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How Co-dependency Can Enable Addiction to Alcohol or Drugs


One of the reasons why people can remain caught up in addiction to alcohol or drugs is that other people are enabling them. This means that the individual is prevented from suffering the full brunt of their substance abuse, so they do not have a good enough reason to quit. Enabling a person caught up in addiction is not something that is usually done deliberately, but one of the common causes can be co-dependency.

What is Co-dependency?

Co-dependency can be viewed as a type of addiction but instead of alcohol or drugs, the person is addicted to their relationships. In other words, the person who is co-dependent will use their relationships as a way to hide from life. They become so caught up in the drama of trying to fix the other person that they are able to more or less completely ignore their own problems. The individual who is prone to co-dependency will usually be attracted to partners who are very dysfunctional because they want to fix this other person – this is why it is very common for people addicted to alcohol or drugs to have a partner who is co-dependent.

What is Enabling Behaviour?

Enabling occurs when the person addicted to alcohol or drugs is somehow spared the full consequences of their behaviour. It can take many forms:

  • The person may be financially helped to continue their addiction by being lent money.
  • People who put up with the addictive behaviour are enabling – i.e. they are being negatively impacted by the substance abuse, but they are not complaining about it.
  • Looking after the person when they are drunk or hung over can be viewed as a type of enabling.
  • Making apologies on behalf of this person for the problems they have caused when drunk.
  • Phoning in sick on behalf of the person who is too drunk/or hung over to go to work.
  • Taking on responsibilities that belong to this other person.
  • Pretending that the behaviour is acceptable.
  • Cleaning up the mess of this other person.

Dangers of Enabling a Substance Abuser

Protecting an alcoholic or drug abuser from the consequences of their behaviour can seem like the right thing to do. The problem is that this is enabling that person to continue with the behaviour, easily meaning that they die before they become willing to get help for their addiction problems. It is commonly accepted that most people who are dealing with this type of problem will only agree to get help when the pain becomes too much for them – this is commonly referred to as hitting rock bottom. If other people are enabling the person to continue with the addiction though, it could easily prevent them from hitting this rock bottom.

Of course the other danger is related to the person who is doing the enabling. This will be especially true if that person is co-dependent. The person who is in this role can wrap their whole personality up in the other person, losing a sense of who they really are. In fact, that is the driving force behind co-dependency – the person wants to forget their own troubles. The issue though is that their problems will not have gone away, and they will be simmering away in the background. It will also mean that the co-dependent person will be following their partner into the hell of addiction because they are so addicted to the drama.

Why Do People Become Co-Dependent?

The causes of co-dependency are complex, but it usually occurs with people who have come from a home where a parent was co-dependent. It can also occur because a person suffers physical or emotional trauma at a young age. The individual who is co-dependent will usually have very low self-esteem, meaning that they are willing to choose partners who engaged in very self-destructive behaviour. This individual likes to believe that they are a very caring person because this gives their self-esteem an artificial boost.

Symptoms of Co-Dependency

The symptoms of co-dependency can include:

  • usually devoting much of their time to trying to please other people
  • low self-esteem
  • obsessed with their relationships
  • seeming to be drawn to relationships where they take on the role of the carer
  • making poor choices when it comes to choosing a partner
  • experiencing a great deal of shame and regularly feeling as if they are being negatively judged by other people
  • becoming dependent on their partner
  • finding it easy to take on the pain of other people as their own while denying their own pain
  • being easily offended – they take everything way too personally
  • only enjoys a sense of control when they are managing the life of somebody else
  • being willing to behave unethically in order to protect their partner
  • feeling threatened if their partner no longer seems to need them as much.

Co-Dependents May Try to Sabotage Recovery

Family and friends will usually be overjoyed to hear that their loved one has managed to break free of alcohol or drugs. The person who has been co-dependent on the addiction though may feel very threatened by this change in the situation. They continue to be addicted to the chaos, and they have probably not reached a point where they feel ready to break away from this behaviour. It can feel like they have been forced into cold turkey. This individual may have been dreaming of the day their loved one would give up addiction but now that the day has come they do not know how to handle the situation. They have put so much of their identity into caring for this other person that they now feel completely rudderless.

The co-dependent person is unlikely to ever have consciously set out to sabotage their loved one’s recovery, but the fact that they have been robbed of their identity can lead to a great deal of upset. This person may feel very resentful of the improvements this other person is making in their life, and they can begin to feel unloved and unwanted. They may never be willing to admit it, but they preferred their loved one when they were addicted because it made them feel loved and needed. The rising resentment can lead to a great deal of strain in the relationship because the person who is recovering from their addiction can feel that their efforts are not being recognised or rewarded. It can lead to a situation where the person who has been working hard to break away from alcohol or drugs use has the response of their co-dependent partner as an excuse to relapse.

How to Deal with Co-Dependency

When a person makes the effort to break away from addiction, it will usually mean that all the attention will be on them. This can be a huge problem if the partner of this person is co-dependent. The best way to deal with this situation is for the partner to be given support and help as well. In some cases, it may be very beneficial for the partner to undergo some type of therapy. Groups such as Co-dependency Anonymous can also be a great help.

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