It’s a well-known fact that an addiction issue can cause a serious amount of physical and mental pain and stress for the addict. But what about the people who live with the addict or interact with the addict on a daily basis? These people may try to help the addict in any way they know how, and soon, their entire lives may be oriented toward what the addict thinks, says and does. While these actions may be helpful to the addict in the short term, they might also shield the addict from the consequences of the addiction, and therefore, the actions might make the addiction stronger. In addition, this behavior might be disastrous for the mental health of the family.
This cycle of addiction, and shielding from the consequences of addiction, is often referred to as codependency. People who act this way may be repeating patterns they’ve watched ever since they were young, and they may have an extremely difficult time overcoming this behavior on their own. Thankfully, there are a variety of techniques that can be used to help change this destructive behavior into something much more positive.
The term “codependent” is a bit of a hot-button topic for some people. For example, in an article in the journal Substance Use and Misuse, authors suggest that the term is used in order to demonize the status of wives and discount the real contributions they make in a marriage. The authors suggest that the term is meaningless from a clinical perspective, as experts and most wives disagree on how the condition begins, and whether or not it’s a condition that occurs exclusively within married couples. These political issues may be interesting, but for people dealing with difficult relationships touched by addiction, they may not be very useful. In fact, for the purposes of this article, it might be best to consider codependency a real condition that can be both seen and measured, with the caveat that it can occur in both men and women, and it can happen outside of marriage.
The website Mental Health America defines codependency as a type of relationship addiction. A person who is codependent tends to form relationships that are one-sided or destructive, and the codependent person tends to do everything possible to maintain that relationship. While it might be possible for anyone to develop codependency, it might be more likely for children of codependent parents to develop codependent relationships on their own in adulthood. As they’ve watched their parents behave in these destructive ways, they’ve come to believe that this is the way all healthy and happy relationships operate.
It’s easy to see how codependency and substance abuse tend to go hand in hand. Someone with an addiction to a substance is in a deep and primary relationship with that addiction. The person’s thoughts are consumed with finding more of the substance, and taking it as soon as possible. All other considerations are secondary to the use and abuse of that substance. A person who tries to create a relationship with an addict is always going to play second fiddle. By definition, the relationship is one-sided.
A codependent person in a relationship with an addict might feel like a survivor. The addiction is ongoing, but the codependent person may feel pride at his/her ability to keep the family together and to keep up the appearance that all is fine and functioning normally.
As a result, the codependent person might shield the addict from the consequences of addiction by:
- Lying to coworkers about frequent drug-related absences of the addict
- Handling all childcare-related needs
- Juggling expenses to allow the addict to pay for the substances
- Buying the substances for the addict
- Bailing the addict out of jail
Signals of Codependency
People who live with addicts might perform some of these bailout activities in order to protect their loved ones from pain. It’s simply part of being in a relationship: Partners try to assist one another. But according to Co-Dependents Anonymous, Inc., people who are codependent might have unusual thought patterns. They might:
- Believe other people are incapable of taking care of themselves
- Feel a need to be needed
- Attempt to convince others what to think
- Harshly judge others
- Try to maintain physical, sexual or emotional distance
- Withhold displays of emotion or appreciation
It might sound harsh, but people who are codependent might truly believe that they are the only ones who can handle a situation in just the right way. They may think that they’re helping, but they may be using incredibly destructive techniques in order to get the outcome that they want.
Despite all of their hard work, people who are codependent are rarely truly powerful, and they are rarely happy. According to a study published in the journal Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, people who were codependent were also anxious and depressed. They had low self-esteem scores, and they felt out of control. Depression is closely associated with codependency, as people who behave in this way allow the acts of other people to determine how they feel and how they live. Unfortunately, addicts who are pressured in this way tend to retreat further into depression, which leaves the codependent person feeling even more depressed and useless.
While it would be ideal to think that people with addiction issues would readily agree to treatment, and then the codependent partner can magically heal when the addiction is gone, the truth is a bit more complicated. In fact, the codependency and the addiction are two separate issues, and they both must be treated. A person who is codependent can be treated, whether or not the addiction is addressed, and healing can be real and immediate. A person who is codependent might also be treated as part of the addict’s treatment plan, thereby allowing both partners to heal. But either way, the codependent person needs help.
Experts suggest that people develop significant codependency problems due to poor family patterns. During their lives, they watched their parents or grandparents behave in this way, and they may not see that this is a maladaptive way to behave. In addition, they may be severely depressed and upset about their situations, and unable to see a way out. Individual counseling sessions may be the best way to handle these diverse problems. By getting to the root cause of the patterns the person saw in early life, and allowing the person to see how those patterns contribute to later depression and subsequent codependency, the behavior may be stopped. This therapy may go on whether or not the addict agrees to get treatment.
If the addict agrees to get treatment, family therapy may help. Here, the addict and the entire family are encouraged to take a close look at the way they communicate with one another and the ways in which the addiction has changed the entire dynamic of the family. According to the Mayo Clinic, family therapy sessions are often less than an hour long, and the entire process usually lasts a bit less than six months. But the results can be dramatic. As the entire group is allowed to uncover and deal with old hurts, and they all work toward new behaviors and new patterns, they can build up a home that is more conducive to long-term healing on the part of the addict.
Some people struggling with codependency benefit from brief interventions by their family doctors. In a study published in the journal Addiction, families of addicts were given literature about addiction and a short counseling session, while other families went through longer family therapy programs. Both sets of people recovered equally well. The key is that the family learned more about the addiction issue, and they changed their behavior in order to stop supporting it. Whether the therapy was long or short didn’t matter, as long as the families were provided with the right kind of information.
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Some codependent people find it helpful to join support groups such as Al-Anon. Here, they’re allowed to meet other people who are also dealing with codependency issues in their own homes, and they can all support one another as they learn how to make better behavioral choices. One important concept in these support groups involves control. Participants are encouraged to remember that the addiction begins with the choices the addict makes, and those choices may be completely beyond the codependent’s control. Instead of stepping in, stopping the behavior or correcting it, they can learn to watch the incident, feel the pain and allow the addict to feel the full consequences of the behavior. This sort of sea change can take practice, and sometimes, it helps to have someone that can listen or coach when times are hard. Support groups often link new members with experienced members, providing a safe person who can listen and provide guidance in a crisis. This can be helpful as codependent people practice their skills and learn how to stop enabling behavior, especially if the addict refuses help.
At Axis, we provide care to people who are dealing with addiction. We know that families have a key role to play when clients leave our care and return home, so we provide family care options to help the whole group learn more about addiction. Please contact us to find out more about our programs.
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