It has been said that being the child or the spouse of an addict is a diagnosis in itself. While I can’t say that’s true in all cases, in many cases the addiction of one family member is connected to a specific unhealthy family dynamic that is known as codependency. Codependency hurts all family members and shapes a dysfunctional family system.
What is codependency? Codependency is a pattern in which one person enables another person’s addiction, when talking specifically about a family where one the members has a substance abuse problem. One or several family members choose to limit their own lives and identity to support the addicted member and often to enable them to continue drinking or consuming a substance. All individuals in the relationship are considered codependent, however, their behavior and emotional reactions are different. The person who is an enabler, for instance, is likely to limit their own life, to make sacrifices and to offer the other individual care to an unhealthy degree. Let’s take a look at an example.
Consider a woman who has been married to an alcoholic for many years. She is the one who needs to deal with most problems, as her husband is not reliable. She takes responsibility for him, however, cannot stop him from drinking. When he comes home drunk, she is the one who helps him to bed or is the one to pick him up when he can’t get home on his own. She may express some discontent with his behavior, but she does not set limits, rather, she has a type of behavior that allows her husband to continue drinking without feeling most of the consequences. She is always willing to come to help him and rescue him, however, she can’t rescue him from the drinking. Her caregiving is misplaced.
Codependent individuals often define themselves in the relationship by being rescuers and supporters. Their identity is frequently defined by this, so although they might not like the drinking or substance abuse, they do things that allow the person to continue using or drinking without feeling the consequences. For instance, they give the person money, they care for them in all states, they take care of all problems and they smooth the consequences of the substance abuse in social relationships. Codependent individuals find it hard to be alone, so they prefer to stay in unhealthy relationships and are willing to tolerate many things.
I’ve mentioned spouses, but children growing up with an addicted parent often learn the same patterns and carry them into their adult relationships. For instance, a child of an addicted parent may learn to care for themselves, their siblings and their parent. They may take a more adult role in doing chores and being responsible where they shouldn’t have to be. They learn not to express their emotions so as not to bother their parent. All these patterns are unhealthy, because they teach the child that their value is in rescuing and supporting others to their own detriment and because they force them to grow up quickly and without support.
What can a codependent individual do? The best thing is to seek professional help. Codependency is a complex behavior that involves many beliefs and emotions. The person might have a hard time acknowledging their own worth and being able to tolerate being alone or not rushing off to someone’s rescue. Programs that target family members of addicts are a good option, as they are directed at working with codependent individuals, but individual therapy can also be a great asset.