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Learn / Codependency and Addiction: Understand the Relationship and Get Help

Codependency and Addiction: Understand the Relationship and Get Help

Grace Ogren
 August 24th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Codependency has multiple definitions but similar symptoms throughout.
  • Living with someone with an addiction doesn't cause codependency.
  • But, living with someone with an addiction can make codependency more likely.

Codependency and addiction have a complex relationship. A codependent person may unwittingly enable their loved one to keep using substances without consequences. The codependent person themself may struggle with an addiction to cope with the pain of codependency. 

Addiction often results from codependency, as codependents may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their issues and to fill an emotional void. Codependency can also lead to addiction by enabling an individual to continue substance use even when it harms their health or relationships. Someone with a substance use disorder may also be more likely to form codependent relationships to gain approval and validation.

Addiction and codependency can feed into each other—though one hasn’t yet been found to definitively cause the other. Codependency doesn’t just happen in a relationship with someone with an addiction, either. 

To find help for codependency and addiction, you can attend peer-support groups, therapy, and go to a rehab that focuses on codependency

Codependency: What Is It And Where Does it Come From?

Codependency is a type of dysfunctional relationship where one person has a dependent pattern of behavior that’s emotionally destructive to themselves and/or the other person. It’s typically characterized by an excessive emotional, physical, or psychological reliance on another person—to the point of neglecting your own needs. Codependents also tend to be overly controlling of the other person in their relationship.

Codependency isn’t a diagnosis, nor does it have a mutually agreed upon definition. Some psychologists, scientists, and members of the public think the traits of codependency could just be part of the emotional human experience. 

Others argue codependency can be separated from the bulk of human experiences as a unique adaptation to stress, trauma, unstable childhoods, and living with someone with an addiction. And as codependency becomes a more common phenomenon, more people may realize they fit into its broad definition. 

Generally, a codependent person will aim to control another person or situation by losing themself in the other’s desires and perceived needs. They accept unacceptable behavior as a way to maintain some control of the situation or of the other person. But this can make them disappear—hiding away to continually meet others’ needs. 

Where Does Codependency Come From?

Some definitions of codependency suggest it only develops if someone you live with has an addiction. More accurately, the source of codependency may stem from personality, childhood experiences, trauma, and an intermingling of each. Living with someone who has an addiction can certainly cause codependent tendencies. 

And, none of those factors can cause codependency, too. Some people who live with a person with an addiction may never struggle with codependency. Studies have proven an addicted spouse or child isn’t the sole cause of codependency; but for some family members, addiction can be a catalyst. Someone with childhood trauma may never become codependent either, but it’s a common cause since childhood shapes your adult personality.

Childhood Roots of Codependency

Someone who grew up in a dysfunctional or emotionally distant family may resort to codependency to survive—taking on more responsibilities than they should, making others’ emotions their duty to manage, and losing their true self in the instability of those they seek to control. Doing this may offer a sense of safety and security. 

Codependency in childhood usually causes codependency in adulthood. A child of an alcoholic parent, for example, may gravitate toward a spouse with drinking problems because that unstable relationship feels normal, as does forfeiting their sense of self for safety and control. Being in fight-or-flight mode during childhood can cause a codependent to seek that feeling in adulthood. Someone who takes them out of fight-or-flight mode may feel too unfamiliar, and even daunting, to pursue.

Addiction in Both Parties

As defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), “addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.” Addiction can affect the codependent, the other in their relationship, or both of them. 

A person with substance addiction isn’t the only half of a codependent relationship that can struggle with an addiction. Often, a codependent person will use alcohol, drugs, sex, food, and other substances to manage the pain of codependency. Addressing substance use in both parties can help the relationship heal as a whole.  

The Relationship Between Codependency And Addiction

A spouse, parent, or sibling may become codependent as a way to manage the turmoil of their loved one’s addiction. Someone with an active addiction often has unpredictable emotions, behaviors, and moods. Their codependent will likely appease their every whim to self-manage their unreliability. 

A codependent person also believes they can force their loved one to stop using out of sheer will—or by succumbing to their every need and demand, hoping they can abate the feelings causing them to drink or use drugs. Failing to stop the substance use may drive the codependent to drugs, alcohol, or risky behaviors to cope with that pain.

Someone who’s codependent can enable their loved one’s addiction by accepting the behavior. Codependent people often live in denial—denial of their loved one’s addiction, how they need help, how they both need help—as a way to manage the problem. 

Denying the issue can give it fuel. The person with addiction may knowingly or unknowingly take advantage of that denial to continue using without consequences. So, their addiction may get worse, as would how they treat their codependent partner. The codependent, meanwhile, resorts further and further to their codependent tendencies to find some element of control. And so the cycle continues.

