People can become addicted to any number of substances or behaviors, including drugs, gambling, sex and food, but can you become addicted to another person? In some sense, yes – it’s called codependency, and it can be extremely damaging to both individuals.
Codependency can arise in any type of relationship, but we most commonly think of the addict and their highly enmeshed spouse or partner. By denying the existence of a problem, trying to control the addict’s drug use or rescuing them from the consequences of their actions, the partner enables the addiction. The partner feels needed and the addict feels justified in maintaining their drug habit. It’s a win-win that actually ends up being lose-lose.
Where do we learn codependent behaviors? Most people learn them from their role models growing up, especially if they were raised in an addicted or dysfunctional home. For example, children of alcoholics are up to four times more likely to become addicts themselves, and about half go on to marry an addict and duplicate the addict/codependent model they saw in their parents. Others may suffer traumatic experiences early in life, which contribute to low self-esteem, a fear of abandonment and other codependent traits.
Since enmeshment is the only way they know how to be in a relationship, few people recognize their own codependent patterns, instead labeling themselves selfless or “too nice.” All they know is that they have a pattern of unstable, one-sided and in some cases abusive relationships. Here are a few additional signs that you may be in a codependent relationship:
People who struggle with codependency feel a heightened sense of responsibility for the thoughts, needs and decisions of others, as well as their ultimate satisfaction in life. Often in a controlling or manipulative way, they try to solve other people’s problems and offer unsolicited advice, doing far more than their share to ensure the individual’s happiness.
Although their efforts may at first seem noble, they are in fact driven by the codependent’s need to feel needed. Serving others, often to the exclusion of their own needs and desires, is the only way they feel valued and loved. All of this self-sacrifice leads to anger and resentment, which often manifests in other mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, sex and relationship addictions, and substance abuse, as well as physical health problems.
Codependent individuals have little sense of self. To sustain some sort of interpersonal connection, they focus on how their partner feels, how they think and what they believe rather than paying attention to their own feelings, values and beliefs. They become consumed by the other person and lose themselves in the process.
A codependent relationship is based on fear. Fears of abandonment, being alone or being rejected lead to an extreme need for acceptance and approval, which in turn leads to desperate attempts to please others. The codependent partner resents the addict for being sick, yet fears getting well could mean losing their identity as the addict’s caretaker. As a result, they accept blame where it properly falls elsewhere, change their clothing and appearance to please others, give up friends or hobbies, and go to other extremes to maintain the status quo.
There is a sharp disconnect between who the codependent partner is and who they think they are. Because their identity is so wrapped up in another person, their emotions mirror the addict’s. If the addict is having a good day, so is the codependent partner. Without the addict’s influence, the codependent has difficulty making decisions and recognizing and asserting their own wishes. In some cases, they choose to be in a relationship with the addict out of pity or a belief they can “fix” them, mistaking those feelings for love.
In the absence of healthy role models, codependent individuals struggle to set personal boundaries that protect them from harm. They say yes when they mean no and take charge of situations that others are capable of handling. Doing so supplies a false sense of self-confidence even as they fail to protect themselves from victimization.
Just as an addict needs treatment to stop depending on drugs, the codependent partner can benefit from counseling, support groups (such as Co-Dependents Anonymous) and other interventions to stop depending on the neediness of others. For codependents, recovery is less about their relationship with an addict and more about restoring a healthy sense of self. It’s about learning to love and care for oneself rather than trying to fix someone else.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Sack served as a senior clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where his research interests included affective disorders, seasonal and circadian rhythms, and neuroendocrinology. He currently serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that includes Promises rehab centers in California, The Ranch in Tennessee, The Recovery Place drug rehab in Florida, and Right Step and Spirit Lodge in Texas.
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Last reviewed: 24 Sep 2012