What is codependency?
There are a few different definitions, but codependent people are often involved in unhealthy, one-sided relationships. These relationships deliver consistent emotional trauma in the form of shame, feelings of helplessness, and suffering destructive forms of emotional abuse. It’s a behavioral condition and emotional condition that often affects addicts and their loved ones.
From Mental Health America:
“Co-dependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence. Originally, co-dependent was a term used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals.”
Codependency affects many people, but it hits especially hard for addicts and their families. What are the signs of codependency? What are the dynamics of a codependent relationship? How do people recover from the trials of codependency?
We’ll discuss all of those subjects and more.
Signs of Codependency
People on both sides of a codependent relationship often struggle with self-esteem issues. They look within themselves and feel shame. They don’t like what they see. That’s why they turn to other things to achieve satisfaction and to feel whole. Unfortunately, that often means trying to escape with drugs and/or alcohol.
When a person begins to rely on a substance to ease the difficulties of daily life and living with themselves, they can become addicted.
On the other side of the coin, people suffering from codependency often become caretakers, enablers, and benefactors for addicts. They will do most anything, often at their own expense, to make the other person in their relationship’s life better and happier. This often includes covering up for an addict.
Codependent people usually see themselves as victims, and they either consciously or subconsciously form relationships with other people who view themselves the same way.
Mental Health America and BPD Family list these signs of codependency:
An unrealistic, often damaging, sense of responsibility for other people’s actions.
–Interpersonal relationships that are both intense and unstable.
–“A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue.”
–A habit of doing more than their share in a relationship, pulling someone else’s weight at their own expense.
–The tendency to feel unrecognized and unappreciated for their efforts.
–An often self-destructive dependence on unhealthy relationships– they will do nearly anything to stay in the relationship and not experience feelings of abandonment.
–A constant need for approval, affection, and acceptance.
–Feelings of guilt when they say “no,” confront someone, or stand up for themselves.
–Feelings of boredom and emptiness.
–Putting their own needs behind someone else’s, always and without fail.
–Lack of trust– both in themselves and in others.
–Chronic anger, anxiety, or sadness.
–Trouble making decisions, no matter how minor.
–Fear of abandonment.
–The need to control others, even in unimportant matters.
–Poor communication skills, including difficulty describing their feelings and telling the truth.
–Experience difficulty adapting to new situations, find it hard to change.
–Problems with personal boundaries.
Mental Health America also offers a questionnaire to help you identify signs of codependency, which is located about 3/4 of the way down the page, here.
BPD Family also does an excellent job explaining the key differences between a codependent individual and an individual with a poorly-differentiated sense of self:
“A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear-headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality… He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.
People with a poorly-differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others. It’s normal to want to please someone you care about, but when someone has a poorly-differentiated “self,” they usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes anxiety and they sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people. This is generally where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry boundaries. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own problems on others.”
Codependent individuals cannot find satisfaction within themselves, so they often turn to a partner, a family member, or to substance abuse.
The Addict and The Enabler
A relationship requires two people– both the addict, and the other person in a relationship with the addict, can exhibit codependent tendencies.
Generally, a codependent relationship with an addict featured two roles:
In codependent relationships, the caretaker is often referred to as the “enabler.”
This enabler feels like they have to maintain the relationship at any cost. They feel the need to keep the family together, so they take on the addict’s responsibilities, problems, and other needs. They feel responsible for everything, even though doing more than their share makes them feel frustrated, angry, and unappreciated.
Why do they go through so much pain and sacrifice so much?
From BPD Family:
“For the enabler a codependent relationship fulfills a strong drive to feel needed. Some enablers always need to be in a relationship because they feel lost or lonely when they’re by themselves. Codependents are often inherently afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own, and in these cases the enabling behavior is a way to mitigate fears of abandonment. Codependent enablers often lack in self-worth and define their worth through another’s eyes, thoughts, or views of them. They need other people to validate them to feel okay about themselves and without this, they are unable to find their own worth or identity. For some, the codependent relationship will satisfy the need to feel competent and low self-esteem is boosted by comparing oneself to the dysfunctional partner.”
