Romantic relationships may begin with roses, chocolates and promises of eternal love and devotion. Couples newly in love may believe that their time together will always be carefree, and that the two will prosper because they are sharing their responsibilities and spreading their burdens between two people, instead of handling them alone.
When it comes to drugs, however, sharing the burdens of addiction can cause problems. Drug abuse can change one partner into an addict, and in response, the other person may become codependent.
Addiction and Household Functioning
People who are addicted to drugs have a compulsive need to use drugs despite the consequences they face. If the addiction was allowed to take its course, people who are addicted might:
- Lose their jobs
- Get arrested for possession of drugs
- Drive while impaired, and face lawsuits
- Spend their life savings on drugs
- Become homeless
Addictions take over the person’s life, and the drugs become the most important thing for the person to obtain and protect. As a result, all of the other petty concerns of life fall by the wayside.
It’s been said that addictions cause addicts to pay the ultimate price, sacrificing all they have in order to support something that takes every pleasure away. It’s easy to see why this statement is so very true.
People who live with an addict often can’t sit idly by and allow these consequences to take place. After all, an addict who spends all of the family’s money on drugs might force the whole family into homelessness.
The problem may start with the addict, but the entire family may be impacted by the addiction. As a result, spouses of addicts may be forced to pick up the slack, helping to keep the household functioning even when the addict isn’t doing his/her fair share of the work. It’s a normal consequence of an addiction, and in some ways, it’s not an unhelpful response if it helps to keep the family functioning.
The real problems occur, by contrast, when the helpfulness begins to translate into something deeper and more powerful.
According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, people who have low levels of self-confidence often have codependent tendencies. This study didn’t determine whether the low confidence came first, or whether the codependency was the first to emerge, but it’s clear that the link is strong and persistent.
While people who have a strong sense of self might be able to look at an addiction as a problem, and they might even provide a set of solutions that could help, people with a low sense of self might be unable to simply observe addictive behaviors at work. Instead, they feel responsible for the actions, and they feel driven to fix the problem. When they see the addict’s destructive actions, they may attempt to help by:
- Coming up with excuses for the behavior
- Apologizing to others for the behavior
- Amending any negative consequences for the behavior
- Reassuring the addict
If these actions take place only once or twice, they might be considered a part of being in a couple, and dealing with an addiction together. In fact, some couples do use slipups of addiction as a time to make changes, get help and overcome the addiction together.
But people who are codependent rarely use these addiction problems as an opportunity for improvement. In fact, they may view the addiction as either simply normal, or else somewhat rewarding.
Taking Over the Addiction
People who are codependent may view themselves as “survivors” of an addiction, and they may begin to define their entire self-worth in reference to the addiction.
When the person doesn’t use, the codependent person feels happy and elated. When the addict does use, the codependent person feels despondent and guilty. Tying emotional states to someone else is dangerous, because other people are almost impossible to control.
The codependent person has no ability to change things or make things better, and as a result, the person may begin to feel helpless. Over time, these emotional states can lead to more intense problems.
A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that people who had more characteristics of codependency showed more symptoms of eating disorders as well. These people may have turned to eating disorders as they attempted to resolve their emotional pain. They controlled their bodies, since they couldn’t control their feelings.
On the other hand, people are remarkably adept at adjusting to situations over time, and they may even come to view dysfunctional relationships as normal, and the idea of changing the relationship may fill them with panic. As a result, they may subconsciously support the addiction as it helps them to keep things the same. By helping to keep the addict together – by saving the addict – they feel powerful. If the addict didn’t need help, these codependent people might not have a means for feeling powerful and important.
The addiction is locked in place both by the addict and by the codependent person.
Codependency can take many forms, and people who are codependent may not share all of the same symptoms or the same coping skills. However, according to Mental Health America, people who are codependent tend to share these characteristics:
- Chronic anger
- Poor communication skills
- Fear of abandonment
- Lack of trust
- Need for approval or recognition
- A tendency to do more than their fair share
- Hurt feelings when their efforts aren’t recognized
- An augmented sense of responsibility for others
A codependent person may take over complete responsibility for all of the household duties, controlling all details to ensure that they are handled in a specific way.
The codependent person may not allow the addict to have access to any money, privacy or personal freedom.
The codependent person may also restrict his/her own activities in order to supervise the addict, and make sure all of the rules are followed.
The codependent person may become extremely distraught at the idea of losing access to the addict, and the fear of abandonment may keep the codependent person in this destructive relationship for years.
People who are codependent can also exhibit their symptoms in relation to money. They may spend an increased amount of money on gifts or clothing for the addict, and spend no money on their own needs. They may use money to hire lawyers for the addict, or bail the addict out of jail, instead of allowing the addict to handle the consequences of addiction. They may also spend lavishly on the home, keeping everything looking perfect in order to maintain the illusion that all is well within the home.
Codependency and Feminism
Codependency is often associated with women, but as a study in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly points out, both women and men can become codependent, and they tend to exhibit the same sorts of symptoms.
Even though this is the case, there are some signs of codependency that are almost exclusively associated with women, and in fact, some aspects of codependency are valued by the version of the “ideal women” held up in society.
In a romantic relationship, women are often expected to be the partners who nurture and provide emotional support.
Women are also often expected to hold the household together, and provide the primary support for the children in the family. These are the tasks that codependent partners would easily handle, and they might even excel at these tasks. For this reason, some feminist therapists have argued that the codependent diagnosis is inherently sexist, and that it discriminates against the natural skills of women. They feel that women aren’t being codependent in these relationships as much as they are fulfilling the role that women are required to fill in any family with difficulties.
This might be the case, but as one author put it in an article in Drug and Alcohol Review, there’s no doubt that many people have benefitted from discussions about codependency, and that some people who do have the disorder do need help in order to overcome it.
Making Needed Changes
There is no one therapy that is best for people who are dealing with codependency.
As an article in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs puts it, people who have codependency are likely to struggle with serious emotional problems, but those emotions can vary widely from codependent person to codependent person.
A one-size-fits-all approach would never work if each person who has the problem is unique and individual. It is clear, however, that codependent people do benefit from therapy.
By working with a counselor, people can learn more about the nature of addiction, and why it is something the addict must learn to overcome. People can also learn more about how to observe addicted behavior without fixing it, and how to set limits regarding the amount of damage the family will accept as a result of the addiction.
Progress in therapy may take time, and immediate results really aren’t likely, but therapy can do wonders to help people deal with the destruction codependency and addiction can cause.
Some codependent people find that holding interventions is an important part of the healing process. Instead of simply trying to fix the addiction alone, without help, they can work with a counselor to come up with specific terms to use to describe the addiction, and they can let the addict know that the addictive behaviors simply must change. Ideally, at the end of the intervention, the addict will agree to get help for the addiction.
But even if the addict does not, the codependent person has taken a stand against the addiction and promised to stop shielding the addict from the consequences of the addiction. This could be an incredibly healing step for the codependent person, whether or not the addict chooses to get help. The family dynamics may change for the better, once the intervention has been held.
If you’re ready to stage an intervention for your addicted loved one, contact us today. We can help you step away from codependency and toward healing.