Codependency 101

January 25th, 2023

By P. Casey Arrillaga, LCSW, LCDC

Codependency is a concept that does not have a clear definition, yet still has utility in helping people. You can’t get diagnosed with codependency by a mental health professional, but you can find treatment for it offered in residential settings, intensive workshops, and outpatient counseling. There are many books about codependency, and the 12 Step group Codependents Anonymous [CoDA] is dedicated to recovery from it, yet the definition of codependency can vary among all of these. Some people even argue that the idea is so broadly applied that it can be harmful. Nonetheless, it is hard to be a family member of someone with an addiction and not run into the concept of codependency. It thus merits discussion to see where this idea came from, some common definitions, if and how it may show up in your life, and what to do about it if it does.

The idea of codependency caught on and then gained popularity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with interest and research seeming to peak in the 1980’s and 90’s. During this time, the concept of codependency captured the popular imagination, fueled in part by such books as the seminal Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. In the process of this happening, the definition began to expand beyond the world of chemical dependency and changed into the idea that the traits of codependency might show up in people who had even moderately dysfunctional families, regardless of whether there was any chemical dependency present. This blurring of the definition welcomed more people into recovery from codependency but also invited backlash, as professionals and laypeople alike started to question whether this was just a catchall term for anyone with relationship or connection issues.

Nonetheless, the idea of codependency still proves helpful to many family members when it is used in its original meaning: how attitudes, behaviors, and feelings can be shaped by living with addiction. When viewed in this context, family members benefit from recognizing the signs of codependency in their own lives and can then work to change these tendencies.

The biggest hallmark of codependency is that the codependent person seems to be addicted to or psychologically dependent on the person with the more obvious addiction to a substance or destructive behavior. You might think, “Well, that’s not me! I’m not dependent on my kid (or lover, parent, etc.).” But is this true? If you feel like you can’t be okay unless they are okay, that is a form of psychological dependence. This is starkly illustrated if you struggle whenever they struggle, or even struggle because you think they may struggle in the future. If this describes you, then you have become psychologically dependent on them to be okay.

As a result, you might go to extraordinary lengths to try to keep them from struggling. Someone once told me, “They had their arms wrapped around the bottle, and I had my arms wrapped around them.” While this looks to some like love, and you may have been raised to think this is what love is, it is really an attempt to avoid your own suffering. In fact, to avoid that suffering, you may find yourself doing many of the same things people with addictions do. Let’s look at a few examples.

Consider how many of the following behaviors and attitudes you may have in common with your loved one in their addiction:

  • Minimizing
  • Rationalizing
  • Justifying
  • Keeping secrets
  • Lying to cover addictive behavior
  • Developing a tolerance
  • Burying emotions
  • Hiding motives
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Depressive episodes
  • Health problems
  • Stress
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Escapism into video, food, shopping, work, exercise, etc.

No list could cover every possible similarity between the person with the addiction and the person who is codependent with them. Instead, use this as a starting point to see where you may be showing signs of codependency, and where you can find greater empathy for your loved one. In doing so, you create opportunities to move out of judgment and fear, and into solution.

Such solutions may take many forms. Recovery fellowships and therapy are available around codependency. Among the recovery fellowships, Codependents Anonymous, also known as CoDA, would be the most obvious starting place. CoDA is a Twelve Step fellowship that encourages members to admit powerlessness over others, which is to say that members acknowledge that, without help, they can’t stop trying to manipulate other people or relying on them for their well-being. Having admitted this, members then use the remaining eleven steps to get spiritual support and remove internal barriers so that they can live lives increasingly free from codependency. SMART Recovery does not use the term codependency, and some members vehemently oppose the term as unscientific, but the tools of SMART can be very helpful, nonetheless. The SMART Recovery Family & Friends workbook has many science-based exercises and ideas that directly address some of the issues that fall under the codependency umbrella. Similarly, many people find they can use the meetings and tools of Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Families Anonymous to work on these same traits. Having the social support of recovery fellowship meetings is helpful to many family members trying to work on their codependency. For some, it is absolutely necessary.

Therapy can also be helpful with codependency attitudes and behaviors. While not all therapists will think of or address these issues under the term “codependency,” any therapist should be able to recognize that codependent behaviors and attitudes are unhealthy. Avoid any therapist who tells you to “just stop” for the same reasons you would avoid a professional who gave the same advice about a chemical addiction. Instead, seek the help of someone who understands the nature of compulsive behavior and can help address it. If you find your codependency traits and behaviors are severely impacting your life, you may consider seeking residential treatment. This is far more rare than drug addiction treatment and it may be difficult to get insurance to cover it, but it is available.

About The Author

P. Casey Arrillaga is the Team Leader for Education at Windmill Wellness Ranch, and he is the author of books including “Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions”. His books, podcast, videos, etc. can be found at CaseyAuthor.com