Codependency and Enabling Substance Abuse Behavior

Codependency and Enabling Substance Abuse Behavior


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Factsheet: Co-dependency

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Co-dependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive. The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. Co-dependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.

Who Does Co-dependency Affect?Co-dependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence. Originally, co-dependent was a term used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals. Today, however, the term has broadened to describe any co-dependent person from any dysfunctional family.

What is a Dysfunctional Family and How Does it Lead to Co-dependency?A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied. Underlying problems may include any of the following:

  • An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.
  • The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
  • The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.

Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. They don’t talk about them or confront them. As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. They become “survivors.” They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves. They don’t talk. They don’t touch. They don’t confront. They don’t feel. They don’t trust. The identity and emotional development of the members of a dysfunctional family are often inhibitedAttention and energy focus on the family member who is ill or addicted. The co-dependent person typically sacrifices his or her needs to take care of a person who is sick. When co-dependents place other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self.How Do Co-dependent People Behave?Co-dependents have low self-esteem and look for anything outside of themselves to make them feel better. They find it hard to “be themselves.” Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine – and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like workaholism, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity.They have good intentions. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the caretaking becomes compulsive and defeating. Co-dependents often take on a martyr’s role and become “benefactors” to an individual in need. A wife may cover for her alcoholic husband; a mother may make excuses for a truant child; or a father may “pull some strings” to keep his child from suffering the consequences of delinquent behavior.The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy caretaking of the “benefactor.” As this reliance increases, the co-dependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” When the caretaking becomes compulsive, the co-dependent feels choiceless and helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it. Co-dependents view themselves as victims and are attracted to that same weakness in the love and friendship relationships.


Characteristics of Co-dependent People Are:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
  • An extreme need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • Lack of trust in self and/or others
  • Fear of being abandoned or alone
  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries
  • Chronic anger
  • Lying/dishonesty
  • Poor communications
  • Difficulty making decisions


Questionnaire To Identify Signs Of Co-dependency

This condition appears to run in different degrees, whereby the intensity of symptoms are on a spectrum of severity, as opposed to an all or nothing scale. Please note that only a qualified professional can make a diagnosis of co-dependency; not everyone experiencing these symptoms suffers from co-dependency.

  • Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?
    2. Are you always worried about others’ opinions of you?
    3. Have you ever lived with someone with an alcohol or drug problem?
    4. Have you ever lived with someone who hits or belittles you?
    5. Are the opinions of others more important than your own?
    6. Do you have difficulty adjusting to changes at work or home?
    7. Do you feel rejected when significant others spend time with friends?
    8. Do you doubt your ability to be who you want to be?
    9. Are you uncomfortable expressing your true feelings to others?
    10. Have you ever felt inadequate?
    11. Do you feel like a “bad person” when you make a mistake?
    12. Do you have difficulty taking compliments or gifts?
    13. Do you feel humiliation when your child or spouse makes a mistake?
    14. Do you think people in your life would go downhill without your constant efforts?
    15. Do you frequently wish someone could help you get things done?
    16. Do you have difficulty talking to people in authority, such as the police or your boss?
    17. Are you confused about who you are or where you are going with your life?
    18. Do you have trouble saying “no” when asked for help?
    19. Do you have trouble asking for help?
    20. Do you have so many things going at once that you can’t do justice to any of them?


If you identify with several of these symptoms; are dissatisfied with yourself or your relationships; you should consider seeking professional help. Arrange for a diagnostic evaluation with a licensed physician or psychologist experienced in treating co-dependency.

How is Co-dependency Treated?Because co-dependency is usually rooted in a person’s childhood, treatment often involves exploration into early childhood issues and their relationship to current destructive behavior patterns. Treatment includes education, experiential groups, and individual and group therapy through which co-dependents rediscover themselves and identify self-defeating behavior patterns. Treatment also focuses on helping patients getting in touch with feelings that have been buried during childhood and on reconstructing family dynamics. The goal is to allow them to experience their full range of feelings again.

