their own hobbies or interests to do what others want.
- Constantly attempt to manipulate or control others.
- Presume to tell others how they should or should not behave.
- Get upset when others don’t act as expected.
- Obsess over what the addict is doing…staying up late, driving around looking for them, going through their phone, etc.
- Dream about how life “should” be.
- Feel afraid to be honest?
- Struggle with anger, anxiety, and depression.
- Fear abandonment.
- Feel trapped.
- Provide the addict with alcohol and drugs to keep them around.
In a very real way, the codependent person becomes just as sick as their substance-abusing partner. And the sicker they get, the more they enable the addiction to worsen. Without outside intervention that includes services for both, it soon becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
The Roots of Codependency
Codependent people try to control the addict “for their own good”, invariably to disastrous results. Although every situation is different in the particulars, codependents often share many beliefs and traits.
- A desire to help the addict
- A strong sense of responsibility
- The beliefs that SOMETHING must be done, but NO ONE ELSE is doing anything
- The belief that the addict cannot survive without their help
- The need to “protect” the image or reputation of the family/couple
- The beliefs that they can control the substance abuser and their addiction
- A sense that they have the right and the duty to do so
- A feeling that they cannot say no or refuse to help
- A level of self-esteem that is based on how much they do for others
- A sense of accomplishment or even superiority whenever they “rescue” the addict or shield them from consequences
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help and protect an addicted loved one. But it becomes a real problem when helping becomes enabling, or when the codependent is trying to make themselves feel better.
Attachment Style and Addiction
It has been suggested that there is a strong connection between Substance Use Disorder and attachment style – how safe and secure a person feels in their personal relationships. Typically, the ability to form healthy interpersonal bonds is established during infancy, between the child and attentive, loving parents. Sometimes, however, a person does not receive adequate attention and nurturing as an infant. This leads to an insecure attachment style as an adult, which puts the person at greater risk for an SUD. This increased likelihood of addiction is rooted in the fact that individuals with insecure attachment styles often have problems with intimacy as adults. They find it hard to effectively communicate, share their emotions or form strong commitments. As a result, they compensate for the missing intimacy with substances. The drug or drink becomes a replacement for a secure relationship. But when their partner is codependent, the interpersonal dynamic becomes even more dysfunctional. Because the other person assumes a caretaker role, the relationship is distorted. It doesn’t adequately serve the addict’s emotional needs, neither as a romantic relationship nor as a substitute for the incomplete bonding during early childhood. When addicts suffer anxiety and depression due to unfulfilling or dysfunctional relationships, they turn to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. This is made easier if their partner is a codependent who enables their continued consequence-free substance abuse. But that only causes more relationship problems, which leads to more anxiety, insecurities, and depression, and consequently, more substance use. Again, this contributes to a continued downward spiral. Developing a healthy attachment style isn’t easy, and long-term psychological counseling and behavioral therapy may be necessary.
Breaking Free from Codependency
But in this particular case, that’s not enough on its own to escape the dysfunctional cycle. The enabling partner also needs to take steps to put an end to their own codependent behaviors. The first, most important thing to do is adopt a new mindset. In fact, there are “Three C’s of Recovery” that can help that shift. Partners of substance abusers are reminded that they:
- Didn’t CAUSE the addiction.
- Can’t CURE the addiction.
- Can’t CONTROL the addict.
Once they realize and fully accept those three simple facts, codependents are relieved of their self-imposed responsibility for their loved one’s disease. When they realize that attempting to do so is not only beyond their personal capabilities and doomed to fail, it is also not their place to try. Ultimately, the decision to get clean and sober has to come from the addict. But what are some specific things that a person who wishes to recover from codependency must do to help themselves, their relationship, and hopefully, their addicted loved one?
