Codependency and Drug Addiction
Codependency describes a dysfunctional relationship where one person is enabling the other’s addiction, immaturity, or irresponsible behavior. Although the enabler may have well-meaning intentions, they are often unconsciously reinforcing addictive or other negative behaviors.
Relationships that are based on codependency feed a complex cycle that is difficult to break because both parties are getting something they need from the relationship. The addicted person is counting on the codependent to cover for and enable behavior they feel incapable of stopping, while a large part of the enabler’s identity is based on feeling needed by the addicted person.
Although codependent relationships often involve the spouse or significant other of the addicted person, it is not uncommon for children to take on the role of caretaker and enabler of an addicted parent.
Signs of a Codependent Personality
People with codependent personalities often have difficulty making decisions, have trouble communicating their feelings, and may exhibit an obsessive need for the approval of others.
According to PsychCentral, other codependent traits may include:
- Low self-esteem: The codependent person may feel unlovable outside of the relationship role and depends on the opinions of other people for feelings of self-worth.
- People-pleasing: The opinions of other people have a great deal of weight for the codependent individual. This person will do anything to make sure others have a positive opinion of them and may find it difficult to say “no” to others.
- Caretaking: The person feels a primary need to care for others, often at the expense of self-care; in extreme situations, the person doesn’t feel secure unless needed.
- Unhealthy, or absence of, boundaries: The codependent person may not have a sense of boundaries, either for oneself or others. These individuals may offer unwanted advice, feel responsible for other people’s feelings, or want to manipulate or control others in order to feel secure.
- Obsession with relationships: Because the codependent person feels defined by relationships, it may become an obsessive focus for the individual; actual relationships may lack emotional intimacy.
Co-dependent Relationships and Drug Addiction
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes drug addiction as a chronic, but treatable disease, characterized by compulsive drug-seeking despite negative consequences. Continuous use of addictive substances causes harmful changes to the brain, which may be permanent.
Because addiction damages normal brain pathways, it is difficult for addicted individuals to stop using drugs without help. The drive for drugs is so strong that the addicted person often manipulates those closest to them into helping them get the addictive substance and to help cover for their behavior with friends, family, and co-workers.
In a codependent relationship between an enabler and a drug user, the enabler may base their feeling of self-worth on being needed by the drug user. When this happens, the enabler may unwittingly encourage or condone the addicted person’s behavior by shielding them from the consequences of their actions in order to keep peace in the family and with others affected by the addicted person’s actions.
Codependence Harms Everyone in the Relationship
Harm to the codependent person
While a codependent relationship harms everyone involved, it poses certain risks to the enabling person. The codependent individual spends so much time and energy meeting the addicted person’s needs, they often neglect their own needs. This can cause physical health problems and mental health issues, including low self-esteem and depression.
A study published in the journal Science and Collective Health found the codependent enabler to be at a higher risk of:
- Developing an addiction to substances, food, or gambling
- Losing meaningful contact with anyone outside the codependent relationship
- Becoming unable to meet responsibilities outside the codependent relationship
The codependent person often feels conflicted. They consciously want to help their loved one recover but may subconsciously fear that if the addicted person recovers, they will no longer need the codependent person.
Harm to the addicted person
Addiction rewires the pleasure and reward centers of the brain in such a way that an addicted person may become incapable of experiencing pleasure and well-being unless they are under the influence of drugs. The damaged brain can no longer deliver those positive sensations naturally. This makes it extremely difficult for a person to stop using drugs without professional help.
Because the codependent person is unconsciously smoothing the way for their loved one to continue using drugs, the addicted person lacks the motivation to stop. Even if the addicted person successfully completes a drug treatment program, they have a higher risk of relapse if they return to the same codependent relationship after rehab. “For this reason, codependence should be considered as part of the individual’s treatment plan when the person enters a rehab program,” according to a study from the International Journal of Culture and Mental Health.
Because the codependent relationship is so strongly intertwined with addiction, recovery, and relapse, it is vital that both the addicted person and the codependent person receive professional treatment. For this reason, many drug rehabilitation centers integrate the addicted person’s significant other and family members into the treatment program.
It may also be helpful for the codependent partner to undergo personal therapy, to resolve issues underlying their codependent tendencies, and to learn to set boundaries.
If you are working to break the cycle of codependence, the most valuable thing you can do is to set and keep boundaries.
- Make your loved one accountable for their actions
- Do not do for your loved one anything they should do for themselves
- Refuse to lie or cover for them
- Refuse to loan them money or bail them out of jail
- Speak up, even if you would rather “keep the peace” in the family
- Take care of your own health and personal needs
When you and other family members establish firm boundaries and support one another in keeping those boundaries, you not only create more peace in the family, but it is also more likely your loved one will seek treatment.
Talk to an addictions specialist for guidance on how to encourage your addicted loved one to seek treatment.
Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is a well-known resource for those seeking to recover from drug addiction.
Recognize that you and all members of your family need help. You can find valuable information and support with 12-step groups like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), and Alateen. The CoDA website gives helpful information on recognizing the signs of codependency and how to find a meeting.
Midwest Recovery Centers
At Midwest Recovery Centers, our compassionate staff specializes in treating prescription or illegal drug dependence, alcohol dependence, co-occurring disorders, and other addictive behaviors while also providing education through a monthly support meeting for the families of those struggling. Contact Midwest Recovery Centers today to start your recovery.
Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., MAADC II
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.