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Codependency in the House: Addicts and the People Who Love Them

When there is alcohol or substance abuse in a home, there is one other thing that you will almost certainly find in the household: Codependency.   It’s a family dynamic that occurs when the people who live with an addict feel a need to excuse the addict’s behavior and even cover it up. Yet nobody likes living with the negative behaviors that result from addiction.  When someone you love is seeking alcohol treatment, you might want to ask yourself if you are a codependent.  Just what is it, and what can you do about it?

A codependent person is someone who needs to be needed.  A codependent individual lives with feelings of inadequacy, and he feels good when the addict depends upon him. That doesn’t mean that the codependent actually wants the addict to use; if you confronted him with that possibility, he would be horrified. But it does mean the codependent person may believe that he is only loved by the addict because he takes care of her. He will make excuses for the addict and will go above and beyond the call of duty to cover up the addict’s problems.

Codependency is not an official diagnosis that you can find in medical or mental health diagnosis books, but it’s a behavioral disorder just the same. The codependent’s actions represent an addiction to the people or things or even places that he believes cannot survive without him. People can be dependent on their jobs or their sense of wealth. When you’re talking about alcohol treatment or drug treatment, the codependent individual may find that he needs help as well to address his role in the addiction process.   

We’ll make it a little easier to talk about codependency by creating an imaginary couple: John is an alcoholic, and Mary is his codependent spouse.

Scenarios of Codependency

  • John comes home late from a night out drinking and he oversleeps the next morning because of a hangover.  Mary calls the John’s boss at the office and says that John is late because the water heater broke and John is fixing it.
  • John loses his job because of repeated absences and he stays home day after day, depressed because he is not working. He files for unemployment and he takes a desultory look at the newspaper but no suitable job springs to his attention. Mary gets two jobs to keep them floating financially while John gets back on his feet…which could take forever.
  • John gets arrested for driving while intoxicated. Mary sells her mother’s antique brooch in order to come up with his bail money.

Despite’s Mary’s increasing efforts in each scenario described above, John is not grateful. He will become sullen and resentful of Mary’s intervention.  Yet Mary continues to fulfill her role as the partner that she believes John needs. She believes her only worth comes from John’s love of her. Just as John is dependent on alcohol, Mary is dependent on John’s need of her. If John quit drinking, the dynamics of their relationship would change so much that Mary would not know how to respond.

The Negative Behaviors of the Codependent

Ultimately, Mary’s behaviors stem from her own needs. She wants to be important to John and she tells herself she is holding the family together.  For example, John will not thank Mary for selling the brooch, and she will feel bewildered. She will become passive and morose.  She also believes that John cannot possibly get it together without her and that if he didn’t have her he would sink to rock bottom.

When John treats her thoughtfully, Mary is happy and important. If John hollers at her or fails to thank her for her interventions, her disappointment will swallow her. Just as their lives are punctuated by the extremes of use and sobriety, so are Mary’s moods marked by highs and lows.   

Remember, Mary is not a bad person. She just…needs to be needed. In fact, if John quit drinking today, Mary wouldn’t know how to handle it.

Are You a Codependent?

  • As a child, did your actions help to hold your family together, or were your parents in charge?
  • If someone asks you to choose a recreational activity, do you say what you want to do or do you tell them to pick?
  • Do you believe that people constantly seek your advice?
  • Do you feel that you are at your best self when you are helping someone get something done?
  • If your boss makes a mistake, do you offer to take the blame for it?
  • Would you rather lie than tell someone a hurtful truth?
  • Do you like people to help you, or would you rather help them?
  • If someone yells at you, do you go outside and cry, or do you acknowledge their anger?
  • Do you often say “I’m sorry”?
  • Do you feel it’s natural to be somewhat offended by constructive criticism?
  • If someone tells you your hair looks nice, do you feel flustered or do you just say “thanks.”
  • Are most of your partners alcoholics or substance abusers?

Stop Being a Codependent

 You can break the pattern of codependency. It helps to see a counselor, and you don’t have to think that you’re signing up for years of therapy. Even a few sessions can point you in the right direction.

Another option if you or your spouse works is to find out whether the employer offers an employee assistance program (EAP). You can get up to three free sessions with a counselor who will assess your needs and help you to break the bad habits of codependency.

If your significant other is seeking alcohol treatment, ask for a family session with his alcohol counselor and make every effort to participate in the Family Program that is offered.  A professional counselor will recognize the patterns of codependent behavior and may help you understand why you may have low self-esteem. She can direct you toward reading materials that will help you recognize your own worth or recommend guided self-imagery books, available at your local bookstore or library, to help boost your self-image. Breaking the habit of codependency is the best way you can help your significant other in his quest for alcohol treatment.

Vista Taos Renewal Center offers a Family Week Program as an element of their Primary Residential Treatment Program to assist families and loved ones work through their roles in the addictive cycle.  To learn more call 1.800.245.8267.

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