Codependency is a term that’s often used in the mental health profession and among people who work with addicts. However, as it’s not an officially recognized disorder or mental illness, it isn’t listed in guidebooks such as the DSM (there is a listing for Dependent Personality Disorder, but that isn’t the same thing). While experts differ on the precise definition, codependent people rely to an unhealthy extent on others for their sense of self-worth.

Codependency and addiction often go together in relationships. That is difficult for both partners as well as anyone else affected by the situation, such as children. Addiction, whether to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or anything else, is always a challenging condition. Co-dependents, meanwhile, often unwittingly encourage or enable addicts. The result is often a dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship that hurts everyone involved. This article will explore some of the characteristics of codependency and addiction as well as some guidelines for breaking free of this downward spiral.  

Signs of Codependency

Codependency refers to a relationship where one partner has taken on the role of caretaker or enabler to an addict or someone with a severe physical or mental illness. Codependency can take many forms, but it can be especially unhealthy when one partner is an addict. Here are some of the primary characteristics of codependent people.

  • Codependents often have a history of getting involved with addicts, narcissists, or other people who are unable to engage in healthy, reciprocal relationships.
  • Codependents often come from backgrounds where one parent was codependent and the other an addict.  Mental health professionals have found that codependency runs in families and is often passed down from one generation to the next.
  • When codependents are involved with addicts, they are often in denial. Just as addicts typically downplay or deny their addictions, codependents or caretakers go along with this behavior. It’s common for alcoholics, for example, to describe themselves as “social drinkers.” Co-dependents tend to support this type of denial in a partner.
  • Many codependents actively help or enable addicts, which is a step beyond denial. A codependent partner might go through the motions of trying to help the addict recover while supporting his or her behavior by buying alcohol or drugs. Codependents often support addicts financially.
  • With codependents, the fear of losing the relationship often overrides self-interest, leading them to tolerate and even support the addict’s behavior rather than risk losing the person.
  • Codependents have an unrealistic belief that they can help addicts without any outside assistance.

The Connection Between Addiction and Codependency

Despite many treatment options and public awareness campaigns, addiction continues to be a serious problem. In the United States, the opioid crisis links to a drop in life expectancy. Opioids, of course, which includes heroin as well as prescription drugs such as OxyContin, are only one type of addiction with potentially lethal consequences. Alcoholism continues to be a serious problem as well, with as many as 1 in 8 Americans struggling with alcohol abuse.  While some people suffer from addiction in isolation, it’s not uncommon for addicts to be involved in codependent relationships.

Both addicts and their partners often exhibit symptoms of codependency. One way that this usually manifests is with issues related to power and control. When someone is codependent, he or she desperately clings to a relationship. Addicts may use alcohol, drugs, or other behaviors/substances to feel empowered. Codependent partners may feel empowered by the fact that the addict is utterly dependent on him or her. Healing from addiction is a long and challenging process. If codependency is part of the equation, it can be even more complicated.

Most co-dependents who are involved with addicts have good intentions. However, because of low self-esteem and an unwillingness to face the truth, they often make it harder for an addict to recover. Addiction is, by itself, a disorder that causes a whole host of associated problems. Addicts often have issues with health, employment, money, and housing. While such problems make life difficult, they can also be a motivating factor in seeking treatment. Having a codependent person who supports an addict, whether financially, emotionally, or by actively indulging in their habit makes it easier for them to continue their behavior.

Help for Codependents

Here are some of the most effective steps that can help people recover from codependency.

  • Awareness — As with addiction, the first step in recovery is self-honesty and admitting that the problem exists. That can be especially challenging for co-dependents, as one of the characteristics of this condition is a tendency to deny reality. However, many people do reach a point where they’re willing to face the truth and seek help. The key is to recognize the symptoms and patterns of codependency in a non-judgmental way. Blaming yourself only serves to perpetuate the cycle.
  • Therapy — Various types of therapy can be helpful for treating codependency. This works best when both partners are participating. However, if an addict is not at the stage where he or she is willing to seek help, the codependent partner can still benefit from unilaterally going into therapy. Behavioral therapy can be useful as it increases self-awareness and provides tools for changing patterns.
  • Support Groups — There are many support groups for codependents. Talking to others in the same situation helps you feel less isolated.

In many cases, the healthiest option for codependents is to leave a relationship with an addict. Ending a relationship is a difficult step for anyone and even more so for co-dependents. However, if someone is in an unhealthy relationship with an addict who is not ready to seek help, leaving the situation is often an essential step towards recovery. Co-dependent people have to learn how to form healthy boundaries and set rules for relationships. Many have a history, going back to childhood, of involvement with addiction and codependency.

Healing the Addiction-Codependency Cycle

Both addiction and codependency are prevalent and harmful conditions. When they are combined, the effects can be especially devastating. One of the most insidious aspects of codependency is that it can cause people apparently closest to addicts to stand in the way of their recovery. It’s important for everyone to recognize the signs of both addiction and codependency. Those who are affected by these conditions should understand that they aren’t alone and that there are many resources available to help them.