The Things We Do for Love: Avoiding Co-Dependency When Addiction Affects Your Relationships
Valentine’s Day is a time to show your appreciation for those you love, often with gifts, a special dinner or even doing a few chores so that they can relax and feel at ease. But, when addiction is part of your relationship, there can be a very fine line between showing your love and support and enabling substance use with codependent behavior.
This is especially true in romantic and parent-child relationships where one partner or the child is battling addiction. Naturally, we want so badly to help our partner or child get better, protect them from harm, and maintain the relationship by keeping the peace, that it’s hard NOT to succumb to codependent or enabling behavior. And many times, this happens without the enabler even realizing.
Unfortunately, whether it’s intentional or not, codependency can be extremely detrimental to the recovery process and keep both the addict and the enabler caught in a quagmire of destructive behavior. The key to breaking the cycle and providing healthy support for those you love is to:
- Acknowledge the behavior.
- Implement strategies that help you both break the chains of addiction and codependency.
What is codependency?
The first step is to recognize the behavior. Codependency most often involves one person catering almost exclusively to the extreme emotional or physical needs of the person suffering from substance use, often at the expense of their own well-being. The enabler will give in to their loved one’s demands, either voluntarily or sometimes through guilt, coercion, or manipulation. For example, a codependent mother might pay the phone bill of her daughter who is using so that she can stay in contact, or a codependent wife might lie for her husband to cover up his alcohol use. Often an enabler might loan out their car or money to their loved one, knowing full well it will be used to access or purchase their substance of choice.
Codependent people will often make excuses for or assume the responsibilities of their loved one struggling with addiction. For example, one partner might insist that the other’s irritability is due to stress, when it’s really caused by withdrawal symptoms. Or they might actually cover for them — a grandmother might take her grandchildren to dance class or ball practice, all the while claiming their mother or father was “too busy” or working, when in reality they were simply too high.
Where’s the line between codependency and support?
Many codependent people truly believe they’re doing what’s in the best interest of their addicted loved one. And it’s hard not to feel that way. If your son comes home high, even though you’ve made it clear he’s not welcome if he’s high, it’s extremely hard as a mother to turn him away into the cold, lonely night.
But, more than that, a codependent may develop their own personal motives beyond wanting to help their loved one. Many times, the codependent’s own self-worth revolves around enabling their loved ones addiction.1 They become obsessive about taking care of the individual and prioritize their needs over their own. They can become very easily and overly hurt by any perceived rejection because they fear abandonment, or that the individual won’t love them anymore or need them any longer if the addiction is resolved. As a result, their codependent behavior not only enables the addiction, but it may actually fan the flames for their own benefit.
When you become addicted to their addiction, that’s not support, that’s sabotage. Supporting your loved one as they navigate addiction recovery means helping them to get better. If your behavior contributes to the ongoing problem, or unknowingly encourages it, you’re hurting them and their chances of recovery.
How to break the codependency cycle?
Once you acknowledge the enabling behavior, you don’t have to stop helping your loved one, but you do need to start setting some boundaries. For example, instead of loaning them your car, offer to drive them where they want to go. Instead of giving them money “for groceries,” offer to take them grocery shopping.
These small adjustments in the support you offer can make sure the individual is staying on the right path, rather than just using your kindness to get their next fix. Sticking to your guns is critical here, and also very difficult. You should expect some push-back, resistance and even anger in response — when those with a dependency are so accustomed to getting their way, it’s natural there might be some blowback when they don’t.
As you navigate these situations, ask yourself: Is what they’re asking going to feed their addiction or promote recovery? Will my “help” actually give them an opportunity to use again? Are they really asking for help or am I just being manipulated?
When an individual enters treatment, part of the program should also involve family therapy2; identifying and dealing with any codependent relationships is a large focus of this part of the process. An effective program will work with the addicted person’s family and other close individuals to modify codependent behaviors.
Part of that might include signing a recovery agreement that establishes a set of guidelines or ground rules your loved one agrees to follow and explains what will happen if they don’t. It might include going to AA or other group meetings every day for a month, or state they’re not allowed in the house if they’re using or have substances on them. These contracts can also clarify what type of help family members will provide and establishing those boundaries allows the individual to know what to expect.
With a contract in place, family members have the foundation they need to hold the individual accountable, as it reminds them that they agreed to these terms and redirects the conversation to offer support that’s actually beneficial instead of enabling.
Remember, it’s important to be mindful that help and assistance does not cross the line. It’s essential to assist the person to get help for their addiction while maintaining the ability to discern between helping and enabling. Hopefully, this is the first step to getting your loved one the treatment they need.
- Beattie, M. (2013). Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
- Simmons, J. (2006). The interplay between interpersonal dynamics, treatment barriers, and larger social forces: an exploratory study of drug-using couples in Hartford, CT. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 1 (12). Retrieved from https://substanceabusepolicy.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1747-597X-1-12
Orr, C. (2020). The Things We Do for Love: Avoiding Co-Dependency When Addiction Affects Your Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 27, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-things-we-do-for-love-avoiding-co-dependency-when-addiction-affects-your-relationships/