When the codependency label first came out, the term was paired with chemical dependency rather than addict and co-addict. At the time, the only reference to addiction was hard-core drugs like heroin. Some diagnostic manuals still don’t use the word addiction, but that only keeps people in denial and prevents early intervention. Like any other addiction, codependency has all the same symptoms, and the sooner they are recognized, the more hope for early recovery.
Reason # 1 – Definition
Addiction is continuing the same behavior, despite negative consequences. The codependent continues to enable the addict by covering up, buffering the addict from the consequences of their actions, and keeps believing things will change regardless of evidence to the contrary.
The codependent, like the addict, suffers demoralization for the same reasons – doing the same thing and getting the same negative outcome. The only thing that changes is that matters keep worsening. The addict repeatedly swears off the behavior and repeatedly fails to abstain. Every time the addict fails, the codependent suffers anger, disappointment, and hurt, swears they’ve had enough, then continues to reengage without setting healthy boundaries.
Reason #2 – Denial
Addiction is blind. It doesn’t see the connection between one’s problems and addictive behavior. Everything is rationalized as normal. “Everyone parties like this,” “I can control it, I just overdid it this time,” “You’d need an escape too if you had my problems.” Codependency is disguised as being helpful. “What am I supposed to do, let her go to jail?” “He doesn’t drink anything like my father. He was a real alcoholic.” “I know she steals my pills sometimes, but it’s not that bad.” “I don’t think I’ve got a sugar addiction. I just need to go on a diet.”
Neither the addict nor the codependent face the reality about the seriousness of their condition or the cost to happiness and physical health. Family members often point fingers at other family members, and everyone ignores the room full of elephants. In this scenario, the entire family is bonded together in addiction and dysfunction. Even if there is a targeted “patient” (the scapegoat), other members unconsciously sabotage that person getting better. These families are often shocked when someone dies from obesity, overdose, or organ failure when outsiders saw it coming all along.
The recent COVID scare is a good example of global denial. People were deathly afraid of getting COVID, but liquor stores remained open, people overate and ate poorly. There was a complete disconnect between staying as healthy as possible and the ability to survive the virus. If only there were as much focus on the deadly disease of addiction which (directly and indirectly) takes more lives than COVID every year, we’d have hope for a healthier population that could survive almost all diseases.
Reason #3 – Fear
Fear of change and fear of abandonment are at the root of codependency. Fear of losing the addict is number one on the list.
The biggest fear is that the addict will die, and the codependent will feel responsible. What both fail to realize, enabling is flirting with death. Far better to confront the problems head-on and try to lovingly intervene, than to remain silent and wish you’d spoken up if the addict dies. Caving to the addict’s demands could be replaced with comments such as, “I can’t help you with this anymore. I’ve been watching this for a long time, and it’s worn both of us down. I realize that if I do what you’re asking, I’m hurting you more than helping. I love you very much. You clearly have an addiction, and I want you to get help.”
The codependent fears change because they might have to face a loss. Change in lifestyle or how the addict and codependent relate to one another could very well deter the codependent from facing the addiction. New sobriety means adjusting to a new personality, and this isn’t always a fun experience. Rather than being supportive and going to meetings or therapy, the codependent says such things as “I liked you better before you stopped _______.” Or, they offer no support by saying nothing at all. This is an open invitation for the addict to relapse.
In some cases, the codependent goes through withdrawal just like the addict. Without an ongoing crisis, life seems dull and boring. Stirring the emotional pot can also trigger a relapse.
Fear of having to give up their own addiction is another deterrent to recovery. Codependents and addicts often have quid-pro-quo relationships. I’ll put up with your addiction if you ignore mine. For example, so long as your drunk, you won’t notice my spending, eating, or other behaviors that might threaten my pleasures.
Fear is at the root of all resistance to change. Rather than engaging in new experiences for a better life, fear keeps the codependent stuck. This cycle could be broken with therapy, Al-Anon, or a spiritual support system, but most folks decide they don’t care much for these treatments, so they never reap the rewards of change and growth.
Codependency is fear, not love. Love means living a life of meaning and purpose without harming oneself and others. Healing codependency is the same as any other addiction. All unhealthy behavior must be replaced with loving behaviors. Honestly facing the truth, conscious decisions, refusing to be manipulated, learning to say no, and taking responsibility for personal growth, are all things that help the codependent and serve the best interests of the addict as well.
No one can cause, control, or cure addiction. But, when the codependent heals, often, the addict will follow.
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Donna Marks believes that the models for diagnosis, treatment, and addiction have failed. Her mission is to help save at least one million lives by 2030, through education and prevention. She has been an author, consultant, educator, public speaker, licensed psychotherapist, and addictions counselor in private practice in Palm Beach, Florida for more than thirty years. In 1989, Dr. Marks developed a chemical dependency treatment program at Palm Beach Community College, that has since grown into a four-year degree program, and for which she was granted an Award of Appreciation. She became licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in 1987. In 1989, she earned a Doctorate Degree in Adult Education, then became a Certified Addictions Professional, Certified Gestalt Therapist, Certified Psychoanalyst, Hypnotherapist, and Certified Sex Therapist.
Dr. Marks is the author of the 22-award winning book, Exit the Maze: One Addiction, One Cause, One Cure.
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