A co-dependent relationship is one in which one partner spends most of their time taking care of the extreme emotional or physical needs of the other partner. The quality of the giving partner’s life suffers as they may not have enough time to carry out their own daily activities or manage their other relationships, including professional. As the receiving partner continues to get this attention, they can easily maintain their destructive behaviour, which in this case is an addiction.
Say you’re addicted to a substance and your spouse focuses on your needs so much they forget about their own, you’re in a co-dependent relationship. Enabling behaviour is often a symptom of co-dependency. If you’re in a co-dependent relationship and suffer an addiction as well, one behaviour can reinforce the other and vice versa.
Co-dependency can go so far that you begin to tell your partner what to think, make significant decisions for them and, generally, limit their ability to act independently. For the sake of your partner and any children you may have, you need to take this problem seriously. Co-dependency can be passed down from parents to children, affecting their very early development.
Who Can Be Affected by Co-Dependency?
We have used the example of a married couple, but co-dependency can happen in nearly any kind of relationship, that means your co-worker, friend, sibling or parent can be affected. The term ‘co-dependent’ was originally used to refer to partners in a chemical dependency, people in a relationship with, or living with, someone suffering from addiction. However, it’s now used broadly to refer to a co-dependent individual from a dysfunctional relationship.
Causes of Co-Dependency
The first time this condition was noticed was in the fifties, with relationships where one of the partners was an alcoholic. Psychotherapists discovered that a partner or spouse would often help to maintain the addictive behaviour by aiding the negative habits related to addiction.
There are a number of factors which therapists have identified as possible contributors to co-dependent behaviour. These include:
- Past relationships
- History with addiction
- Current life situation
- Childhood experiences
- Chemical imbalances in the brain
Symptoms of Co-Dependency
If you suspect that you may be co-dependent, or worry that your partner is, consider these symptoms:
- Obsessed with relationships: If you’re co-dependent, you may feel defined by your relationships, even though your actual relationships may lack intimacy on an emotional level.
- No sense of boundaries: If you don’t have a sense of boundaries or have unhealthy boundaries for yourself or others, you may be co-dependent. You may find that you want to control or manipulate others, so you can feel secure, take responsibility for the feelings of others, or offer unwanted advice.
- Caretaking: You neglect yourself while you make caring for others your primary concern. In an extreme situation, you may feel uncomfortable or insecure if you’re not needed.
- People-pleasing: You are so concerned about what other people think of you that you’ll do anything for them to think highly of you. You may be unable to say “no” to people or feel intense guilt when you do
- Low self-esteem: You depend on relationship roles to feel lovable and on other people’s opinions to feel self-worth.
- Poor communication skills
- Having painful or negative emotions such as despair, resentment and depression.
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What Does the Addicted Partner Have to Do with it?
It may seem like the co-dependent partner behaves the way they do because that’s just the way they are, but that’s often not true. If you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, there are a few problems which may arise from your addiction that can create, or worsen, co-dependency. Some of these may include:
- Always needing emotional support
- Engaging in highly risky behaviours
- Having issues with other relationships
- Having problems with money and work
Your co-dependent partner or friend would want to do anything they can to protect and support you. They’ll want to help you get clean, but they’re also likely to help cover for you and clean up after you. Unfortunately, this usually backfires as the addictive behaviour is only encouraged. In many cases, the co-dependent will have to battle an addiction themselves and, in other cases, both parties are co-dependent.
Stages of Co-Dependency
There are three identifiable stages of co-dependency:
Early stage: Like any other relationship, your partner may want to please you all the time or pay more attention to you, but this becomes an obsession. Your co-dependent partner may give up their own activities and friends or be unable to maintain healthy boundaries.
Middle stage: Resentment, disappointment and anger set in as your co-dependent partner compromises more of themselves to keep the relationship going. They may try to use blaming, nagging, manipulation or compliance to try to change you.
Late stage: The behavioural and emotional symptoms become physical as your co-dependent partner experiences stress-related disorders ranging from heart disease to eating disorders.
Risks and Negative Effects on the Co-Dependent
If you’re the co-dependent partner in a relationship with someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, there are a number of ways in which your health could be at risk. These include:
- Being unable to manage other day-to-day responsibilities beyond the co-dependent relationship.
- Losing relationships other than the co-dependent relationship.
- Having an increased risk of developing an addiction yourself.
- Neglecting your own needs.
- Low self-esteem
- Poor health
Risks and Negative Effects on the Addicted Partner
A co-dependent relationship can also be problematic for the addicted partner, both on potential treatment outcomes and the addiction itself. As much as your co-dependent partner may want to help as much as possible, they may worry subconsciously that you won’t need them as much if you recover from addiction. With this at play, any attempts to get treatment can be thwarted, leaving you to continue suffering the consequences of addiction.
This factor can continue to be a risk even after you’ve completed a treatment programme. Given that your co-dependent partner may feel dependent on the addiction to keep the relationship going, you may be putting yourself at risk of relapsing if you return to the relationship as usual when you leave rehab.
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