The concept of ‘co-dependency’ (also called ‘co-alcoholism’ when alcoholism is involved) refers to an unhealthy pattern of relating to others that results from being closely involved with an alcoholic or addict, whether they are seeking a drug treatment center or not. Co-dependency is a generic term. It has been defined in various ways, but all definitions describe unhealthy relationship patterns. The chemical abuser in a co-dependent’s life is usually a husband, but it can also be wife, a parent, a close friend, a child, or a co-worker.
Koffinke indicates that the co-dependent is overly focused on (i.e., over-involved with) the substance abuser. Their relationship is enmeshed and problem-filled. The problems provide endless opportunities for the co-dependent to be preoccupied with the addict. Hyper-vigilance is the norm. For women who grew up in chemically dependent families, this behaviour seems normal. In fact, some believe that women from such families learn co-dependent behaviour early in life, and are thus attracted to chemically dependent mates. They also find it very difficult, if not impossible, to leave dysfunctional relationships.
As a result of this emotional enmeshment, the co-dependent tends to lose all sense of ‘self’ or identity, and to become emotionally dependent upon the addict. The addict’s mood dictates the co-dependent’s mood. In a sense, the co-dependent becomes an appendage to the addict and the substance abuse.
The co-dependent often protects the alcoholic or addict from the natural consequences of substance abuse. Such behaviour is referred to as ‘enabling.’ Examples include calling in sick to a dependent spouse’s employer when the spouse has been out drinking or using drugs all night, or cleaning up after a spouse who has vomited during the night from too much alcohol. In addition, the co-dependent may purposely isolate himself/herself (and the family) from the extended family and friends, in order to keep the ‘family secret’ and save the family from embarrassment. Unfortunately, this isolation removes opportunities to release feelings of anger, hurt, fear, and frustration.
Several writers have identified chief characteristics of co-dependency. Below is a descriptive list of the psychological impairments co-dependents experience. (Norwood, 1985):
- Poor self-esteem: Co-dependents suffer from low self-esteem; that is, they feel little personal worth and think poorly of themselves. This has many sources. They themselves may have grown up in alcoholic families, or in families in which chemical dependency was not an issue but physical or emotional abuse was present nevertheless. It is also possible that they grew up in homes in which the parents were over-protective and domineering.
- Need to be needed: Many co-dependents hold the belief that their worth is dependent upon how well they take care of loved ones. In our culture, women are especially socialised to be nurturers, so it may come easily for them. As a result, co-dependents may neglect their own emotional needs for security, love, and attention.
- Strong urge to change and control others. Co-dependents usually develop the belief that they have the power to control the alcoholics or addicts, and therefore must use this power to change them (i.e., get them to cut down or stop their drinking/drug use). Norwood notes that many co-dependents learned this notion as children. They may have been instructed by their mothers to ‘leave dad alone when he is drinking, or you could upset him’ such instructions teach them that they can control others. An over-developed sense of responsibility develops, in which the co-dependents come to believe almost grandiosely that they are at the centre of the universe, and all-powerful in a very unhealthy sense. This may partly explain why some co-dependent women always seem to end up in dysfunctional relationships with addicted men, and why some women appear to take on unhealthy or impaired men as ‘social work projects’ – most times with no social work degree to speak of, of course.
- Willingness to suffer. Norwood suggests that many co-dependents ask, ‘If I suffer for you, will you love me?’ This is the tendency to become a martyr. It is as if some satisfaction or reward is gained from suffering. They may not be happy, but they can claim to be superior (i.e., morally, emotionally, or socially) to their impaired spouse. They can also claim to be superior to others who desert the alcoholic/addict. Because many co-dependents grew up in chemically dependent families, they do not recognise that they are suffering emotionally. Depression and low self-worth have been experienced for so long that these conditions seem normal.
- Inability to see how they contribute to the chemical abuse. Co-dependents are typically resistant to change. They become immobilised by their own sense of guilt. Leaving the alcoholic/addict is not an option, because they fear being overwhelmed by guilt feelings. These feelings make self-examination very painful; in fact, co-dependents may develop a great deal of secondary anxiety about feeling guilty. From a systems perspective, these beliefs and feelings preserve the family balance, but they blind the co-dependents from seeing their own role in maintaining the drinking or drugging.
