Let’s say there is a married couple, Lucy and Tom. Lucy suffers from a substance abuse disorder such as alcoholism. Lucy’s alcohol addiction quickly encompasses everything about Tom’s life, to the point where he starts neglecting his own mental health and wellbeing. In this scenario, Lucy is the addict, and Tom is the caretaker. This pattern of behavior between the two is referred to as codependency, which can enhance the effects of substance abuse disorders if prevalent in a relationship.
Codependency is so common in relationships where one person suffers from a substance abuse disorder that it is even specified in the definition of the term: “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.” The term was actually coined in relation to the dynamic most often seen in partners of people with addiction. Though codependency does not always have to be associated with addiction, those who are addicts often have one or more codependent relationships. Sometimes the codependent may even engage in addictive behavior themselves, and the desire to care for and enable the sick person may even develop into its own kind of addiction — an addiction to being relied upon by the person with the disorder. And patterns of codependency don’t solely surface in romantic relationships either. They can also occur between a parent and child, siblings, friends, and anyone who might share a close personal bond to the addict.
The caretaker will believe that they are doing what is best for the addict, when in reality a codependent relationship does more harm than good, and often hinders the addicted person’s ability to recover from the disease. The caretaker usually gives the addict permission to take advantage of them, thereby enabling their destructive behavior. Some examples of this behavior include:
- Denying that a problem exists in the first place.
- Covering up or straight-out lying about the severity of the problem to others.
- Supplying the addict with their drug of choice.
- Encouraging the addict to continue using the drug.
- Participating in their destructive behaviors.
- Supporting them financially.
- Supporting them emotionally (in ways that are not conducive to recovery, i.e. telling them it’s okay to have one drink or making excuses for their behavior).
- Helping them engage in their habit in other ways.
There are a number of signs that you might be in a codependent relationship with an addict. Those include:
Being deeply enmeshed with someone who has a pattern of self-destructive habits and doesn’t seem to get better no matter what you do can create feelings of worthlessness and inferiority. This is due to the constant failure in being successful in one’s goal of “saving” the addict.
Weak boundaries lead to constant violation of one’s emotional wellbeing by others. But because the codependent person does not communicate properly with what they are comfortable and uncomfortable with, those around them will continue to take advantage of their lack of restrictions for themselves.
Eager to please.
Codependents find it very difficult to say no to someone, which goes hand in hand with lacking healthy boundaries. Because of this, they often burn out very quickly because they take on emotional burdens that they cannot handle, sacrificing their own needs to accommodate others. This can be dangerous for addicts because they will often do anything to get their hands on their drug of choice, and having a relationship with someone with an inability to say no to them will just continue to feed their habit.
When boundary lines are blurred, a codependent person becomes extra sensitive to other people’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something disagreeable, an individual with codependency will absorb the words and take them to heart, making it personal.
Poor communication skills.
When an individual is codependent on an addict, they lose sight of who they are, as their whole lives become about caring for the addict. Because of this, they are no longer in touch with their feelings or emotions. This lack of self awareness leads to poor communication. They may also find themselves lying to themselves or others to cover up feelings that they anticipate might upset the other person.
Codependents often find themselves obsessing over their relationships and concerns with other people. If they feel they’ve made a mistake, they might spend days worrying about what went wrong, what they could have done to change it, or how to fix it in the future, ruminating until they drive themselves crazy.
Codependents also obsess over controlling everything and everyone around them. This desire for control is so intense that they will adapt their thoughts, feelings, actions, and words to other people so that the other person does not act in a way that is uncomfortable to the codependent. For example, if the addict wants to get the liquor out and have a few drinks, the codependent will go along with it and enable them, not because they want the person to fail at their recovery, but because they are afraid of the addict’s reaction if the codependent/caretaker tries to get between them and their addiction. They maintain control over other people’s demeanors in this way, as they cannot handle outbursts of emotions very well.
Dependence on others.
People in codependent relationships need other people to like them to feel okay in their daily life. The codependent person is partially or entirely dependent on other people for their own happiness, and often struggle with feeling rejected or abandoned. This makes it extremely difficult for them to end relationships, even if they’ve become toxic or abusive.
Having a relationship of any kind with someone who is either an addict or a codependent/caretaker, or both at the same time can be mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically draining for everyone involved. Often times, both sides are in denial that they have a problem to begin with, which makes it difficult for them to get the help they need. Codependency leads to a lot of painful emotions as well which can be even harder to deal with when your partner, friend, family member, or loved one is suffering from addiction. The good news is that there are tons of resources out there, such as 12-Step programs, Codependents Anonymous, private counseling, couples therapy, and more, where those struggling with addiction and codependency can work on building much-needed self-esteem and healthy boundaries.
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