By Naomi Carr
Updated: 29 September 2023 & medically reviewed by Morgan Blair
Codependent relationships are often mentioned within the context of addiction and the recovery process. The concept of codependency and its effect on addiction is widely debated, but many believe it contributes to the occurrence of various detrimental consequences that impact all involved in these relationships.
Table of contents:
What is a codependent relationship?
A codependent relationship can occur in various contexts. Commonly, it applies to the relationship between a person with an active addiction, mental health condition, or vulnerable person, and their spouse, partner, child, friend, or family member. The two people in this relationship are mutually reliant on one another, creating dysfunction and dependency.
In the context of addiction, the addicted person is dependent on their partner or family member to meet their needs, as they cannot do this for themselves. The person who cares for the addicted person is codependent. Their emotions and actions are often based on the addicted person and their needs.
Codependency often begins with good intentions and a desire to help a loved one. However, it can result in controlling behavior from either person with the codependent person enabling the addiction forming an entrenched cycle of harmful behaviors.
Signs of a codependent relationship
Numerous different behaviors and actions could be signs of a codependent relationship and these signs can vary significantly. Signs of a relationship between a codependent person and an addicted person could include:
Providing the addicted person with the necessary finances to obtain substances
Making excuses for the addicted person’s harmful or destructive behaviors
Repairing damages caused by the person while under the influence
Lying to others to hide the addiction
Fulfilling the responsibilities and commitments of the person with the addiction
Being unable to make decisions or plans before agreeing with or considering the requirements of the addicted person
Never discussing the addiction with others or confronting the addicted person about their behaviors
Experiencing difficulties with professional functioning and maintaining employment
Trouble maintaining a social life, having very few friends, or losing friendships
Feeling responsible for others and experiencing guilt if unable to provide support
Experiencing persistent or severe stress, anxiety, or depression, which may lead to the codependent person developing their own addictive behaviors
How does codependency affect addiction and recovery?
Codependency has long been considered detrimental to individuals with active addictions or seeking recovery from addiction. It is thought that these relationships are dysfunctional and harmful to all involved, increasing the emotional distress of the codependent person and other family members while hindering chances of recovery.
If the codependent person provides financial support to the addicted person, they could be considered to be actively enabling the use of substances. The addicted person may not be financially able to obtain drugs or alcohol without this support, so the codependent person is likely to be directly contributing to the continued addiction and substance use.
Additionally, by taking on their responsibilities and hiding or excusing their harmful behaviors, the codependent person prevents the addicted person from recognizing the consequences of their actions. This also enables their addiction as it allows them to continue to behave this way with no repercussions and no opportunity to recognize the harm they cause to themselves and others.
Barriers to support and recovery
Often, the codependent person becomes increasingly stressed and overwhelmed within this relationship. They continue to try and provide support to their loved one, but this can become more difficult with time and result in resentment toward the addicted person.
The codependent person might also impair the ability of the addicted person to begin or continue the recovery process. They may be so accustomed to dealing with addictive behaviors that they are unaware of how to provide support during recovery and continue to enact codependent or harmful behaviors that hinder this process.
If the addicted person is unable to begin the recovery process, not only does the addictive behavior continue, but also the underlying trauma or mental distress that has contributed to the forming of the addiction remains unaddressed. They are prevented from processing and overcoming their difficulties or learning positive coping strategies, therefore remaining stuck in a cycle of addiction.
Concept of codependency
Some argue that codependency is not a definable or measurable concept and is not always harmful to addicted people or the recovery process.
The addition of codependency to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has been an ongoing discussion and debate for some time. Some argue for this inclusion, while others believe that the concept is too vague to be defined, evidence-based, and measured and therefore has no place within the diagnostic criteria.
Additionally, it is thought that the idea of codependency places blame on the partner of the addicted person for enabling the addiction. This can create unnecessary stigma, forcing the partner or family member to withhold support for fear of judgment. It may also create potential barriers to safer substance use or treatment seeking.
The idea that codependency is harmful can enforce the use of ‘tough love’ to an addicted person, such as ending communication or asking them to leave the home. This could actually increase their chance of substance use and dangerous consequences. A lack of social support is likely to be a contributing factor to ongoing substance use, along with increased stress, loneliness, and fear.
Having a partner or family member who shows support and care could be beneficial to many addicted people. For example, it could give them someone to rely on and a potential reason to begin the recovery process. Also, the support that a codependent person provides could contribute to a reduction in stress and emotional distress, which could help to decrease substance use.
Relationships between someone in the throes of addiction and their partner or family member are complex and multifaceted. Some aspects of these relationships may be harmful, while other aspects may be protective and beneficial. A balance between setting boundaries and providing ongoing support is likely the most positive approach to these relationships.
How to overcome codependency
As the partner, family member, or loved one of a person with an active addiction it can be incredibly challenging to know how best to provide support or cope with the challenges of these relationships. The following may help individuals overcome codependency while still supporting an addicted person:
Learn about codependency: Seeking more information about addictive and codependent behaviors and why they occur can provide the necessary knowledge to make positive changes in the relationship that benefit both individuals.
Speak to others: Caring for an addicted person can cause emotional distress and ongoing challenges. It can be helpful to utilize support networks of family and friends, support groups, or online forums to feel supported and receive advice on how to manage.
Learn coping strategies: A professional can provide therapeutic help and advice, improving the ability to cope with the relationship and consequences of the addicted person’s actions, and helping to reduce codependent or enabling behaviors.
Have a personal life: A codependent relationship with an addicted person can lead to social isolation and neglect of personal needs. It is important to engage in enjoyable activities, spend time with friends, have meaningful employment, and maintain independence. This can help to reduce codependency and improve emotional well-being.
Set boundaries: A codependent person may struggle to set boundaries as it can feel difficult to start saying no to a loved one. Boundaries should be clear and reasonable but do not need to be extreme and can be agreed upon by both people in the relationship. This can involve outlining aspects of care and support that will continue to be provided and those that will not. A mental health professional may be able to provide guidance on how to implement this.
Encourage professional support: Encourage the addicted person to seek professional help for their addiction. There are many options in addiction recovery, including therapy, rehab centers, and group programs. Supporting an addicted person alongside professional treatment can provide them with significant benefits and help to reduce codependency within the relationship.