Self-Assessment is Key
Often, a codependent has spent so much time focusing on their addicted partner that they have lost much of their self-knowledge. In other words, the strong, independent person they once were is almost totally unrecognizable to the codependent person they are now. To move forward, they must answer several questions, such as: By focusing on their own talents and abilities, a recovering codependent can rediscover the positive resources they possess that will be useful as they progress. Just as important, an inventory of their strengths reminds them that they have value as an individual, not just as a caretaker. For many codependent people, answering this question may be difficult. Because they have submerged their own needs and desires for so long, they may actually forgotten how to be happy. But by reminding themselves of the things they need to feel safe, content, and emotionally fulfilled, they can better identify and avoid people, behaviors, and situations that jeopardize their happiness. This is a practical and necessary step on the road to recovery from codependency. Invariably, codependent partners of substance abusers finance their continued addiction. Even though they may not actually give the addict money to buy drugs and alcohol, supporting them financially in other ways amounts to essentially the same thing. The addict’s money feeds their addiction, while their partner’s money pays for their obligations. By assuming responsibility for the addict, they may even have made a complete mess out of their own financial situation, causing stress and worry that can manifest as actual mental disorders like anxiety and depression. But when their own financial obligations are met FIRST, that source of significant stress is removed. This supports successful recovery. Just as relevant, however, is the fact that this also forces the addict to face the financial realities and consequences of their own disease. Unhealthily focusing on a substance-abusing partner means subjugating one’s own interests. A codependent person who gives all of their attention to their addicted partner soon finds that they have nothing left to give to a healthy social life or their own hobbies and interests. Often, even special occasions and family obligations are neglected. Recovery from codependency means rediscovering an identity and a life that is separate from the addict. When less focus and attention is given to the addict and their needs, there will be much more time available for friends and family, once-enjoyed hobbies, and other healthy interests.
Once the self-assessment is complete and the needs going forward or identified, the next step is to establish personal boundaries that clearly define what behaviors and interactions with others are healthy and acceptable. It is important to understand that, while others must learn to recognize and respect these boundaries, they are in fact primarily put in place to support the mental and emotional health of the codependent. While each person’s individual needs are different, in general, this means resolving to no longer sacrifice their own needs and desires to please others or to take care of those who refused to take responsibility for themselves. This can be as simple and as powerful as just learning to say “NO”.
Detaching with Love
The unfortunate reality is that as long as their partner remains actively addicted, a codependent person will be at risk for a relapse into unhealthy behaviors. The best way to support recovery from codependency is for the person with the SUD to also seek help for their illness. The good news is top rehab programs also offer some level of family services, including strategies for ending codependent and enabling behaviors. But here’s the thing… the decision to seek treatment has to be made by the addict. No amount of nagging, cajoling, or attempts to control them will make any difference. And until they are willing to take responsibility for themselves, admit they have a problem beyond their control, and most importantly, actually do something to address that problem, there needs to be a degree of distance between them and the loved ones affected by their disease, including they’re codependent partner. This means that for their own best interest – and that of the addict – anyone trying to recover from codependency must step back and change how they interact with their partner. What might this look like?
- Ending financial support
- Making them clean up their own messes caused by their actions
- No more covering for the addict at work, school, or in social situations
- Living apart
- In extreme cases, even breaking off contact
This is not punishment or payback for any past hurts. Rather, this is an attempt to do what is best for everyone involved. The old relationship dynamic was dysfunctional and was making both partners even sicker. But by taking this step that moves away from the addict and towards recovery, the addict may be compelled to follow in a positive direction. But a codependent in recovery must continue to focus on their own health and well-being, whether their partner gets help or not. The decision to enter a treatment program to regain their sobriety must be theirs alone. They have to take responsibility for their own life. This is not selfish, because the reality is this — No one can be there for another person unless they are there for themselves first. As long as they are mentally and emotionally sick, there is nothing positive they can do for their substance-abusing partner.
Getting the Help you Need
If you live in the Denver area, help IS available, whether you struggle with SUD or you are the suffering partner who is locked into a vicious cycle codependency and enabling. Because these conditions are not exclusive, the most effective form of treatment is inclusive and addresses your family’s needs in a compassionate and understanding manner. As one of the top gender-specific rehab programs in Colorado, Women’s Recovery is the resource you need to regain your sobriety and restore healthy balance to your relationships. By using an evidence-based approach that focuses on the unique needs of women, we can give you the tools and teach you the skills to support the life you deserve.