The word “codependency” is somewhat controversial. To some, it’s a word that could be applied to a reasonable set of behaviors a family engages in when facing a substance abuse problem. To others, it’s a mental illness that arises due to a substance abuse problem that happened many, many years ago. To still others, the disorder doesn’t even exist.
Families aren’t expected to become experts on mental illness, defining and diagnosing one another with ease.
Those are tasks best left in the hands of experts. But there are specific terms and patterns associated with codependency that families should understand, and if they develop a sneaking suspicion that someone in the family is dealing with these issues, they should be compelled to take action to help.
A person labeled “codependent” places the needs of others over the needs of the self and is willing to do almost anything to keep a relationship alive, even if that relationship is difficult or caustic. They want to be loved, and they’re terrified at the idea of being rejected, so they’ll do anything to keep another person engaged and involved in the relationship.
It can be hard to understand why someone might behave in this manner, but research published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse suggests that parental alcoholism might play a role. People who grow up in households ruled by alcoholics might be forced into an adult role much too early in life, and they might struggle with issues of intimacy and control as a result. In the minds of some experts, codependency is often a malformed response to a difficult childhood.
However, some experts feel that codependency issues are an appropriate response to life with a person who is currently under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. When addictions are in full swing, people make absolutely terrible choices that could impact the entire family, and people who aren’t addicted might be moved to take over an addicted person’s life in a mistaken attempt to solve the problem.
They might be controlling and have blurred boundaries, but they’re dealing with someone who is ill and trying to make the best decisions for a family that has no control over that behavior. It might seem unhealthy, but it might also just be reasonable.
Some even suggest that codependency as a concept is a mistaken effort to stigmatize women. In an article in the journal Substance Use and Misuse, researchers suggest that the term tends to “medicalize” the experience of living as a wife of someone with an addiction. These experts feel as though the addiction is the true illness, and women’s attempts to make sense of it aren’t part of any disease process at all. Since many women are provided with the codependent label, while few men are similarly blamed, this argument could be seen to have some merit.
While clinicians and mental health experts might argue at length about the condition and whether or not it’s harmless or malignant, everyone can agree that living as a codependent person is difficult. People like this are unable to define what they want, and they’re certainly incapable of making the profound changes that might be required in order to make life better.
Much that’s known about codependency comes from studies that involve alcohol, and as mentioned, a link has been shown between alcoholic parents and adult children who behave in a codependent manner. Often, people like this grow up and marry partners who also abuse alcohol, or they marry partners who abuse other drugs openly, including marijuana and heroin. Alcohol remains the major drug associated with codependency, but other substances can play a role. Often, they’re required in order for the problematic behavior to appear.
In addition to an addicted partner, people with codependency often deal with an underlying mental illness. For example, in a study in the journal Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, researchers found that 36 percent of women who had symptoms of depression also had codependency symptoms. These women struggled to keep their thoughts positive, and they struggled to keep their relationships going. It’s unclear which condition came first, but it’s easy to see how it could make life difficult when both conditions are in play.
If left untreated, symptoms of codependency could become progressively severe, and that might leave a person at risk for major depression or anxiety disorders.
In addition, some people who have codependent traits tend to turn their pain inward in time, and they develop conditions that involve self-harm. For example, in a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, researchers found a link between codependency and disordered eating, suggesting that people moved from trying to control others into trying to control their own bodies. These disordered eating patterns can be difficult to break, and in some cases, they can be fatal.
Since codependency problems appear in tandem with substance abuse, it’s vital for a family to get the help required in order to allow sobriety to take hold.
Our facilities also offer family therapy, which could be vital in dealing with a codependency problem. Here, families can learn more about how substance abuse impacts a family unit, and they can develop the skills they’ll need to deal with an addiction without feeling the need to fix it or solve it. Family therapy can also help codependent people to deal with their difficult family histories and develop new patterns they can use in the future.
If you’d like to get involved in this kind of robust recovery process, we’d like to help. Please contact us, and our admissions coordinators can explain how recovery works and help you to find the Foundations Recovery Network facility that’s just right for you and for your family. Please call 877-345-3357 and we’ll tell you more.
Integrated Treatment of Substance Abuse & Mental Illness