Overcoming Codependency to Improve Relationships in Sobriety
Codependency is an unhealthy style of relating to others, and it’s commonly seen in people who struggle with mental illness or addiction. For dual diagnosis clients in treatment, understanding the codependency phenomenon is key. That’s an important step in learning to live a healthier and more fulfilling life in sobriety.
Codependent relationships aren’t just sub-optimal for the person in addiction recovery. In this kind of relationship, neither you nor the other is really acting in a healthy way. A codependent relationship can form between a parent and child, close friends, roommates or romantic partners. Typically, the dual-diagnosis party in the relationship is too reliant on the other person. That giver may derive feelings of importance or control from managing and constantly “helping” the addict. Lois W, wife of one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, famously founded a related program: Al-Anon. Lois had discovered that she and others were in some ways dependent on the same substances as their addicted family members.
Al-Anon advocates the concept of detachment with love. This means that friends and family members accept that they can’t solve the problem for the addict. True addiction recovery means that the addict must learn to do some things for themselves. If you struggle with dual diagnoses, you can find help in support groups, from therapists and by using tools like addiction literature and therapeutic apps. All of these strategies are more healthful than getting enmeshed in a codependent relationship with another person. Becoming too enmeshed and reliant on another person is not a recipe for real and lasting recovery.
There are several different definitions of codependence, but all of them involve crossing boundaries. In an overly close relationship, healthy distinctions between one person and another fall apart. The parties involved become intertwined or enmeshed in a very unusual way. One person becomes the caregiver. The other is almost wholly a taker. It’s not healthy, either for the addicted party or for the person enabling and caring for them. In codependent relationships, no one wins. Luckily, these days there’s plenty of knowledge around how to move on from these situations.
Knowledge Is Power
The first thing that can help you overcome being codependent is self-awareness. Identifying the relationship as codependent has to happen before you can understand your role in it. Here are some of the symptoms of being in a codependent relationship:
- Low Self Esteem: This can be as simple as never feeling like you’re good enough. That can mean things like intense perfectionism. Another sign of low self-esteem is making frequent comparisons between yourself and others.
- Feeling Responsible for Others: Sometimes it’s appropriate to feel responsible for someone else. This includes truly vulnerable people like babies or the very elderly. It would be normal to feel responsible for your partner right after they got out of surgery and were still dealing with anesthesia. It’s not normal to feel like you must take care of them on a day-to-day basis.
- Having Guilt About Your Feelings: Sometimes in a codependent situation, it can be hard to not feel guilty constantly. The caregiver in the dynamic might even start to wonder if they truly love the other person, or if they just feel bad for them. Overwhelming feelings of guilt aren’t normal in any relationship.
- Control Issues: Whether you feel like you’re out of control, or like you’re too controlling, it’s sub-optimal. Control issues can be a big part of codependency whether you’re the giver or taker in a codependent situation.
- Being Too Reactive: In order to have a happy, healthy life, you’ll need to learn to let some things roll right off you like a duck’s back. It’s not good to take anything too much to heart. If you’re too reactive, you will often feel really wounded by the comments people make. Don’t give them that kind of power over you. In a relationship with healthy boundaries, people are much less reactive.
Breaking Old Patterns
Emerging from a codependent relationship requires more than just knowledge, however. To build a healthy and truly recovered life, you need to approach the way you relate to others differently. At first, this can feel like a lot of work. But as you move forward and grow into your new life, it will become more and more intuitive. Some of the ways to improve the relationships in your life are:
- Notice the Urge to Interfere: In a healthy relationship, you shouldn’t constantly have to step in and save someone else. You don’t have to fix other people’s lives. In fact, doing that robs them of their agency and the chance to truly excel.
- Make Yourself a Priority: It’s not normal to put yourself last. Think of the safety demonstration on any plane. You’re advised to put the mask on yourself before trying to put one on others. This is serious business. Without putting the mask on you first, you might pass out before being able to put it on someone else. Self-care is truly important in life. If you’re depleted, you don’t really have anything to give to others. Keep your own stores filled, too
- Start Setting Boundaries: Figure out what your limits are, and then make sure that everyone in your life knows them, too. Remember: you can only control yourself, not others. So make changes to the way you relate to others. You can’t change the demands that others make, but you can refuse to give into them.
Finally, keep checking in with yourself. As you start to live in recovery, things will seem very different at first. Find ways to reflect daily and weekly. That can mean keeping a journal, going to writing meetings or making gratitude lists. Reflect on your relationships, too. Remember that it’s advised not to embark on any serious new relationships during the first year of recovery. You’ll still be finding your footing during that time.
If you’re looking to overcome your addiction and codependent relationships in the process, contact Ethos Recovery today.
Author – Chris Howard
Chris Howard is the Founder and Director of Ethos Recovery. He has a B.A. in Psychology from UCLA and has served as a community advocate/mentor for men and women in recovery since 2010.