Codependency describes a pattern of behavior whereby one or both partners lack autonomy and depend on the other for happiness and approval. Codependency often becomes an issue for those in relationships with people who suffer from alcohol dependency. Individuals who are codependent base their identity and self-worth on their partner.
One key signal of codependency is when a person’s sense of purpose is invested in satisfying his or her partner’s needs – even when it is to his or her own detriment. Codependence is often the second step in enabling. Enabling is the act of extending help that actually perpetuates a problem. An enabler might not provide alcohol, but might lie to keep a partner out of trouble or help a partner not face the reality of day-to-day life as an alcoholic.
How Codependents Are Similar To Addicts
Codependents attach their self-worth to caring for people who struggle with alcohol dependence. They think they are truly helping the addict, when, in fact, they are just enabling their partners to persist in a destructive lifestyle. If the user overcomes his or her dependence, it can be devastating for the codependent partner – whose life has been dedicated to that person’s needs. Because of this, when alcoholics look for recovery, there is a high chance their partners will resent it – even though they are likely unaware of it – because the source of their self-worth has been taken away.
The pull of codependence is strong. Psychologists suggest it is similar to addiction – some medical professionals go so far as to say it is an addiction itself. Alcoholics and codependents often form an unhealthy, and sometimes desperate, need for each other; one is addicted to caring for the other, and the other requires that care to remain addicted to alcohol.
Family members will sometimes encourage codependents to leave the partners they’re enabling, but the issues these people face are much more complex than only staying or going. If a codependent and alcoholic separate, they still must fight the addictions that brought them together.
Why Separation is Sometimes Ineffective For Alcoholics and Their Partners
Because these issues are so deeply rooted for the codependent – and because the person struggling with alcohol likely has other problems that accompany the dependence – leaving each other is often ineffective. If an addict is stripped of one addiction, he or she will look for another. The same is true in the relationship between an addict and codependent.
For instance, if a man is abusing alcohol and his wife is codependent, she may eventually see that she wants a life of her own, but most of the time, one of two things happen: She returns because he needs her, or she finds herself in another codependent relationship. When she leaves her alcoholic husband, she still must solve her own addiction – the codependence.
The husband, on the other hand, will be devastated at losing a caregiver. In another scenario, he may realize that she is enabling his addiction and leave her. However, without proper care and medical help, it is a highly challenging road ahead. He will look for help, and – because he knows she will come – he will lean on her. But without his reliance on alcohol, she has no addiction to fuel. She may unconsciously and unintentionally sabotage his efforts to stay clean.
Help for Those in Codependent Relationships with Alcoholics
Unfortunately, many treatment centers misunderstand the complexity of these bonds. A health professional who sees the world as black and white often will ignore the layers of pain that led to alcoholism. Many blame the codependent partner for some aspect of the addiction or for enabling the abuse.
Judging someone who has offered a loved one full care and compassion as guilty suggests a shallow understanding of these relationships at best; at worst, it suggests incompetence. Like the people they love, many codependents are unaware of just how destructive their behavior can be.
Untangling the Complex Relationship of Abuse and Codependence
Although the healing process should demonize no one, codependents need care as much as addicts do. Their behavior can perpetuate cycles of abuse while preventing themselves from living happy and fulfilled lives. The relationship this person has with an alcoholic may need to be disbanded, but it isn’t an absolute – it depends on many factors.
Two of the most important factors require each partner to practice self-care. First defining and healing the codependent’s root causes of dependence on another is crucial. Though it may go without saying, the second aspect is healing and recovery for the alcoholic – independent of the codependent partner.
Experienced Care for Those Struggling With Addiction
Many medical professionals treat alcoholism as one disease, when it’s actually a different disease for every sufferer – anyone who struggles with alcohol became dependent due to unique factors. Those who work to help alcoholics should inventory their own behaviors. Codependency doesn’t rear its head all at once; it’s often simmering beneath the surface. A relationship with an addict can bring it to a full boil. A few signs of codependency are:
- You are in a relationship (or have had past relationships) with an addict.
- Your partner’s issues are your issues, and you find yourself talking about them often.
- You help your partner manage things he or she should be able to do without you.
- You let your partner have his or her own way most of the time, but you resent it.
- You think you are responsible for your partner’s actions.
- Your partner’s mood – whether good or bad – changes your day.
If these signs are familiar, get help for yourself and your partner from a treatment center that understands the complexities and inter-dynamics of those with substance abuse disorders and their families. If you are struggling with alcohol dependence, consider whether your partner is helping or hurting your recovery efforts. Just as when one hurts, it hurts the other, one partner’s transformation can signal a change for you both.
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