Codependency in Five Easy Lessons

How and how not to deal with addiction to alcohol, drugs and sad behavior.

Posted Jul 29, 2015

Juanedc.com / Flickr  CC license
Source: Juanedc.com / Flickr CC license

I think of codependency as a normal reaction to a very abnormal situation. Being in a relationship with someone who has an addiction and isn’t addressing it is hugely frustrating. There are four natural ways people deal with the addicted person and each of them makes the problem worse. Fortunately a fifth reaction, which must be learned, really helps.

1.  Denial:  The first reaction is to join in the the addicted person’s denial. “Sure every college student has a few blackout drinking binges.” or “He’s just experimenting.” Of course these reinforce the addict’s denial and the problem continues to progress.

2.  Controlling:  The second natural reaction is to try to control the other person. You may pour out the bottles, restrict social occasions or try pleading and threats. None of these work because In the game of cat and mouse, the mouse always wins. The addicted person will focus on evading your attempts at control, and the problem will continue to get worse.

The exception is that you control your behavior and this sometimes makes it possible to use “leverage.” See my post on three kinds of motivation for a discussion of how to do this.

3.  Anger/Guilt:  Next you may react to the inevitable failure of your previous attempts to manage someone else’s problem. If you feel guilty and redouble your efforts to question your own behavior, or worse, offer an apology, the addicted person will agree and wait for you to get better. On the other hand, if you express your anger and frustration at the addicted person’s failure to change, that, too will be an excuse for continuing the addiction. How can one not resort to the addiction when surrounded by people who don’t understand?

4.  Rejection:  The final step is to reject the addicted person. Once again, this gives an excuse for the addiction to keep on progressing.

So what is the secret? What can you learn to do that will actually help?

5. Detach With Love This is how Al-anon describes the right approach. It is learned, and not natural, but it really helps. I use a few metaphors to describe what it is like. It is riding a bicycle with your hands not touching the handlebars. It is like being at a sports event where you are in the stands and want to tell the players what to do, but recognize that all you can do is root for your team.

It is OK to state what you see, how you feel and what impact it may have on you, but it is not OK to argue or plead or try to convince. Here is how detach with love might sound: “What you are doing looks to me like a serious addiction. I feel badly that you are not addressing it. I won’t let you hurt me, but I know I can’t tell you what to do, so I’ll be standing by.” 

Here is another secret.

The best definition I know of codependency is “Wishful Thinking.” Look at the first four reactions above. Each one involves wishful thinking that you should be able to fix something that you really can’t. So, if you know deep down that what you so want to do really won’t help, please don't do it. Following your natural impulse will actually make things worse.

To learn more about addiction and other topics, see my website, www.psytx.com or my new book, How We Heal and Grow: The Power of Facing Your Feelings.

Jeffery Smith MD, Scarsdale, NY

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