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. 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.
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.
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.
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 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. 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.'Norwood, 1985):
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.
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.
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. 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.
There are substance abuse treatment programmes that also take into consideration the loved ones affected by a person's addiction.