Breaking Free from Codependency

Learn how to end codependency in relationships and create healthy boundaries.  

Addiction can fuel many dysfunctional relationship patterns. One of those patterns is codependency. So, what is the difference between being supportive and helpful to a partner who struggles with addiction and being a codependent partner? It can sometimes be hard to tell unless you know what to look for.  

What Is Codependency? 

Codependency is a term to describe an unhealthy relationship. If you are in a codependent relationship, you may sometimes go against yourself in order to please your partner. Your needs and desires come second to your partner’s needs.  

People who are codependent usually end up doing a lot of “caretaking,” which is likely why this dynamic is so prevalent in addiction relationships. Physical and mental abuse commonly occurs in codependent relationships. However, abuse does not need to be present for codependency.  

This dynamic is largely overlooked or unaddressed by the parties participating because its subtleties are buried under the drama of addiction. A person may fall into a codependent relationship because they get a sense of worth from "fixing" or "taking care" of someone in need. A partner with an addiction may feel that they can’t function without the help of their codependent partner. As a result, the two motivations fuel an unhealthy dynamic. Codependency perpetuates the addiction. That is why it is important to address this problem if it exists in your relationship.  

Where Does Codependency Come From?  

Many psychological experts believe that codependency is a learned behavior that is induced early on. Indeed, research suggests that codependency often originates from experiences within the family of origin. 

Signs of a Codependent Relationship 

Here are some common signs of codependency in a relationship:  

  • Providing money to support a habit. 

  • Denying the problem. 

  • Avoiding conflict at all costs even if it means denying that there is even a problem.  

  • Feeling responsible for your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.  

  • Making excuses to cover up your partner’s substance abuse. For example, calling in sick to work for them when they are hung over.  

  • Saying “yes” to your loved one when you want to say no.  

  • Providing care for the person when addiction symptoms present physically. 

  • Putting your partner’s needs above your own. Neglecting your own self-care and needs.  

  • Turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with the stress or dysfunction of the situation. 

The Effects of Codependency

Codependency has many negative effects on both partners. It can cause the person who is doing the rescuing to feel extreme amounts of anxiety and emotional distress. Codependency can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, as well as eating disorders and other mental health problems.   

A codependent relationship may be so consuming that all other relationships unravel. A person may even lose the ability to keep up with responsibilities outside of the relationship. 

Overcoming Codependency

Breaking the chains of codependency is a lengthy process that is best undertaken with the help of a therapist or another professional. Here are some general guidelines on overcoming codependency. 

Identify Unhealthy Boundaries

One thing that all codependent relationships have in common is a lack of boundaries. Two people in a codependent relationship may be so enmeshed that they don't realize that boundaries can and should exist. A boundary is a physical or emotional limit that a person sets to protect their own identity and well-being. In healthy relationships, boundaries are established and honored as part of the natural give-and-take process. Two people in a codependent relationship cannot establish or honor boundaries due to rooted beliefs about their worth or purpose. 

Set Healthy Boundaries

Yes, it is possible to set boundaries after relating to another person in the absence of any for so long. The process often starts with identifying your feelings. Do you feel resentful that you are being asked to do something? Are you tired of neglecting your instincts, feelings or life responsibilities to maintain peace with another person? These may be signals that it's time to set up boundaries.

It’s important to refuse requests that violate your personal beliefs or principles. For instance, you may need to communicate that you will not lie on behalf of your loved one when asked to provide a cover story. Having a clear no-lying policy in place protects you from having to justify your boundary for every specific scenario where you are asked to lie. 

If you're the one living with addiction, it's important to consider your willingness to attend events or have interactions that place you near substances. Is seeing your family more important than avoiding a family picnic where alcohol will be served? You may not have realized that you could refuse an invitation for the sake of protecting your sobriety if you've been living without personal boundaries. It's also possible that you may simply need to set up limits for how long you will stay at events as a way to protect your sobriety. Each boundary is highly personal. 

The big thing to remember about setting boundaries is that you are not doing it for the sake of controlling or eliciting the actions of another person. Boundaries are only done for the sake of self-care. They must be set with the knowledge and acceptance of the fact that only you can set and manage your boundaries. The perception or reaction of the other person is not your problem to solve! 

Practice Self-Care 

It can be extremely difficult to untangle from a codependent relationship. Identifying your participation in a codependent dynamic is the first step to unfurling yourself. It's important to say that exiting codependency does not necessarily mean exiting a relationship. It simply means that you're relearning how to relate to and love a person through boundaries and self-care. The journey is not usually an easy one. That's why seeking help for addiction codependency is critical for learning new patterns. Something very good is waiting on the other side of the unhealthy cycle. 

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