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Alcoholism and the Codependent Relationship

Published by Daniel Brooks Moore on

Codependent relationships are unhealthy and are characterized by an overdependence on one partner, a need to nurture and control, complete devotion to the relationship and an inability to find self-worth outside of it, and enabling of problem behaviors, like drinking. The term codependency was first used to describe the relationship between alcoholics and their partners. While the definition has since expanded, problem drinking remains a common component of codependent relationships.

Codependent relationships can be toxic relationships. Alcohol or other substance abuse is often involved, even a trigger for the unhealthy dynamic. It’s important to understand what a codependent marriage or other relationship is, what it means for each individual, how to recognize it, and how to use healthier coping mechanisms than drinking to improve the relationship.

If there is already an issue with alcohol abuse in a troubled relationship, recognizing the problem and taking steps to correct it is crucial.

What Is Codependency?

The term codependency has been used for many years in psychology, although it is not an officially recognized mental disorder. Codependency is more of a personality or relationship pattern than a mental illness. The term was first used to describe the role spouses or partners of alcoholics played in their relationships, as enablers of drinking and other negative behaviors. Eventually it became clear that codependency was more common than this, that people often developed these unhealthy relationship behaviors even when there was no substance use involved.

Although the term is not limited to drinking, codependent relationships often occur when one partner struggles with substance abuse or a mental illness. For instance, personality disorders like narcissistic, borderline, and dependent personalities in one partner may cause a greater susceptibility to a co-dependent relationship.

Regardless of any existing substance use disorder or mental disorder, the hallmark of codependency is one partner lavishing attention on the other while taking his or her sense of self-worth and self-esteem from that person’s behaviors and attitudes. One partner tends to nurture the other, making excuses for their bad behaviors, making sacrifices to keep them happy, and settling for less in return.

Alcoholism and Codependency – Which Comes First?

Alcoholism was the original reason for the term codependency, and it is often the case in this type of relationship that it stems from drinking or another type of problematic behavior. The other partner tries to nurture the drinker, making excuses, covering for responsibilities, cleaning up messes, and otherwise enabling the bad behavior by eliminating the negative consequences.

However, it is also likely that someone in this position of enabling and being codependent tends to be drawn to someone who needs help, who struggles to function and relies on other people. Personality characteristics in the codependent partner draw him or her to someone who will accept unhealthy nurturing and attachment. And it is often likely that this person is someone struggling with drinking or another type of substance abuse.

It’s also be possible that a codependent relationship may develop first and trigger an alcohol use disorder in one partner. A relationship with codependent behaviors is not a healthy one. One partner relies on the other for nurturing and to improve function. The other relies on him or her to feel needed and worthy and to develop self-esteem. The stress of this kind of relationship may lead one or the other partner to drink or use drugs.

Am I Codependent?

A difficult relationship is not necessarily one that is codependent, but it is important to recognize the signs. If you are struggling in your relationship, whether your partner drinks too much alcohol or not, know the signs of codependency so you can take steps to make positive changes if you recognize them in yourself and your partner:

  • You have a tendency to rescue people, take responsibility for others, and make sacrifices for people.
  • You regularly make sacrifices for your partner, and it boosts your self-esteem.
  • You tend to do more than your fair share in your relationship, whether that means more chores, financial responsibilities, or emotional involvement.
  • You make excuses for your partner when he or she behaves in an inappropriate way, such as getting drunk.
  • You feel responsible for those bad behaviors.
  • You feel like you would do anything to hold on to your relationship, even though it is difficult.
  • You feel as if you won’t survive without the relationship.
  • You need recognition and approval from your partner and feel hurt and worthless when your efforts aren’t recognized.
  • You keep quiet or accept bad behaviors from your partner to keep things calm and avoid fights.
  • You struggle to find any satisfaction or meaning in things outside of your relationship, such as friendships or work.
  • You often feel depressed, ashamed, guilty, or anxious.
  • You have a hard time trusting people and opening up to others.

What to Do Next

If you do believe you are in a codependent relationship, there are steps you can take for positive change. Ending the relationship is not always necessary, but sometimes it is the best thing to do. Even if you do end it, you still need help learning about and changing your codependent tendencies so you don’t make the same mistake again.

If you want to try to stay together, an important first step is to get your partner professional help for alcohol use disorder. You may not feel like he or she is an, but even a mild alcohol use disorder can be treated and managed to the benefit of the relationship. If your partner enters a treatment program or gets addiction counseling, it will likely include couples therapy so that you can work on your relationship at the same time.

In fact, it is crucial that you address both issues—the drinking and the codependency—because if one is not managed, the other will continue to be a problem. A good treatment plan will include both partners and will offer behavioral therapies, support groups, relationship and family counseling and education, and individualized plans for ongoing change.

Codependency is more a learned behavior than a mental illness. If you are struggling with this issue in your relationship, you can learn to change your behaviors. Seek professional support, and try to get your partner involved. If he or she will not accept help or acknowledge there is any problem at all, it may be time to move on from the relationship.


A bit more

Part 1: Intro

The origins of the term Codependency can be traced back to the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous (Al-Anon from now on). Al-Anon was the first self-help group for addicts founded in 1935. After sharing their personal experiences in group-therapy, Al-Anon members quickly noticed that the wives (during this era, most Al-Anon members were straight men) of Alcoholics typically responded with a pattern of overly-supportive enabling behaviors, and thus, the term Codependent was born.