A lack of control and a codependent’s limitless desire for control can perpetuate their codependent behaviors. They may reason that if they just keep trying, they’ll eventually gain control; one day it’ll work and they’ll never drink again. But, as many come to realize, you can’t force someone out of addiction.

Challenges of Breaking The Cycle

The codependent may feel too scared or anxious to stop seeking control through appeasing their spouse/child/parent. They may also fear speaking up about their emotional pain, or even recognizing it at all. 

Someone with an addiction could find it easier to stay addicted if their partner goes along with it or pretends they can’t see it. They might not consider treatment, thinking they’ve “got it handled” and don’t need help. Over time, and without any treatment, their addiction can worsen. 

The codependent often experiences an addictive cycle of emotions. They can go from extreme lows to extreme highs, depending on how their partner treats them. The codependent may crave the next high just as a drug user craves a drug high. 

Treatment And Recovery

Professional treatment can help you find the cause of your codependency traits and develop new ways to manage a lack of control, real and perceived. Each person in a codependent relationship can benefit from treatment.

Treatment for The Codependent

Codependents can benefit from psychoeducation and taking a dive into their childhood. Psychoeducation teaches a codependent the “why” behind their behaviors, including the biochemical reactions that make the cycle so hard to leave. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help a codependent recognize the traits of codependency and examine the emotions behind them. Since most codependents have had a traumatic or dysfunctional childhood, CBT sessions will likely focus on your childhood to find the root belief behind your emotions and behaviors. 

For example, you may believe others’ needs are your responsibility and will feel guilty if you don’t completely satisfy their needs. This ingrained belief may have begun in childhood, perhaps because of an emotionally volatile, mentally unwell, physically unwell, or addicted parent. CBT will help you identify what caused that belief and the guilt related to it, then change your coping tool (codependency).  

You can also benefit from peer support and self-help groups, whether they’re 12-Step-based or not. Support groups can help you find an explanation for your experience and others who share it. Other resources, like books and podcasts, can also help a codependent understand their traits and heal. Here’s a few books you could check out:

Treatment for The Partner

The “partner” in a codependent relationship could be your romantic partner, but it broadly refers to the other person in your codependent relationship. That could be your spouse, child, parent, relative, or close friend. 

The codependent partner may not mean to drive someone to codependency. A codependent’s empathy and conscientiousness might be so highly attuned to negative emotions that healthy expressions of sadness, anger, or other negative emotions could trigger their partner’s codependent traits. 

But in some cases, if not most, the codependent’s partner has similar traits as the dysfunctional or abusive parent(s) the codependent grew up with. They have poor relationships in adulthood because it feels normal. That means a codependent is more likely to fall for a narcissist, an abuser, or someone exploitative. 

When your partner has a personality disorder, an addiction, or dark personality traits, they need professional treatment to heal. Treatment for addiction, for example, can help your partner address the cause of their addiction and identify new coping strategies for difficult emotions. After treatment, you’ll hopefully find your partner much more stable, reciprocative, and safe. In those cases, your codependent traits may fade because you simply don’t need them anymore. 

Once your partner has received proper treatment, you could both attend couples therapy. Here, you’ll address what triggers your codependency traits. Your partner will learn more about how it works for you and how they can help. They may also be able to reassure you that codependency isn’t their intent for you and that they’ll work with you to get well.

You and your family can also attend family therapy to address codependency in your family and how it affects each member. 

Prevention And Self-Care Strategies for Codependency

One way to prevent codependency is to educate yourself on what it is and what causes it. If you do recognize it in yourself, you can seek professional treatment and practice self-care strategies to prevent it from getting worse. Some strategies you can try include:

  • Practice self-acceptance. Each day, try to take stock of the times you blame yourself for someone else’s negative emotions. Then, challenge the blame. Write down the process and your thoughts on it. See if you can make it a daily habit. 
  • Surround yourself with people who make you feel safe. Can you identify people in your life who don’t make you feel responsible for their emotions? People who make you feel safe being yourself? Keep them close as you navigate your codependency.
  • Set aside time just for you. Spend an hour, three hours, or any amount of time however you want—just not on the other person in your codependent relationship. Take a bath, go to the library, or take a walk. Anything that sounds nice to you. 
  • Pursue what brings you joy. Rekindle old hobbies or try something new to give you an extra boost of happiness and confidence in your abilities. 

You can also attend treatment for codependency and addiction at rehab, which provides 24/7 support, intensive treatment, group and 1:1 therapy, and wellness services. 
Explore our list of rehabs treating codependency with pricing information, reviews, photos, and more.

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