The Unspoken Plague on Addiction
Although we are acutely aware of the alarming surge of substance abuse in recent years, many people are oblivious to the issue of codependency that often enables or coexists with substance abuse. In 2015, an estimated 15.7 million Americans struggled with alcohol use disorder1 and another 27.1 million people are reported to have used illicit drugs.2 These addictions came to the forefront of public attention. However, most reports don’t discuss what happens to the unknown number of spouses, parents, siblings, and friends of the substance abusers. They fall into an unexpected trap: addiction to love, otherwise known as codependency.3
What is Codependency?
Codependence is an imbalanced relationship pattern where one partner assumes a high-cost “giver-rescuer” role and the other assumes a “taker-victim” role.4 The “taker” is usually someone that is addicted to drugs or alcohol who uses the “giver” to achieve their own needs.
The addict often manipulates their codependent partner in order to get more drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, it’s also common for the addict to manipulate their codependent partner to help soften or remove the negative consequences of their addiction. As a result, codependency results in perpetual addiction without consequences for the addict. The giver regularly suppresses their own needs so that they can help or enable the addict and protect the addict from the negative consequences of their choices.5
People who become takers in a codependent relationship typically have an addiction that causes them to feel uncontrollable urges to use alcohol or drugs. They are willing to do irrational things to satisfy the urge, even at the detriment of themselves or others.6
While it’s easy to see how someone might become a taker, it’s a little more perplexing to understand why someone would become a giver in a codependent relationship.
Givers Have a Helping Problem
The giver usually feels that they are being helpful by giving the taker money, providing for their needs, or softening the consequences of their addiction. However, enabling the addict primarily benefits the giver. By helping to prevent something awful from happening to the addict, the giver satisfies their need to feel important, needed, in control, and virtuous.7
The primary cause of the giver’s codependent behavior is deeply rooted in old childhood issues. Parents with overbearing responsibilities or an unhealthy balance of self, family, work, and life roles can initiate self-neglect. Then, as a child, the giver experiences a role-reversal in which they feel that they should take a lot of emotional responsibility for their parent. In these situations, the parent usually neglects the emotional needs of the child. This type of role reversal trains the child to become less aware of their own feelings and become acclimated to the potentially harmful, self-sacrificing behavior that exists in codependent relationships.8 In some cases, the giver’s self-esteem depends on filling someone else’s needs or enhancing someone else’s happiness.
Another possible cause for codependent behavior is over-internalizing religious or cultural beliefs that prescribe self-sacrifice or service to others. Sometimes people simply don’t know where to set personal boundaries to protect themselves from the harmful consequences of other people’s choices.
Codependence is not a mental illness. It’s a learned behavior that can be overcome with counseling. Givers usually need to seek professional help to deal with their childhood issues. Otherwise, they are likely to unknowingly teach their children the same codependent behavior.
How to Identify a Codependent Relationship
Stages of Codependency
Codependency is chronic with enduring, progressive symptoms. Since children are naturally dependent, codependency cannot be diagnosed until it begins to manifest itself through close relationships in adulthood. There are three stages of codependent relationships:9
Early Stage: The early stage of codependency initially looks like any romantic or close relationship. Symptoms start to surface when someone becomes obsessed with their partner, rationalized problematic behavior, fail to maintain healthy boundaries, or give up their own friends and activities.
Middle Stage: There’s gradual but increasing effort to minimize painful aspects of the relationship. Anxiety, guilt, and self-blame set in. Resentment grows as the giver compromises more of themselves to maintain the relationship. They may try to enable or change their partner (the taker) through compliance, manipulation, nagging or blaming.
Late Stage: The emotional and behavioral symptoms begin to affect the giver’s health. They may experience stress-related disorders, including sleep problems, headaches, obsessive-compulsive behavior, other addiction increase, and more. This only contributes to the feelings of hopelessness, anger, depression, and despair.
Symptoms of Codependency
There are several symptoms of codependency that can help identify if there’s a potential problem that needs to be checked out. In addition to the stages listed above, four of the warning-sign symptoms are:10
Low Self-Esteem: Feeling that you’re not good enough or comparing yourself to others, accompanied by perfectionism and feelings of guilt.
Poor Boundaries: Boundaries are the imaginary line between you and others in terms of your body, money, belongings, and your feelings, thoughts, and needs. Givers feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems, despite those things being outside of their own control.
Caretaking: If someone else has a problem, givers want to help them, even to the point of giving up themselves. They need to help, and they might feel personally rejected if the other person doesn’t want help.
Dependency: Givers need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves. Sometimes they need to be in a relationship because they feel depressed or alone otherwise. This makes it hard to end a relationship, even if the relationship is painful or abusive.
The Effect of Codependency on the Taker’s Addiction Recovery
When codependency or enabling behavior stops, then the addict (taker) must choose by themselves whether or not to continue their substance abuse. Given the nature of addiction, most addicts choose to continue using. As hard as it may be to see a loved one suffer the consequences of addiction, this must be allowed. Many addicts will reach a point by themselves where they want to recover because they can no longer stand to see their lives fall apart.11 Codependent relationships often prevent addicts from reaching that breaking point in which they choose to recover.
If the addict chooses to get addiction treatment and attempt to recover, it’s helpful if the codependent giver is supportive. This may seem obvious, but it’s not always as obvious to the giver who derives their self-worth from having an addict to take care of. In some cases, the relationship may need to be broken up entirely as the giver can unintentionally present serious triggers for the recovering addict.12 Many addiction recovery hospitals offer professional counseling that can help an addict become independent and accept the consequences of their own actions. However, it’s also recommended that the giver in a codependent relationship should seek separate professional counseling to become independent.
1 Alcohol Facts and Statistics | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2019). Niaaa.nih.gov. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
2 (2019). Samhsa.gov. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2015/NSDUH-FFR1-2015/NSDUH-FFR1-2015.pdf
3 Co-Dependency. (2013). Mental Health America. Retrieved 14 December, 2020, from https://www.mhanational.org/issues/co-dependency
4 Are you in a codependent relationship? These are the signs. (2018). NBC News. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-codependency-signs-codependent-relationship-ncna940666
5 Drug Use And Codependent Relationships. (2019). DrugRehab.org. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://www.drugrehab.org/drug-use-and-codependent-relationships/
6 Addiction | Psychology Today. (2019). Psychology Today. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/addiction
7 Lee, R. (2018). Codependency: The Helping Problem. Psych Central. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/codependency-the-helping-problem/
8 Are You Codependent? Here’s How To Tell. (2018). HealthyWay. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://www.healthyway.com/content/codependent-relationships/
9 Darlene Lancer, M. (2016). Codependency Addiction: Stages of Disease and Recovery. Psych Central. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/codependency-addiction-stages-of-disease-and-recovery/
10 Darlene Lancer, M. (2016). Symptoms of Codependency. Psych Central. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/symptoms-of-codependency/
11 Codependent and Enabling Behaviors – Addictions. (2019). Mentalhelp.net. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/codependent-and-enabling-behaviors/
12 How Do Substance Abuse and Codependency Work Together?. (2014). Clearview Treatment Programs. Retrieved 14 March 2019, from https://www.clearviewtreatment.com/blog/substance-abuse-codependency/