The thing is, we know now that codependency doesn’t just happen in the context of alcoholism. It happens on its own, as well as alongside all sorts of addictions and behavioral problems. Codependent relationships are an unhealthy way of obtaining self-esteem and feelings of safety that deteriorate our identity and independence.

Here are the basics:

  • Codependent relationships happen between two individuals
    • One person is “troubled” and tends to absorb the other’s energy and resources by behaving selfishly.
    • The other person, the Codependent, compulsively takes care of the other at the cost of their own wellbeing and independence.
  • Codependency can happen in any type of relationship including those between Friends, siblings, parents + children, coworkers, spouses, and so on
  • Although Codependency is a sub-clinical diagnosis, it is highly treatable with support and therapy.

Part 2: Signs and Symptoms

Lovers, friends, and family members help us get through the hard times, as well as enjoy the good times. These intimate relationships that we develop over a lifetime are fountains of energy, inspiration, joy, and comfort and they’re also probably the best part of being alive.

Unfortunately, these relationships can sometimes grow into toxic codependency. If someone in your life is making you feel any of these symptoms, it is time to acknowledge that the relationship might be unhealthy.

Low Self-Esteem:

Codependency is a means of obtaining affirmation, and a sense of purpose and self-worth. However, when we put our self-esteem into the hands of another person, it fluctuates based on his or her moods. A healthier way to boost self-esteem is to form multiple relationships and focus on your inner strengths.

Compulsive People-Pleasing:

Codependents focus far too much of their time on pleasing their more emotionally demanding partner, usually at the expensive of their own wellbeing.

Extreme Reactivity:

Dips in their partner’s mood can lead to extreme emotional reactions in the codependent person.

Feeling Powerless:

When we invest all of our emotional energy into an unstable person, we can feel like we have no control over our own lives.

Isolation– As a codependent relationship grows, all the other relationships in our lives start to fade, and disappear completely, until we are alone with that one partner.


Codependents rely on their relationship for their sense of self-worth, so over time, it becomes everything they think about! Nothing else seems important anymore in comparison.

Intimacy Problems:

When we become codependent, we are not forming a functional, well-rounded bond. Instead, we are relying on each other for specific psychological needs, so real communication is downright impossible. Intimacy problems might manifest as a fear or reluctance to talk about certain topics in order not to upset your partner.

Painful Emotions:

Being codependent isn’t a happy condition. With all of these specific symptoms going on, we’re bound to feel depressed, anxious, hopeless and lost.

Part 3: Styles of Codependent Relationships

Experts used to think of Codependency as a problem that goes along with alcoholism. Nowadays, we know that it can happen in a wider variety of situations. There’s no way to list every type of codependent relationship, after all, every situation is unique, but here are some of the most common types of Toxic Codependency:

Addict + Caretaker

The original concept of codependency involved an alcoholic and his enabling wife (remember, we’re talking about the 1930’s here), which falls into the addict/caretaker dynamic. However, addicts of all kinds attract codependent partners. It doesn’t matter if the problem is alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, or whatever else. What matters is that all addicts tend to behave irresponsibly, destructively, and selfishly which makes them very, very difficult people to live with. Their partners (platonic or otherwise) fall into the Codependent Caretaker role by cleaning up their messes and providing them with what they need to continue on with their harmful behavior.
This relationship boosts the self-esteem of the caretaker, as it makes them feel needed and important. You may hear this kind of codependent person say things like “I’m the responsible one in this relationship.”

Parent + Child

Perhaps one of the most troubling forms of codependency occurs between parent and child because it inhibits a young person’s emotional development. Typically, the parent becomes emotionally dependent on their role as a caretaker to their naturally needy young children. It’s quite normal for all parents to gain a feeling of pride in their familial role. However, codependent parents behave in a way to prolong the ‘needy state’ of their children, unnaturally prolonging their role as caretaker. They will prevent their kids from growing up into independent adults so that they forever rely on their parents for everything.

You can imagine how difficult it is for the child to break free from this relationship since it formed a major part of their development.
You might hear a codependent parent complain about their child’s lack of independence. However, their behavior will contradict that. You will see them continue to spoil and encourage their adult children to rely on them.

Dysfunctional Adult + Enabler

When we shirk responsibilities and fail to meet life’s basic demands, the universe responds with a swift kick to the behind. Not paying bills and skimping on self-care gets us into trouble, which usually ‘trains’ us to be more responsible. Messing up once or twice is usually enough for us to learn to get our acts together as adults. However, in some cases, dysfunctional adults find a partner willing to take over when they give up. This partner is an Enabler because their overly-helpful behavior allows the dysfunctional person to continue on their path of self-neglect. Ironically, the enabler is doing much more damage with kindness than they realize. A stern, realistic influence is what the dysfunctional person really needs.

You might hear the enabler say things like: “I’m the sane one,” or “I don’t know what (s)he would do without me.”

Fix Your Codependency Issues Through Our Family Therapy Program

If you and your family are struggling with the effects of codependency, know that you do not need to keep on the path towards self-destruction. You and your family can obtain the care that is needed to better yourselves in the midst of what might feel like an all-out crisis.

As your loved one is obtaining treatment, do what you can to get help for yourself by participating in Breathe’s Los Angeles family therapy program. Doing so can make a huge difference in your life and the lives of your loved ones. Call us today and begin your healing process.

I hope you found this helpful because I know we’ve been talking about this a lot lately.

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