When you care about someone deeply, you want them to be happy. The last thing you want is to see them suffering or in pain. In some cases, however, helping the people you love can mean ignoring your own needs. Giving them what they want may even be detrimental to them, their family, and your relationship. Situations like this are often called codependent relationships, and they are extremely common in the lives of people with substance use disorder.
What Are Codependent Relationships?
Codependent relationships can be hard to define because codependency takes many different forms. In general, a codependent relationship is one where there is an intense emotional dependence of one person on the other or both people on each other. This extreme dependence leads to unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors in one or both of the parties. In some cases, the mental strain of codependency can lead to the development of mental health disorders.
The most common type of codependent relationship is one-sided codependency. This is a relationship in which one person is extremely reliant on the other to determine their moods, actions, and self-perception. The other person may recognize the behavior as unhealthy or be oblivious to it. They may also choose to address it as an issue, or they may choose to take advantage of and manipulate it. As you can see, codependency can take many forms, but it is always harmful to everyone involved.
Codependency is not always malicious. While there are instances of one party deliberately manipulating the other for their own gain and encouraging codependent tendencies, this isn’t the norm. Most codependent relationships are what you would call covert codependency. The imbalanced nature of the relationship is often subtle and may be invisible to people outside of the dynamic. In fact, the people involved in the relationship may not be aware of it themselves. The codependent partner may have a history of codependent relationships; therefore, it may feel normal to them. Their partner may not be attentive enough to notice the mental strain, or they may enjoy the benefits of codependency too much to consider it a bad thing.
Contrary to what you might believe, codependent relationships are not always between romantic partners or spouses, although they can develop in that dynamic. Codependency can also develop in relationships between friends, siblings, parents, and their children.
Codependent relationships can be particularly detrimental in parent-child dynamics in which the child steps into a caretaker role for their parent. This could be due to the parent having a mental health disorder, substance abuse issues, or being a young, inexperienced parent, perhaps even a child themselves. The dynamic in situations like this can be traumatic for the child and cause them to skip stages in their emotional and social development as a result of having to grow up too fast. Children need stable and supportive role models who can tend to their needs as they go through physical and mental development. Being stripped of a stable parental figure makes a child more likely to develop mental health disorders in the future.
How Codependent Relationships Develop
Codependent relationships are intricate and often evolve gradually over time They stem from a deep interdependence where one person becomes heavily reliant on another for their emotional well-being, self-esteem, and identity. Several interconnected factors contribute to the development of codependent relationships.
Low self-esteem plays a pivotal role in codependency. Individuals with poor self-image and low self-confidence may seek validation and approval from others. Consequently, they can become overly dependent on the positive feedback and attention they receive from a partner, friend, or family member.
Dysfunctional family dynamics are another significant contributor to codependent relationships. Growing up in a family where emotional needs were not met, or where issues like substance abuse, mental illness, or other challenges were prevalent, can lead individuals to develop codependent behaviors as a coping mechanism. The inability to establish and maintain healthy boundaries is a common hallmark of codependency. People in codependent relationships often find it challenging to say no or assert their own needs and desires, which results in them consistently prioritizing their partner’s needs over their own.
Maintaining personal autonomy can be challenging for codependent individuals. Their identity becomes closely entwined with their partner’s, making it difficult to make independent decisions or pursue personal interests. This can eventually strip the codependent person of their identity completely, which leads them to cling to the relationship even further. The relationship provides them with a sense of self and a sense of purpose. Without it, they feel hollow and directionless.
Unfortunately, women are more likely than men to be codependent. This is because of societal expectations forced onto women that categorize them as caretakers before all other things. Many girls are raised to derive their self-worth from how well they take care of others. Small things that may seem harmless, such as making baby dolls a classic toy for young girls, can have a huge effect on their futures. Where boys are taught to explore their individuality and strength, girls are often taught to nurture and care for the needs of others.
Women whose romantic partner or spouse has substance use disorder (SUD) are one of the most at-risk groups for codependency. This is due to a combination of two factors: the stress of having an addicted partner and pre-existing personality traits. They may also have trauma from past relationships that have caused them to develop codependent tendencies, which they now carry with them into new relationships.
Codependent Relationships and SUD
SUD and codependent relationships often go hand-in-hand. Whether the relationship begins before or after the substance abuse, codependency can develop. This correlation is present because people with SUD are often in a heightened state of vulnerability. They’re often at the whims of their addiction and will do almost anything to continue using, even if it is unhealthy or immoral. Additionally, people with codependent tendencies may subconsciously seek out others who are vulnerable or need help, like people with SUD or other mental health disorders. This is because they derive their self-worth from how much they are needed by others.
When those two types of people come together, it can often result in a codependent relationship. The addicted person needs someone to lean on and someone to enable their addiction, and the codependent person needs to feel needed. Obviously, this is unhealthy for both parties. The addicted person is allowed to continue abusing substances, which endangers their mental and physical health. At the same time, the codependent person takes on a massive emotional, mental, and sometimes financial burden to care for the addicted person. They also are reinforcing their codependent habits, which will only lead to more issues in the future.
As mentioned before, codependency can take place outside of romantic relationships. This is especially true for instances of codependency and SUD. More often than not, it is a family member who has formed a codependent relationship with an addicted person. It may be a parent and their adult child, a grandparent and their grandchild, or siblings. No matter the relationship, one party has taken on the role of caretaker and enabler, and the other party takes advantage.
