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I recently read a book in which the author claims there no such thing as co-dependency. Even though co-dependency is defined in WebMD, Wikipedia, Psychology Today, and many other sources, she affirms there’s no such diagnosis in the psychological diagnostic manuals therefore, it does not exist. There are lots of behavioral addictions that aren’t in the diagnostic manuals. For example, porn addiction, shopping addiction, video addiction, work addiction — all addictive behaviors, and we know that they do exist. It seems that she doesn’t like the term because she feels that it makes parents and other loved ones feel like they are doing something wrong when they are helping their substance-addicted (another word that’s not in the diagnostic manuals) children.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at what co-dependency actually is. I define addiction as anything that a person continues to do in spite of negative consequences. In my book, Exit the Maze — One Addiction, One Cause, One Cure, co-dependency is an addiction to another person. This means that if a loved one does something I don’t like, or I deem as harmful or scary, I (unsuccessfully) attempt to control that behavior. However, the person doesn’t change and, in fact, often gets worse, and so do I. At the same time, when the person acts out the self-defeating behavior, I protect them from the consequences of their actions, “enabling.” It is a vicious cycle of mimicking the addict’s behavior — doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.

Co-dependency is self-serving. It’s doing for another when it’s in the best interest of that person to take care of something themselves. This form of enabling has a hidden agenda, such as preserving one’s own public image, fear of being alone, or financial interests. Caring is about going to bat for a person you love and using whatever leverage you have to get the person inspired and motivated for help.

Caring is unconditional. It’s helping another person when they want the help to get better. It means that love and concern are always available to the addict, without going down the rabbit hole of ineffective solutions — like attempting to control someone through anger and guilt followed up with protecting the addict. Classic example — being enraged with an alcoholic who stays out late, and then calling in sick to their boss for them the next day.

Caring means you stay detached from the addict’s behavior (depersonalize it) while you lovingly address the behavior, offer solutions, and elicit the cooperation of the addict to get help. Sometimes, this requires a professional intervention — involuntary treatment. The co-dependent must get treatment as well, or the same reactive and enabling behaviors could continue to trigger the targeted addict’s relapse.

Like any addiction, co-dependency fails. Letting go of control does not mean letting go of possible solutions. Caring is helpful through mutual dignity and respect and having faith in the person you love without being pulled into the black hole of addiction. A caring person sees the problem, gets help to understand what to do, and never abandons the addict. Sometimes separation is imminent, but love is never withdrawn. They simply stop judging the behavior, stop trying to control the addict, yet honestly and lovingly address the behavior. The recovering co-dependent no longer covers up or make excuses for the addict, and most importantly, the codependent redirects all energy back to healing oneself. The addict then can face the consequences of their choices so that the delusional addiction cycle can be interrupted. If there is a threat of incarceration or death, legal intervention should be enacted to keep the addict safe.

When the co-dependent realizes that the most loving thing to do is to keep working on oneself, while remaining solution-oriented, the addict has the best chance of real recovery. Then everyone can share the miracles of recovery together.

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Donna Marks is an educator and licensed psychotherapist and addictions counselor in Palm Beach, Florida. Since 1989, she has worked with over 6,000 clients. Donna’s struggle with addiction brought her to a worldwide search for healing. She became licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in 1987. In 1989, she earned a Doctorate Degree in Adult Education, then became Certified in Addictions, Gestalt Therapy, Psychoanalysis, Hypnosis, and Sex Therapy. Donna developed an award-winning addiction training program at Palm Beach Community College. She co-owned an outpatient treatment program and is a consultant to treatment centers. Donna is the author of two books; Learn, Grow, Forgive, and the multi-award-winning, Exit the Maze-One Addiction, One Cause, One Cure, and created an online course for people who want to be cured of addiction. 

Donna is a public speaker and has shared her methods with hundreds of thousands of listeners on podcasts and radio shows.

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