Can helping be harmful? The short answer is yes, and when it happens in a relationship it’s known as codependency. Codependency is a type of dysfunctional bond often seen between a person with a substance use disorder and a spouse or family member.

January is National Codependency Awareness Month, and in this article we’ll examine what codependency is, how it impacts relationships and how codependency affects addiction.

What Is Codependency?

Codependency is a term addiction treatment and mental health professionals may use to describe a partner or family member who is overly involved in a loved one’s affairs or who is too willing to bend to a person’s demands. When addiction is involved, a codependent person may be referred to as an “enabler.” Although often well-meaning, this behavior pattern can unintentionally enable a person’s substance abuse.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, some of the common behavior patterns in a codependent relationship include:1

  • Thinking another person isn’t capable of taking care of themselves and attempting to control most of their life and decision-making
  • Low self-esteem and denying their own feelings to avoid making the other person angry or annoyed
  • Oversensitivity and willingness do almost anything to avoid fights, arguments or other problems in daily life, even if these conflicts are a “normal” part of life

A codependent person may ignore signs of a loved one’s substance abuse or avoid talking to them about the problem because they’re afraid of upsetting them. They may be too afraid they will be rejected to discuss what’s going on. When this happens in a relationship with someone who has a substance use disorder, this behavior may prevent the loved one from getting the help they need.

Effects of Codependency

A codependent person often suffers from low self-esteem and may have experienced some form of physical, mental or sexual abuse in the past. Codependency can be an addiction itself. A person can experience severe and sometimes long-lasting effects from codependency. These include:2

  • Depression
  • Medical side effects, such as ulcers, high blood pressure and headaches
  • Social anxiety
  • Decreased likelihood that they’ll seek medical attention when they need it

Help for Codependency

If a person finds themselves engaging in codependent behaviors, they should acknowledge the negative impact that this has on their loved one. Professional help is available to dig into why and how the relationship has become codependent. Therapy can help a codependent person to identify these patterns and learn new, healthier ways of interacting with their loved one.

Sometimes a codependent person has spent so long in denial of their loved one’s substance abuse that it takes time to identify how the addiction has affected them personally. However, with time and continued therapy, a person can begin to recognize how to better treat themselves and care for their own health and well-being.

If you think you may be engaged in a codependent relationship, contact a professional for help. Therapy works, and it can benefit you and your loved ones.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64258/
  2. http://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/consequences-of-codependency