- Difficulty in viewing the relationship problem with objectivity. Frequently co-dependents are so guilt-ridden, frustrated, and angry that they can only see their relationship problems in moralistic terms. They have a strong tendency to blame either themselves or the alcoholic/addict. It is often difficult for a co-dependent to ‘frame up’ the problem as one of faulty learning, distorted communication, or a disease. The counsellor should attempt to help co-dependents stop blaming themselves, the alcoholic/addict, or others. Rather, the focus should be on solutions.
- Fear of change. Typically, co-dependents fear and resist change. Again, from a systems perspective, co-dependents may have an emotional investment in the alcoholic’s/addict’s continued drinking/drug use. These are almost always unconscious desires. They may fear change (i.e., abstinence/recovery) because they: do not want assertive, sober loved ones; may find something attractive, risky, or even sexy about the alcoholic’s/addict’s intoxicated behaviour, may be financially dependent on the substance abuser, and fear that divorce or other disruption would come with sobriety; may want to avoid sexual relations, which would resume with sobriety; or expect some family conflict or secret (e.g., incest) to emerge during sobriety.
Cognitive Distortions in Co-dependency
Certain maladaptive beliefs tend to be common among co-dependents. It would be appropriate to explore the extent to which each of the following beliefs prevail in co-dependent clients’ self-talk. Helping them change debilitating internal dialogues will allow them to tend better to their own emotional needs. Some examples of dysfunctional thinking include the following:
- I can’t live without my mate (child, parent, etc.).
- I must stay with my mate.
- I should be able to change my mate.
- I have the power to upset him/her.
- I am worthless without him/her.
- It is horrible when my mate is upset or drinking.
- I can’t stand his/her drinking.
- My needs are less important than those of my mate.
- My mate could not live without me.
- It is better to stay in pain than to attempt change.
- If I only behaved better, my mate would drink less.
- My mate drinks because there is something wrong with me.
- There is something terribly wrong with me, and I must hide it from others.
- I do not deserve to have a satisfying, loving relationship.
- Because of the way I was raised as a child, I cannot now change myself.
- If my mate would stop drinking, our relationship would be perfect.
- If I loved my mate more, he/she would drink less.
Beattie’s Model of Co-dependency
In the popular self-help book entitled Co-dependent No More (1987), Beattie sketches a model of co-dependency. It consists of the following four dynamics:
1. Co-dependency is a process in which life becomes increasingly unmanageable.
2. The unmanageability occurs when the co-dependent is unable to detach (emotionally) from the alcoholic or addict.
3. The inability to detach (enmeshment) causes the co-dependent to become obsessed with controlling the addict’s behaviour.
4. The obsession leads the co-dependent to assume responsibility for events that are not actually under his/her control.
Furthermore, Beattie has identified six unspoken rules of co-dependency, all of which are linked to a lack of self-worth:
1. It’s not OK for me to feel.
2. It’s not OK for me to have problems.
3. It’s not OK for me to have fun.
4. I’m not lovable.
5. I’m not good enough.
6. If people act bad or crazy, I’m to blame.
Enabling and Codependency
The issues of enabling and co-dependency are often intertwined within the same individuals. However, enabling behaviour does occur among people who are not co-dependents. Enabling is a behaviour that protects substance abusers from the undesirable consequences of their behaviour. Enabling does not necessarily require an ongoing, established relationship. In contrast, co-dependency is a dysfunctional relationship pattern involving a chemically dependent partner.
The example of a police officer and a drunken driver may illustrate the distinction between the two concepts. A police officer can ‘enable’ a drunken driver by simply not arresting him/her. The officer may want to get off work on time, or may simply want to avoid the hassle of an arrest and all the accompanying paperwork. In either case, the officer has no personal relationship with the impaired driver, and thus cannot be described as a ‘co-dependent.’ However, the officer behaves in an ‘enabling’ manner.In addition, many institutions and workplaces engage in enabling, without being co-dependent. Colleges and universities are good examples. At one Midwestern university, a large group of intoxicated students blockaded a street adjacent to campus, started large bonfires that led to several houses burning down, and then bombarded fire-fighters with bricks and rocks upon their arrival on the scene. Police arrested dozens of students for their role in the incident. The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute, however, saying that it was a disciplinary matter for the university to address. Unfortunately, the university likewise declined to become involved, saying that the incident occurred off campus and thus was not under its jurisdiction. Both the district attorney’ office and the university thus became enablers of the student body’s drinking problem!
