It is no secret that addiction has a profound impact on family dynamics, friendships, and romantic relationships. Watching your loved one struggle with drugs or alcohol is difficult, and while trying to maintain some sense of normalcy, you may end up accidentally falling into the dangerous cycle of codependency.
What Is Codependency?
Because codependent relationships tend to involve one individual revolving their life around the other, many confuse codependency for clinginess. In reality, it is much deeper. Codependency is marked by one individual constantly sacrificing their well-being to support or enable the other person’s often destructive behavior. Though codependency is often discussed in the context of romantic relationships, this type of dynamic can also form between relatives or friends.
Because your primary focus is your loved one, signs that you are diving into a codependent relationship can easily go unnoticed. Things you do to help them, such as bailing them out of trouble or helping them pay their bills, are actually enabling their poor behavior. When your loved one is struggling with addiction, the consequences of enabling them can be severe.
The Root of Codependency
Often, codependent behavior can stem from childhood, especially if you had a difficult relationship with a parent or if you have been previously exposed to addiction. If your parent demanded extra attention from you as a child, you may have been conditioned to think that your feelings and needs do not matter as much as those of others. It is possible you may have also picked up cues from a codependent parent who repeatedly sacrificed their own happiness to take care of others.
While your childhood experiences do play a role in your behavior today, codependency can occur due to several reasons: your need to take care of your loved one, your need for control, low self-worth, denial of your loved one’s addiction, lack of trust, anger, or fear.
Side Effects of Codependency
Healthy relationships require effort from both parties. If your life revolves around your loved one and their addiction, you may have trouble functioning independently and become trapped within the cycle of codependency. Focusing all your attention on them can make it difficult for you to feel comfortable alone, and your worldview can become narrow. Your mental health will likely suffer, especially when a change occurs in your relationship.
Codependency ultimately hurts both you and the object of your attention. If expectations in the relationship are not discussed early, the dynamic can become unbalanced and you both may develop a skewed understanding of interpersonal relationships. When these boundaries are not addressed or respected, you may begin to feel overexerted and underappreciated, while your loved one can become complacent or entitled, making them more likely to have unrealistic expectations for their other personal and professional relationships.
Codependency and Addiction
While being there for your loved one during their time of need is admirable, this can cause you to become fixated on their substance abuse and self-destructive behavior which can have severe consequences. Not only does addiction cause them physical and mental distress, but it also places more pressure on you to help your loved one function better. Because a loved one’s illness can be an incredibly difficult truth to face, you may try to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. However, ignoring the problem is not a valid solution and enabling your loved one’s behavior will end up hurting them in the long run. They may even assume their drug or alcohol abuse is acceptable and prolong their destructive behaviors by denying that they need treatment.
Signs of Codependency
Codependency can deeply impact your mental health and your loved one’s overall well-being. Learn to recognize the signs and start repairing your relationship. You may be in a codependent relationship if you:
- Have trouble setting aside time for self-care because you are too preoccupied with caring for your loved one.
- Feel the need to exert more effort to prevent the relationship from collapsing when your loved one starts to neglect you.
- Let your loved one take advantage of your kindness because you believe their happiness is more important or valid.
- Lack the ability to make decisions on your own, doubting yourself because the relationship has taken a toll on your confidence.
- Enable your loved one to continue to practice unhealthy behaviors, such as drug abuse, excessive drinking, and poor eating habits.
- Start to spend all your time with your loved one, disconnecting from other aspects of your life.
What to Do if You Are in a Codependent Relationship
Because two people in a codependent relationship are attached to each other, codependency can be considered an addiction in itself – one that requires its own recovery process. There are 12 Step programs such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) designed for people struggling with codependency and/or a loved one’s addiction. These programs will provide you with a sense of community and allow you to experience the company of new people facing similar obstacles. By listening to similar stories, you may become more motivated to stop sacrificing your own happiness and start developing your own identity. Know that it is important for you to have your own interests, spend time with family and friends, and set aside time to spend on your own.
Aside from pursuing therapy or attending support groups, it is important that you have an honest conversation with your loved one about their behavior, how their addiction is affecting you, and your anxieties. Encourage them to seek professional help for their substance abuse. And remember that whether they seek treatment or not, you need to establish firm boundaries to ensure your own well-being.
If you recognize that codependency is taking a significant toll on your mental health, you should reevaluate the relationship and determine whether it is worth maintaining. There are certainly ways to overcome codependency, but some relationships may be more difficult to reconcile than others. When there is little to no chance that the relationship can ever become healthy or balanced, it may be best to walk away.