Dysfunction within a family system is very common when a family member is struggling with a substance use disorder. Family members may feel an obligation to help the individual, which in itself is a normal, natural tendency. However, codependency is a sign of dysfunction — an unhealthy pattern of crossing boundaries and becoming enmeshed in the loved one’s substance use disorder. Not only will it not help the individual, but is also quite unhealthy for the codependent family member.
What is codependency?
Individuals who are codependent engage in an obsessive preoccupation with the perceived needs of a loved one. Self-sacrifice and martyrdom are terms often associated with codependent individuals, as they become so focused on trying to help their loved one that they deny their own needs. In a way, though, the sacrifice is self-fulfilling because it satisfies an irrational need they have to feel needed.
Codependents often neglect their own health, or the needs of other family members, devoting all their time and energy to rescuing the individual with the substance use disorder. Codependents actually become stakeholders in the disease, claiming it as theirs to manage and control in an attempt to achieve a sense of purpose and validation, no matter what the personal cost.
Signs of codependency include:
- Obsessive caretaking behaviors
- Suppressing of emotions
- A need for approval
- Controlling behaviors
- Caretaking fills a void
- Putting the person’s needs above their own
- Making excuses for the loved one
- Harboring feelings of resentment and anger
What are the problems with codependency?
At first glance, codependency may appear to be noble, compassionate behavior. Just a parent or spouse looking out for their loved one. In reality, codependent individuals entangle themselves with their loved one’s disease to the point that they, too, become sick.
Codependency also ushers in enabling behaviors. Enabling refers to taking care of the loved one’s every need. Examples of this are paying bills, repeatedly bailing them out of jail, calling their employer with excuses for absenteeism, pleading to their landlord for leniency and even turning a blind eye to substance use.
By doing for the loved one the things they should be doing for themselves, this strategy backfires. When the loved one has no motivation to stop using the substance, since all their needs are being met, they remain mired in their substance use disorder.
What are some of the causes of codependency in families?
Codependency within a family may be caused by the following factors:
- Misplaced compassion: While it appears to be nothing more than one family member helping another, codependency is actually about satisfying mutual needs. One family member sacrifices all, even their own health and well-being, to meet the other person’s needs because they thrive on being needed. Although compassion might be the emotion they are acting on, codependency harms them both.
- Fear: The fear of losing a loved one to substance use disorder is very real and understandable. Unfortunately, fear can lead the family member toward codependent behaviors in their quest to save the individual. As the disease spirals, the codependent family member attempts to assert control over the situation by monitoring the loved one’s every move.
- Being a people pleaser: Codependent people have certain personality traits and childhood experiences that make them more prone to this type of dysfunction. Some people are wired to be people pleasers, to put out fires and martyr themselves for the other’s sake. This tendency often stems from childhood attachment disorder, neglect, trauma or being raised in a home with substance use disorder.
Addiction is a family disease, with dysfunction forming at many levels in the family system, including codependency. Family therapy helps identify these tendencies and teaches members how to establish healthy boundaries, and that the individual with the substance use disorder must own their recovery and do the work necessary to enjoy a sustained recovery.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders. Our programs are accredited by The Joint Commission, and result in frequent publications of ongoing research into effective treatment methodologies. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call 866-313-6307.