We often hear the term codependency, especially in the context of addiction. You may have observed firsthand how a spouse or other family member desperately tries to help someone who is struggling with addiction, only to end up frustrated and depleted, emotionally and physically.
What Is Codependency?
So what exactly is alcoholic codependency? According to Britannica, “Codependency refers to an extreme dependency of one person on another who suffers from an addiction. The dependent person’s actions unintentionally help maintain the other person’s addictive behavior—a phenomenon also referred to as enabling.” Codependency is not a formal diagnosis, but it is a common term in discussions around family and relationship dysfunction, especially within support groups.1
Please note that certain words like “alcoholic,” “codependent,” and “enabler” can be harmful to some. While those terms have been used for the purpose of discussion in this article, it is essential to put the person first when we communicate. It is best to avoid stigmatizing labels and discuss behaviors instead. For example, instead of using the term “alcoholic,” we can say “person with alcohol use disorder.” And when it comes to a term like “enabler,” it’s better to identify the specific issues you wish to address.
Read more: The Language of Recovery
So, let’s take a closer look at the dynamic often referred to as codependency, some of the common signs, and how we can set appropriate boundaries. We will also discuss some healthy ways to support someone with an alcohol use disorder.
How Does Codependency Develop?
Individuals who are codependent as adults often had dysfunctional parental relationships when they were growing up.2 They may have been led to believe that their needs didn’t matter, and to focus on their parent’s needs instead.
The pattern of rescuing others at their own expense continues into adulthood, and can be reflected in the relationships they gravitate towards. For example, they may be drawn to partners who abuse substances. Codependent people often possess low self-esteem, a very strong desire for approval, and denial of their own needs or of any problems within the family.3
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Codependency in Alcoholism
Codependency in alcoholism often shows up in the form of good intentions. Someone may observe their loved one struggling with AUD and unable to manage their daily responsibilities. The well-intentioned friend or family member then takes over the housekeeping, child care, errands, finances, and more.
They may even make excuses in an attempt to “protect” the person from getting in trouble at work or in relationships. In other words, they become vigilant with damage control in an attempt to keep things running smoothly at all times. Clearly an exhausting and impossible task. And unfortunately, one that only serves to make matters worse.
What Is “Enabling”?
When we try to unravel the concept of codependency, the term “enabling” almost always comes into play.
Enabling can include many types of behavior. But what they all have in common is that they allow someone to continue unhealthy drinking patterns without facing the full consequences of their actions. So, contrary to our desire to help, we are actually giving someone less motivation to quit.
Signs of Codependency
Sometimes we are too close to a situation to look at it objectively, so it is helpful to learn to recognize signs of codependency. According to the self-help group Co-Dependents Anonymous (CODA), codependency often entails a lack of self-care and boundary-setting. The group identifies some other common signs, including:
- The belief that others are incapable of taking care of themselves
- Self-perception of being completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others
- Avoidance of emotional, physical, or sexual intimacy to avoid feeling vulnerable
- Compromising personal values and integrity to avoid rejection, disapproval, or anger
- A tendency to offer advice and direction without being asked4
Codependency vs Healthy Dependency
It is important to be aware of the distinction between codependency and healthy dependency. This can be challenging because some level of interdependence is healthy in relationships. Humans have an innate desire to give and receive affection, comfort, and support. The question is “when does dependency become a problem?”
Codependency can be identified when one person attempts to control or fix their loved one’s problematic behaviors, and starts ignoring their own needs. This may happen gradually. But at some point, one person becomes solely focused on stabilizing the other, to the detriment of their own well-being. Care-taking and damage control become their mission.
Setting Boundaries With Someone With AUD
Although easier said than done, the goal is to support a partner with a drinking problem in a healthy way. This can be accomplished by honoring your own boundaries while providing a means of support you and your loved one can agree on. This takes patience, open communication, and usually some trial and error. Here are some steps to begin the process:
1. Identify your own boundaries and needs
Think about your needs, limits, and non-negotiables. For example, you may not be comfortable with your partner drinking around the kids. You may not want alcohol in certain areas of the house, or in the house at all. You may even feel unable to continue living with your partner if they are unwilling to acknowledge their issues and seek appropriate support.
Needs are very individual, but may include having date nights or outings together that don’t include alcohol. Or perhaps you need more help with cooking and household chores. It is important to verbalize these needs to avoid burnout and resentment.
2. Communicate calmly and clearly
The best time to have these difficult conversations is when there are no distractions and things are relatively calm, rather than when emotions are running high. Let your loved one know that this is about your own feelings, and not meant to be a criticism.
“I” statements work well, as you are taking ownership of your feelings and not putting the other person on the defensive. For example, you might open the discussion with, “I feel anxious and concerned when you come home late at night.” Or, “I am uncomfortable around you when you have had too much to drink and I was hoping we could talk about it.”
3. Avoid judgment and criticism
The key to having a positive impact is approaching the person in a compassionate, respectful, and supportive manner. Oftentimes we walk on eggshells around a loved one with AUD—likely because past attempts to help haven’t gone well and may have resulted in yelling, blaming, and shaming.
If your loved one is struggling with addiction or alcohol misuse, they may feel quite a bit of shame. It is important to avoid blaming statements that only serve to make them feel worse. Try not to start conversations with “you always…” or “you never…”
4. Offer support within healthy boundaries
Setting boundaries with alcoholics can be challenging and may take some practice. You may experience resistance and feel some guilt at first, but it is critical to stay the course. Remember, your health and well-being matters too. Self-compassion is essential and must be a priority. We are of little use to others if we are depleted.
Communicate that you will be there for your loved one within the boundaries you discussed, but will not attempt to control their behaviors or rescue them from uncomfortable situations. Let them know that you are there to listen and help them find the right support so they can start feeling better physically and emotionally as soon as possible, which they so rightfully deserve!