It’s a vicious cycle. The addict doesn’t function well, so the enabler gives them care, love, and kindness. Even though both the addict and the enabler experience shame and pain, the addict feels more accepted with the enabler around.
Unfortunately, the enabler often harms the addict by giving so much. The constant care and attention means the addict feels no need to change their pattern– they’re getting by just fine with help from their enabler.
When an addict is entrenched in a codependent relationship, as toxic for all parties as it may be, they don’t feel the need to change.
Again, from BPD Family:
“It is this high degree of mutual, unhealthy dependence on the part of both the enabler and the enabled that makes the relationship codependent and resistant to change. It is often very hard for either person to end a relationship even when the relationship is painful or abusive. It is not unusual for one or both to feel trapped.”
Eventually, these relationships come crashing down, because the enabler’s emotions and resources can’t last forever.
Recovering from Codependency
Though a true codependent relationship cannot last, relationships can overcome codependency.
Some relationships are destructive and taxing to the point where they foster irreconcilable animosity, distrust, and even abuse. Those relationships will often not survive.
Many codependent relationships, however unhealthy, are based on love, respect, affection, and good intentions. Those are the relationships that can survive codependency– and they have to move beyond codependency if they are to survive.
We touched on this in a previous article, but overcoming a codependent relationship requires:
–Overcoming denial – As with all of life’s problems, progress can’t be made unless the problem is acknowledged. It’s hard to accept that you’re an addict or an enabler, but life will never get better and your relationships will never become healthier unless you stop denying the truth.
–Sobriety and abstinence – For the addict, sobriety is not negotiable. A codependent relationship cannot blossom into a healthy relationship unless the addict commits to the recovery process. For the enabler, it means abstinence. The enabler has to stop enabling the addict and stop caring and giving without regard to themselves.
–Acceptance and self-actualization – Codependent people have to back off from their toxic relationship and accept themselves. They have to move from a poorly-differentiated self to a well-differentiated self. Just like the recovery process, this is a journey; not a destination. Self-compassion and accountability are necessary. Acceptance often requires rejecting your old habits and embracing change instead of running away from it.
–New habits and forward momentum – Recovery requires trading in old habits for healthy, new habits. Both the addict and the enabler have to change their behavior. This involves taking risks, accepting changes, and stepping outside of your pre-defined (and long-held) comfort zones. Codependent people need to learn about themselves in order to build their self-esteem back to healthy levels.
You can learn more about awareness, abstinence, acceptance, and action at Psych Central.
Rebuilding a codependent relationship into something healthy and nurturing for both parties is never easy, but it can be done with inner strength and professional treatment.
Professional treatment includes continuing education, group therapy, and individual therapy where codependent people come to recognize their self-destructive patterns. Treatment focuses on emotions; both on unlearning old emotional habits and relearning how to once again experience a full range of feelings.
From Mental Health America:
“It is important for co-dependents and their family members to educate themselves about the course and cycle of addiction and how it extends into their relationships. Libraries, drug and alcohol abuse treatment centers and mental health centers often offer educational materials and programs to the public… Any caretaking behavior that allows or enables abuse to continue in the family needs to be recognized and stopped. The co-dependent must identify and embrace his or her feelings and needs. This may include learning to say “no,” to be loving yet tough, and learning to be self-reliant. People find freedom, love, and serenity in their recovery.”
So, What is Codependency?
It’s the basis of an unhealthy and toxic relationship. Unfortunately, it’s something that many addicts and their enablers live with. Existing in a codependent relationship makes it even more difficult for an addict to seek treatment and accept recovery, and it makes the addict’s enabler miserable.
The good news is, both addicts and their unhealthy relationships can accept the truth, move on and start the recovery process. For more information on how to start the recovery process and how to live the ultimate sober life, download our free “The Ultimate Sober Living Checklist” today.
Your New Life Awaits
The Turning Point Recovery Center Team