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Codependency & Addiction: What You Need to Know


Drug and alcohol addiction can put a strain on relationships between loved ones. It’s not easy to watch someone you love spiral further and further into addiction. If you’re a family member or friend of someone who has an addiction, you may feel that you need to take care of them and try to solve their problems yourself. You may even feel like you’re walking on eggshells and can’t help but take responsibility for their actions — even when they don’t want or ask for your help. If this sounds familiar, it’s time to learn more about codependency and how it can affect you and your loved one who has an addiction.

What Is Codependency?

The term “codependent” is often used to describe a person who has developed unhealthy behaviors in their relationship. Codependency is also known as a relationship addiction because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive, and/or abusive. This behavior is learned and can even be passed down from one generation to another. It’s common for people who are close to someone suffering from addiction — such as spouses, partners, parents, friends, and children — to develop codependent behavior patterns. Over time, they learn these unhealthy behaviors as they try to protect their loved one from the consequences of their addiction. Unfortunately, rescuing their loved one only serves to prolong the destructive course they are taking.

When the caretaking becomes compulsive, the co-dependent feels choiceless and helpless in the relationship but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it. Mental Health America explains that codependent people typically display the following characteristics:

  • An inflated sense of responsibility for others’ actions

  • Tendency to equate pity with love, mistakenly believing that rescuing someone means they are being loving

  • Need for approval and recognition for their efforts

  • Tendency to habitually go above and beyond for the person with an addiction

  • Tendency to hold on to a relationship due to intense fear of being abandoned or rejected by others

  • Difficulty establishing boundaries and making decisions

  • Poor communication skills and inability to identify feelings

  • Tendency to lie and experience chronic anger

  • Difficulties adjusting to change

  • Strong need to control and dominate others

The Link Between Codependency and Addiction

Codependents are often drawn to people who have problems with substance abuse because they suffer from low self-esteem and have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships with others. As stated before, it is common for loved ones of people with addiction to be prone to developing codependent behaviour. The need to protect their loved one takes priority over their own health. Protective actions become habits, habits become compulsion, and the loved one with addiction expects to be protected from any consequence they may face. Codependency is unhealthy for all parties involved and will not help someone find sobriety. These behaviours are why addiction is considered a family disease.

For the codependent person, it’s not just about being someone’s caretaker. Rather it is about not being able to function independently because they are dependent on another person for validation or feelings of self-worth. In fact, they may be so afraid of losing their loved one’s love or approval that they fail to set boundaries in their relationship. Taken to extremes, codependent relationships may involve one person trying to control or manipulate the other person for their own benefit. Codependency can manifest as:

  • A parent making excuses for the child who doesn’t do their homework assignments or shows up late for school

  • Someone who gives money to a friend despite knowing that he or she won’t pay it back

  • A partner covering for the alcoholic spouse who stayed out all night or has been drinking all day

  • An adult child helping an elderly parent with addiction take care of personal business such as bills and medical appointments, even when the parent is capable of taking care of these matters

Oftentimes, codependency and enabling are co-occurring — that is, codependents enable the addicts by accepting their behaviour, not confronting them about it, and protecting them from the consequences of their actions. They may even lie for them or cover up their behaviours.

How to Address Codependent Behaviours

In order to avoid becoming codependent, it is important to establish healthy boundaries early on in any relationship. Setting boundaries is a healthy way to set clear limits so each party understands what is and is not acceptable in the relationship. Here’s how to set boundaries:

  • Identify what you are and are not responsible for in the relationship. To put things simply, understand that you are only responsible for your behaviour, not that of your loved one.

  • Be honest with yourself about your limitations and capabilities when it comes to helping others. If you are constantly tending to someone else’s needs at the expense of your own, think about how you can take care of yourself first.

  • Communicate boundaries clearly with your loved ones and stick to your word. If you say no, then don’t waver from that decision, even if others don’t like it or pressure you to change your mind.

  • Define what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in your relationship with the person who has been abusing substances. For example, “I will not tolerate my friend coming over drunk and making a mess.”

  • Learn how to say no gently but firmly when someone else wants something from you that may violate your boundaries.

  • Don’t feel guilty about setting a limit on levels of interaction with your loved one. They need to learn how to respect your needs. If you decide that they cannot use around you and they continue to do so, you may need to remove yourself from being around them.

How to Help Your Loved One

Even when you’re aware that you’re being codependent, it can be difficult to separate yourself from the situation. Yet codependency enables an addict to continue using even when they desperately need help. While not everyone who has a loved one with an addiction will develop codependent behaviours, it’s important to be aware of any codependent tendencies you might have so you can take steps to change your behaviour. It’s normal to want to help in any way possible, but there are better ways to do so than stepping into the role of caretaker.

If you or someone you love has an addiction problem, you may feel like your entire life is consumed by your loved one’s addiction and that there’s nothing you can do about it. But there are ways to help your loved one change their behaviour, and these solutions can help you get through this difficult time:

  • Remember that you are not responsible for your loved one’s addiction. Your loved one is responsible for their own actions, so don’t take on that burden yourself.

  • Attend counselling sessions together or encourage them to get treatment for addiction.

  • Connect with other families who have been through similar situations for support and guidance.

  • Stop enabling their behaviour. Take away finances or other resources you provided and allow them to witness the consequences of their actions.

Codependent relationships are often based on the notion that one person is somehow “saving” another person. It may feel like you are protecting your loved one from their addiction. In reality, you are enabling their use. If your loved one does not experience the consequences of their actions, they will be less likely to find a reason to change. Getting sober is not a decision you can make for them. Instead of trying to fix or save other people, take the time to look at yourself and your relationships.

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