Codependency and enabling are deep-rooted features of alcohol and other drug addictions.
Effective treatment of such addictions requires that these two behaviors – so common among spouses, family members, loved ones, and friends of the person suffering from drug or alcohol addiction – be identified and addressed, individually and in conjunction with the addicted person’s treatment.
Codependency most often originates once that spouse, family member, loved one, or friend becomes and stays controlled by their loved one’s addictive behavior. Codependents themselves lack a sense of power in their lives and are unable to take responsibility for their own happiness and well-being. They instead turn to manipulating and controlling others. Almost their entire day-to-day focus is external rather than internal. They live for and/or through another person and obsess over caring for and controlling that person’s actions.
Codependents exhibit ongoing anxiety and worry, ‘sell’ themselves out to care for others, ignore or mistrust their own feelings, tend to isolate, and often experience bouts of depression. Difficulty with emotional intimacy and keeping bad relationships and impairing good ones are also characteristic of the codependent person.
Enabling differs from codependence in that it primarily keeps the person suffering from a substance use disorder from having to face the negative consequences of their addiction(s). Enabling behavior occurs when another person (more often than not a codependent) indirectly and/or directly actually helps or encourages the addicted person to continue using drugs.
Solving the problems of someone affected by alcohol or drug addiction makes the enabler feel as though they are doing something good for the person they care about. The truth, however, is that they are further damaging them by allowing them to continue their self-destructive behavior. Enablers essentially perpetuate their loved one’s addiction. The one thing that all enablers seem to have in common is that they love someone who is out of control, and they take more responsibility for the actions of that person than the person is taking for themselves.
We know from experience that codependents and enablers also share at least one mutual trait, which is their almost total compromise of self. Codependents and enablers fundamentally need to reclaim themselves, to achieve rewarding and healthy lives and relationships. Restoration of self is therefore key to overcoming codependency and enabling, and can be achieved through appropriate counseling and its adjunctive facilitation of the establishment and maintenance of peer support systems.
Learning about, adopting, and using some simple tactics with those suffering from alcohol or drug addiction can help codependents and enablers free themselves of their own unhealthy and hurtful thinking and behavior. These tactics include being honest with themselves – stopping ignoring or minimizing facts, and realizing although painful and challenging, they are true; dealing with their own pasts and any unresolved trauma(s) and pain; disciplining themselves to be less reactive and more self-caring; setting healthy boundaries and realistic expectations; and naming and holding to limits.
Overcoming codependence and enabling isn’t free of difficulty nor does it progress obstacle-free or happen overnight. But surmounting them can and does happen. For that reason alone, we urge all who knowingly suffer from codependence and enabling (and those who think they may be suffering from it) to seek help, much as their loved one with a substance use disorder who wants his or her suffering to end likewise asks for help. Doing so more often than not results in the achievement of a healthy and rewarding life, and lasting, meaningful relationships.
Dr. Gregory Serfer, DO
Tully Hill Treatment & Recovery Medical Director