Rewards Gained by Co-dependents: It is easy to understand why enabling occurs: The enabler is motivated out of a desire to avoid conflict. The problems created by the substance abuser are ‘smoothed over’ and are not confronted. This is much less anxiety-provoking than challenging the alcoholic/addict, or applying some type of disciplinary sanction. The rewards for staying in a co-dependent relationship are much less apparent. In fact, many inexperienced professionals are amazed at the amount of suffering co-dependents are willing to endure, and have a difficult time understanding why they do not simply leave the alcoholic/addict. Yet a deeper, more thoughtful examination reveals that co-dependents do attain rewards by staying in dysfunctional relationships. Co-dependents come to affirm their self-worth by ‘carrying the cross’ of other persons’ addiction (or other destructive behaviour). They may quietly believe that because they suffer, they are special and important. This self-perception represents a misguided grandiosity, which is essentially a shield against feelings, personal inadequacy, and low self-esteem. Accordingly, professionals counselling co-dependents may find the advice presented below useful for their clients:
Advice Commonly Given to the Co-Dependent:
- Realize that you are in exceedingly difficult circumstances. Sometimes you may feel angry, frustrated, helpless, afraid, powerless, and enraged. Your loved one or friend may seem helpless and pathetic at certain times, and at other times stubborn and resistant. The person has come to have great power despite this seeming contradiction-and he/she doesn’t even realize it. Naturally you feel confused and distraught.
- Accept the fact that there are no quick or easy answers or cures to an alcohol/drug problem. Psychotherapists and physicians cannot work ‘magic.’ If your loved one/friend is to recover, then he/she must make changes in attitudes and behaviors. Also, the family must be willing to make some attitude and behavior changes to accommodate your loved one’s new insights and growth.
- Provide your loved one with support and encouragement, but also take care of yourself. Do not sacrifice yourself for your loved one/friend. You accomplish nothing except feeling emotionally drained and resentful. Make time for enjoyable activities and fun for the family – it sends an important message to the sufferer and gives the family/friends needed relief. Also, continue your interests and activities outside the family and encourage the person with the alcohol/drug problem to do the same.
- Give up the concept of blaming. It is not useful or realistic to blame either yourself or the person with the alcohol/drug problem. No one is at fault. Guilt and blame are immobilizing and get in the way of recovery. However, it is important to recognize that recovery is the responsibility of the person with the alcohol/drug problem. It is equally important to recognize that you have responsibility to become aware of the ways you may be ‘enabling’ (facilitating) or participating in the problem.
- Encourage your loved one/friend to get into a Twelve-Step program (AA or NA) and/or supportive counseling. Do not hesitate out of fear that he/she will hate you or become increasingly ill. If the person is over 18, you need to admit that you have no control over whether he/she will or will not get help. Only he/she can choose to be helped. You do, however, have control over how you participate in the problems.
- Don’t be over-protective. For example, if the person is upset about school, relationships, or work, it is his/her responsibility to take care of the problem. Don’t try to take care of the problem. Don’t try to take care of it for him/her. Do not attempt to protect the person by giving him/her the power to avoid situations that may be distressing. Experiencing and dealing with uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings and situations is part of life and recovery.
- Develop a dialogue with the person about issues other than drinking and drugging. Don’t tie your caring to lectures about stopping the alcohol/drug use. Verbally and physically express honest love and affection to him/her. The person needs to feel appreciated for who he/she is, not for what he/she does.
- Avoid attempts to control the person’s use of alcohol/ drugs. Such power struggles are ‘no-win’ battles and will only reinforce an adversarial relationship. Also, he/she will be less able to perceive you as caring if you engage in such battles. Recovery from alcohol/drug dependence is his/her responsibility.
- Constructive communications is very important. Do not make statements such as ‘You are ruining the whole family’ or ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ Instead, helpful comments may be such statements as ‘I am concerned about your drinking,’ ‘I’m frustrated with my inability to help you,’ or ‘I wish you would seek out professional help.’
- Participate in family therapy or an Al-Anon support group to work through your feelings during this emotionally charged period. Don’t isolate yourself. A support group or psychotherapy can help you deal with yourself in relationship to the chemically dependent family member or friend. Recovery is a process. The duration varies, depending upon the individual and the circumstances. Be kind to yourself.