The Dangers of Codependency and Addiction

Mental Health America (MHA) defines codependency as “an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.” Codependency has also been described as an addiction to a person or relationship as someone who is codependent often craves the feeling of security and validation they receive from caring for someone at their lowest points.

Despite what may seem well-intentioned, codependency poses a significant threat to a person’s battle with substance addiction. It is important to understand how addictive and codependent behaviors fuel each other and how codependency negatively impacts the road to recovery.

Understanding the Impact of Codependency on Addiction

Where Codependency Started

Codependency is a behavioral disorder that was discovered while studying the interpersonal family relationships of alcoholics. When suffering from substance use disorder, a person’s relationships often deteriorate as loved ones are hurt, worn down, and/or angered by their actions. However, the study found that amidst the dysfunction, codependent behaviors such as over-caring and poor boundaries began to surface in certain individuals.

This pattern of behavior was first identified with spouses of alcoholics. When an alcoholic partner would become drunk or act out, many spouses were quick to provide unwavering comfort and care.

How Codependency Threatens Addiction Recovery

Unfortunately, this overly caring behavior grew problematic as it allowed alcoholics to plunge down the path of addiction without facing the full consequences of their actions. The codependent partner would play a supporting role in their addicted partner’s struggles, potentially as a result of low self-esteem or a desire to feel needed or wanted in the relationship. This dynamic led to an extremely unhealthy relationship between addict and codependent – the substance abuse was left alone to continue so long as the codependent spouse felt fulfillment in caring for their addicted partner.

Today, the term “codependency” is used to describe these relationship dynamics between people suffering from different types of addictions and a codependent partner. Both the addict and codependent are seen as equal members in the relationship, despite the codependent’s willingness to sacrifice their own needs or happiness in order to please their partner. This often leads to a toxic environment in which both partners suffer.

In a sense, codependency can be seen as a mental health issue of its own. The codependent person often grows attached to the feelings of being needed or wanted when providing care for their addicted partner. Because of this, it’s common for codependents to develop an almost need for their partner to continue struggling with their addiction in order to become the caregiver or martyr. Learn more about how to cope when your loved one is in treatment.

Signs of Codependent Behavior

Codependency can affect anyone in a relationship with someone struggling with addiction – a spouse, family member, friend, co-worker, etc. There are several common traits associated with codependent behavior, including:

  • A desire to fix another person
  • A sense of martyrdom or wanting to always take the blame
  • Using words or actions for control over another person
  • Overly emotional responses to situations
  • Lack of relationship boundaries or the inability to set and abide by them
  • Denial or justification of a partner’s mistakes and poor behaviors
  • Low self-esteem or insecurity within a relationship (causing a person to do whatever it takes to prevent their partner from leaving)

Because of their caregiving, codependents may see nothing wrong with this type of relationship dynamic. However, by not directly addressing the underlying issues and allowing an addict to ignore the consequences of their behavior, codependency can prevent recovery and even lead to relapse following treatment.

The Importance of Treatment

When codependency and addiction mix, it can lead to several negative effects for both partners, such as:

  • An inability to walk away from an unhealthy relationship
  • Decreased confidence in overcoming one’s addiction due to repeated relapses
  • Acceptance with how things are despite substance abuse and addiction

Feeling helpless is extremely common for someone battling drug or alcohol addiction. Because of this, it can be easy to seek comfort from the unconditional care that comes with codependency. However, this relationship dynamic can be extremely dangerous and lead both partners into a downward spiral.

It’s important for both parties to receive the proper treatment in order to restore a healthy relationship and create an environment in which the road to recovery becomes a shared goal. Holding each other accountable will help establish boundaries and instill confidence in one’s ability to get better.