Codependency and Addiction: Setting Healthy Boundaries

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Do you ever feel preoccupied with another’s behaviors or habits? Do you find yourself trying to manage someone’s daily affairs, because you’re concerned they can’t do it themselves? In the process, do you find that you often neglect your own needs?

These are common signs of a dynamic called “codependency.” And although there are many reasons why this pattern develops, it’s especially common when a loved one struggles with addiction.

So, how do you know for sure that you’re experiencing codependency? And if so, what’s the best way to change this pattern for the better? Below, we’ll discuss what codependency is, why it can develop, and how you can support someone without sacrificing too much of your own self.

What Is Codependency?

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There’s no standard definition of codependency—and there’s some disagreement about it in the mental health community. One codependency expert, Sharon Martin, defines it as “a focus on other people’s problems, feelings, needs, and wants while minimizing or ignoring your own.”

Some view codependency as unique to families with addiction. Within this perspective, members of the family “enable” the addicted person by supporting their behaviors, or unintentionally contributing to a continued cycle of use.

According to the self-help group Co-Dependents Anonymous (CODA), codependency often involves a lack of self-care, or boundary setting. CODA intentionally offers no specific definition for codependency, but the fellowship’s literature states:

“Somewhere along the line, we learned to doubt our perception, discount our feelings, and overlook our needs. We looked to others to tell us what to think, feel, and behave … It became more important to be compliant or avoidant rather than to be authentic, and we adopted rigid beliefs about what ‘should be.’” 

Some signs of codependency noted in CODA literature (and elsewhere) include:

  • Perceiving oneself as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others
  • Believing people are incapable of taking care of themselves
  • Avoiding emotional, physical, or sexual intimacy to avoid feeling vulnerable
  • Compromising values and integrity to avoid rejection and other people’s anger
  • Freely offering advice and direction without being asked
  • Becoming resentful when others decline help or reject advice

When it comes to drug or alcohol addiction, codependency often refers to a one-way dynamic. But in some cases, two partners who both struggle with substances may focus on managing the other’s behavior, to distract from their own needs and pain. This is commonly called “co-addiction.” Some professionals also consider this a type of codependency.

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Codependency vs Healthy Dependency

Knowing the line between healthy support, and codependent behavior is sometimes confusing—especially since not all types of attachment and dependence are unhealthy. This is why some professionals believe the use of the term “codependency” has taken a wrong turn, and can be misleading.

So, what’s the difference? In the book Attached, researchers compare codependency in a family struggling with alcoholism, and underlying healthy “dependency.” According to the authors, when it comes to attachment:

“…most people are only as needy as their unmet needs. When their emotional needs are met, and the earlier the better, they usually turn their attention outward.”

It’s normal for families to feel attached and go to each other for comfort, physical affection, and support. This is actually the opposite of ignoring your own needs or managing another’s.

Things begin edging into codependency when people start attempting to control each other’s problematic behavior, and the balance of attention becomes lopsided. This happens along a spectrum, but if you feel your own well-being can’t be addressed until someone else has stabilized, it’s worth looking into why.

Supporting a Partner With an Addiction

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

So, how do you support a partner with a drinking problem in a healthy way? You must honor your own boundaries, while offering types of support you and your partner can agree on. This can feel challenging, and will involve a lot of ongoing communication, but here are some steps to start with:

1. Identify your own boundaries and needs

Become mindful of your own needs and reactions, and identify what things you are and aren’t okay with. For example, you may not be comfortable with your partner being drunk around the kids. You may not want alcohol in the house at all, or in the family area. You may feel you can’t stay in the relationship if your partner isn’t trying to make changes. Any of these boundaries, or others, are okay.

2. Communicate

Express your boundaries and needs in a way that works for you and your partner. You may mention these gently, write them down, or have a blunt conversation about how you feel. Make it clear that this is about your own feelings, and not a criticism of your partner. It’s just what you need to feel okay.

Everyone’s boundaries are different, but common needs can include:

  • Having time with your partner when they haven’t been drinking
  • Wanting more physical affection in the evening
  • Needing more help with chores around the house
  • Not having alcohol during dinner
  • Not being drunk or having alcohol around you at any time

3. Avoid judgment and criticism

If your partner is struggling with addiction or alcohol misuse, they may feel quite a bit of shame. Avoid unnecessary blaming statements that don’t help the situation. For example, if your partner wants to get better, you may not want to tell them that “this has never worked before,” or state that you won’t get your hopes up.

4. Offer support within healthy boundaries

Avoid offering a level of support that may make you resentful. Also avoid pushing your help, or offering to police your partner’s behavior. Instead, communicate that you will be there for them within the boundaries you discussed, without trying to control the situation. For example:

  • Instead of “Are you drinking over your boss again?” try stating, “I’m here for you anytime you need to talk.”
  • Rather than, “I knew your drinking was a problem. I’m going to remind you of this every time you pick up a beer,” try, “I see this has been hard for you. I want to support you however I can in feeling better.”
  • Avoid statements like “You never make any changes or help me out.” Instead, try, “I’ve been feeling really stressed with work and the house lately. Can you take care of cooking this week?”

Finding Help

As should be clear from above, codependency is tricky to identify and to navigate. Overall, the best approach is to simply be aware of your own needs and boundaries, and be willing to express them.

If you have an urge to police or control your partner, pause for a moment. Think about why you have this urge, and what you actually need for yourself. Perhaps a boundary has been crossed by your partner—or it may have nothing to do with them at all. Remember that both of you are individuals, who are ultimately responsible for their own well-being. Communicate about this, and come to agreements that work for both of you.

If you or your partner need support in overcoming alcohol misuse, there are new, online options that can help minimize the disruption to your daily lives. Access expert medical advice, coaching, anti-craving medications, and more—all from your smartphone.

Get in touch with us today to learn more about how our program works.

Written By:
Jennie Lannette, LCSW
Licensed therapist, writer, and published author, with a focus on trauma recovery.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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