You’ve no doubt heard the term before, but codependency is a complex set of behaviors that goes far deeper than just relying on someone else for validation. In the case of drug addiction, there is very often a codependent enabler who believes they can fix a loved one’s problems or protect them from the unpleasant consequences of their actions.
What is codependency?
Codependency is a group of characteristics usually stemming from behaviors learned in childhood. A neglectful upbringing can result in a codependent person needing validation to feel happy or worthy. As an adult, the residual feelings of abandonment lead the codependent person to seek out someone to care for, someone for whom they feel an unhealthy sense of responsibility and loyalty above all else, even their own well-being.
Codependent relationships may be abusive, and they often center around substance abuse. For example, a mother who has an adult child with a drug addiction may blame herself for her child’s drug use and try to cover up bad behaviors. The mother enables her child by providing the means to access their drug of choice in an attempt to seek their approval, and to compensate for perceived flaws or shortcomings as a parent.
The mother’s self-worth is defined solely by the mood of the addicted child, who is only happy when they have access to drugs. It is a vicious cycle in which neither party truly benefits. Codependent relationships are unhealthy and unbalanced.
What are the signs of codependency?
The signs of codependency are easy for an outsider to spot. A codependent person will take care of another without regard for their own health, other relationships, or financial stability. James Madison University further explains that a codependent person will fear being alone and have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the other person. Codependents often have low self-esteem, and will steer away from personal growth.
Internally, the helper, or enabler, in a codependent relationship may have difficulty identifying or accepting their negative behaviors. A few common signs of codependency are:
- Believing that your self-worth is measured directly and exclusively by someone else’s opinion
- Remaining in a relationship with an individual who has no regard for your safety or well-being
- Feeling pressured to support an addiction
- Trying to change the addict’s bad behaviors, but ultimately relenting and giving them access to what they want
- Having a strong belief that the other person wouldn’t make it or couldn’t survive without you
- A detachment from your own personal needs
- Strong fear of abandonment
- Accepting verbal or physical abuse from the person whose approval you seek the most
- Allowing yourself to be physically or emotionally abused; this abuse may happen regularly or only when you cannot provide what the addict wants (cash, drugs, etc.)
Origins of a codependent personality
There is no way to predict who will become codependent. However, for most, the pattern begins in childhood. Many experts assert that an unstable, unsupportive, and non-nurturing home environment lays the foundation necessary to develop a codependent personality. A child with an unstable home life may become a caretaker in an effort to compensate for their parents’ shortcomings. In their teen years, they may begin working to pay the family’s bills or take on the bulk of the responsibility for younger siblings.
People-pleasing is another trait learned in childhood. Children with neglectful or abusive parents may go above and beyond reason for the purpose of positive acknowledgment. They will try to keep authority figures happy, and believe their self-worth is dependent upon other people’s perception. Perfectionism and fear of failure are also common.
Unfortunately, young children that grow up in an unhealthy environment often feel guilty for the actions of their parents. They will make a conscious effort to downplay trouble within the home. They may try to protect their parents by covering up bad behavior to teachers or, in some cases, law enforcement. Claiming a parent is unable to attend school functions because of work when they are unemployed because of drug use is one example of this behavior.
Childhood trauma, whether a specific event or the result of extended abuse or neglect, may lead to mental health issues as an adult. Although codependency in itself is not a mental health diagnosis, codependent people often display characteristics of poor mental health, including:
- Inability to express feelings appropriately
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Believing they are unlovable
- Confusing sex with love
- Avoiding emotional intimacy
Codependents Anonymous International (CoDA) goes into greater detail on denial, low self-esteem, compliance, control, and avoidance patterns.
It’s important to note that codependent behavior is not limited to individuals who have experienced an unhappy upbringing. Alvernia University explains that dysfunctional family roles, such as being the caretaker for or the “hero” of the family affected by addiction, can trigger codependent behaviors. This can happen at any age and to people of all social and economic backgrounds, and is a behavior that is passed down from one generation to the next.
Loving versus enabling
Codependents have a hard time distinguishing between actions that show love and those that enable the addict. Enabling is the process of allowing the addict to continue in a downward spiral. An example of enabling would be giving your addicted sibling a “safe place” to do drugs. You might believe that you are protecting them from harm by keeping a watchful eye during use. This, however, just reinforces their clouded belief that the action is acceptable. You are empowering them to use.
While you love your sibling, you are only helping them hurt themselves. Loving actions that actually protect the user, such as restricting their access to money to buy drugs, are much harder. Loving means setting boundaries that both discourage the addict from using and protect you from their outbursts or manipulation. This article from a registered clinical counsellor does a wonderful job of explaining the difference between enabling and ennobling, the latter of which is an expression of love, and the former a recipe for disaster.
Long-term effects of codependency in addiction
There are significant long-term consequences for both the codependent partner and the addicted partner in this type of relationship. The codependent partner may be more at risk of suffering from physical health deficiencies. Nearly 70 percent of highly codependent people, predominantly women, in one study reported needing the services of a doctor or hospital. Just 31 percent of study participants who were deemed non-codependent received medical treatment. This poor health is caused in part by the emotional strain of caring for another and a willingness to put their own health on the backburner to provide this care.
The adverse effects on the addicted party may be even greater, despite the codependent partner’s goal of protecting their loved one. The codependent’s behaviors only temporarily shield the addict from the consequences of drug abuse. Instead of protection, it encourages continued destructive behaviors that can result in declining health, jail time, and even death. Drugs, including opioids and alcohol, are a significant contributor to a disturbing trend of lower life expectancy in the United States. Further, since addicts often put themselves in dangerous situations, each day of being enabled is another opportunity to engage in risky behavior. Drug users often ignore the inherent risks of their habit, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Breaking the cycle
Just as an addict must take steps to prevent use and relapse, a codependent must recover from these patterns of self-abuse. Professional therapy is a valuable tool to help identify and stop behaviors that lead to codependency. Self-care is essential throughout the process, however, and involves learning how to live outside of the role of caretaker, accepting that the addict is ultimately responsible for themselves and their behaviors. A codependent individual must learn to experience, accept, and connect with their own emotions after coping by suppression. It is not an easy process. It takes hard work, dedication, and an unwavering commitment to yourself.
Addiction and codependency go hand in hand. While each can exist without the other, the enslaved brain of the addict is primed to seek out the path of least resistance; this often means guilting and manipulating a loved one until they create a relationship of codependence. The addict is given access to drugs and protected (temporarily) from the consequences of their actions. The codependent is lulled into a belief that they are doing the right thing, and that perhaps their loving and understanding nature can make the addict change. The reality is quite the opposite.
If you or someone you love shows signs of codependency, get help for both parties. Nobody wins when the cycle is allowed to continue, and this type of relationship will only end in pain.