Enabling can look like:
- Buying substances for a loved one
- Giving your loved one money when you know it will likely be used for substances
- Letting your loved one live with you/crash at your house
- Bailing your loved one out of jail
- Downplaying the severity of the addiction to your loved one or to others
- Lying to others on your loved one’s behalf
- Rationalizing your loved one’s behavior or making excuses for them
- Ignoring the addiction or denying it altogether
An important thing to remember in these situations is that neither party is entirely to blame. Addiction is a disease that causes nearly uncontrollable cravings. It often requires years of treatment to return an addicted person to who they were before. When you have a loved one who struggles with SUD, it can be an extremely painful journey to watch. You’ll probably feel compelled to help them out of good intentions and love. This is usually how codependent relationships start: with good intentions. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the only true help an addicted person can get is professional treatment. Sometimes, love can mean pushing them to take that difficult step.
Am I in a Codependent Relationship?
Here are some signs that you are in a codependent relationship:
- The other person is the only source of happiness in your life
- You do not feel whole unless you are with the other person
- When you aren’t with them, you feel restless, anxious, or depressed
- You blame your negative feelings on the other person
- You’re constantly worrying about the other person and thinking about how to make them love you more
- You take care of the other person like a parent would to a child
- The other person’s needs feel more important than your own
- You feel like you can’t live without the other person; the idea of the relationship changing causes extreme distress
- When you feel sad or angry, you wait for your partner to rescue you from those feelings
- You easily feel unloved, even if your partner has done nothing to provoke this
- When you’re hurting, you expect your partner to hurt with you; anything less feels like a betrayal
Certain traits can make people more likely to become codependent. You may be at increased risk for codependency if you are:
- A people pleaser: You want others to be happy and will do whatever it takes to make that happen, even at your own expense
- Bad at setting boundaries: You may feel guilty when trying to set boundaries because it means acknowledging your own needs.
- A natural caretaker: People have probably told you all of your life that you’re so good at taking care of others, and this is something that gives you pride and a sense of worth
- Someone who struggles with self-esteem: When you think lowly of yourself, you’re more likely to derive your self-worth from how you function for others
- Always in a relationship: If being single makes you feel worthless or anxious, you may have codependent tendencies
Getting Help For You and Your Loved One
If someone you love has substance use issues, it is crucial that you help them get professional help. That is the best way to show that you care about them. It may be scary to take that step if you find yourself in a codependent relationship. You may feel like if they get better, you’ll no longer be needed. This is simply not true. Your loved one should value you for more than the support you’ve given them through their addiction. If you both get the help you need, your relationship will be stronger and healthier on the other side.
Rehabilitation centers like Avery Lane are the best place to get started on a journey of addiction recovery. While your loved one gets professional help for their substance abuse issues, there’s work you can do, too. Therapy is a great tool for building self-esteem and overcoming codependent tendencies. Avery Lane’s mental health programs offer a variety of therapy options so we can find what works best for you. Taking this healing journey along with your loved one is a crucial step to showing support for them and self-love.
There are many therapy modalities that you might find helpful for problems with codependency. Attachment-based therapy helps individuals explore and reshape their attachment patterns to foster healthier relationships. This therapy explores an individual’s early attachment experiences with their caregivers, usually parents. These experiences are categorized into attachment styles, including secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. What attachment style you’ve developed influences how you relate to others in adult relationships.
Outside of therapy, there are some things that you can work on to help you become less codependent. This will lead to a healthy relationship with yourself and your partner. Here are some things to try:
Pick up a new hobby (or a few) that you don’t share with your partner. While it’s normal to share interests and hobbies with someone you’re close with, you should also have your differences. Allow yourself to explore things that interest and excite you independent from what the other person thinks. When you find something, embrace it!
If you have codependent tendencies, being alone for any amount of time can be difficult. But even if it doesn’t feel good, it is essential. Make time for yourself every day to be alone for a while, even if it’s just a few minutes. If it feels uncomfortable, sit with yourself in that discomfort. Accept it. It will get easier, and eventually, it will feel good.
Build Your Self-Esteem Independently
You probably feel your best when your partner compliments you. Although that’s normal, you should also maintain a healthy self-worth independent from other people. Try keeping a journal and listing one thing that you feel proud of or something you like about yourself every day.
Practice Saying No and Setting Boundaries
Even if it’s over small and trivial things, practicing setting boundaries is extremely important. If it’s too difficult to say no to your partner right away, start with other people you feel more comfortable with, like a friend. Remember, setting boundaries is not selfish or rude; it’s healthy.
Take a Break if You Need To
If you feel that you need to step away from a relationship in order to rebuild your independence and sense of self, that is what you should do. This isn’t always necessary, and being in a codependent relationship doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. However, a temporary or permanent break is sometimes the best solution.
Being in a codependent relationship can feel like you’re caught in the tide of your own feelings, being pushed and pulled in multiple directions. If you feel lost in a relationship, we can help you find yourself again. At Avery Lane, we understand the complexity of codependent relationships and how easy it is to fall into one without noticing, especially when you’re worried about a loved one’s well-being. You’ve been a pillar of support for them; now, let us be that for you. We can give you and your loved one the help you deserve. Sometimes, learning to be independent starts with asking for help. We’re here for you. Give us a call at (800) 270-2406.