When Co-dependency Hits HomeThe first step in changing unhealthy behavior is to understand it. It is important for co-dependents and their family members to educate themselves about the course and cycle of addiction and how it extends into their relationships. Libraries, drug and alcohol abuse treatment centers and mental health centers often offer educational materials and programs to the public.A lot of change and growth is necessary for the co-dependent and his or her family. Any caretaking behavior that allows or enables abuse to continue in the family needs to be recognized and stopped. The co-dependent must identify and embrace his or her feelings and needs. This may include learning to say “no,” to be loving yet tough, and learning to be self-reliant. People find freedom, love, and serenity in their recovery.Hope lies in learning more. The more you understand co-dependency the better you can cope with its effects. Reaching out for information and assistance can help someone live a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Other ResourcesCo-dependents AnonymousPO Box 33577
Phoenix, AZ 85067 Phone Number: (602) 277-7991 Website URL:

Codependency and Enabling

Substance Abuse Behavior

The definition of enabling in Random House dictionary is as follows: to make able; give power, means, competence or ability to; authorize. To make possible or easy. Now, what does that have to do with drug abuse? After all, no one wants a loved one to do something that would hurt themselves or others. So, how could an individual possibly enable someone else’s behavior? Furthermore, why would one want to enable someone to utilize drugs? The reality is, this behavior does occur and contributes to substance abuse. There are three factors which are related to perpetuating substance abuse: denial, enabling and codependency.

Enabling Drug and Alcohol Abuse

As stated at the beginning, enabling is defined as making possible or easy. In this case, behaviors by family members that allow individuals with substance use problems to avoid the negative consequences that may accompany their actions. There are many ways in which this behavior can manifest. In addition, enabling behavior can be instigated by various individuals including: parents, siblings, co-workers, supervisors, neighbors, friends, teachers, doctors, or even therapists. Though initially enabling occurs as a way to protect the individual from their behavior, it can go on to perpetuate actions that cause repetitively bad behavior. Some ways in which enabling takes place is as follows:

* Doing something for another that they should do themselves.
* Making excuses for the individual’s behavior
* A spouse calling his or her significant other’s employer to say that the person is sick when they are just hung over which is why they can’t work.
* Bailing out a child who has been arrested for possession, use or abuse of drugs, or breaking other societal rules.
* Instead of recognizing a problem the enabler may defend the substance abuser thereby allowing the behavior to continue.
* Generally covering the tracks of the individual in question whether it be by giving/loaning money, finishing up work, or just generally ignoring behaviors that should have repercussions. Usually the enabler stays silent when faced with repeated inappropriate or destructive behavior.


Part of enabling behavior is the concept of denial. Denial is when family and friends refuse to recognize or refuse to admit to a problem. This does not only refer to substance abuse, denial is a defense mechanism that is utilized when an individual finds the truth of a situation too difficult to deal with. In this case, denial of substance abuse behavior can mean that family and friends do not recognize how the behavior is affecting work, school, relationships, or causing financial problems. Most striking in the denial phenomenon is the enabler’s refusal to acknowledge the deterioration of the relationship her or she has with the substance abuser. In fact, quite often the denial mechanism will continue until it no longer can. Meaning, until something horrific occurs; the individual may refuse to acknowledge the problem.

What is the purpose of enabling?

The benefits of enabling are two fold: the individual who is using substances can continue the behavior they want and secondly, the enabler does not have to acknowledge that anything is wrong. This action however, is a short term solution to a long term problem. Long term, enabling drug abuse behavior leads to unhappiness for the enabler and the further deterioration of the individual using drugs. Another reason enabling occurs is because of the idea of co-dependency.


Co-dependency is the idea of being overly involved in another person’s life. Having a constant preoccupation with the other person’s behavior and feeling unnecessarily guilty when not taking care of the other person’s needs. This often times stems from not having adequate self-esteem. Some common themes in the co-dependency cycle on the part of the dependent person are as follows:

* My feelings are not important
* I’m not good enough.
* I’m not lovable
* My having problems is not acceptable
* It’s not OK for me to have fun.
* I don’t deserve love
* I’m responsible for my friend or significant other’s behavior

What can one do about being co-dependent?

Co-dependency is a vicious circle in which the person being enabled and the enabler need to extricate themselves. It is recommended by experts in the field, that co-dependent family members or loved ones remind themselves on a regular basis that they did not cause the problem, cannot control or fix the problem. They need to understand that the only thing they can do is offer assistance which may or may not be heeded. The codependent person needs to understand that the only person who can help the substance abuser, is the substance abuser- he or she needs to go obtain the help that is available.

Everyone Here Needs Help

In a co-dependent situation, both the abuser and dependent person need assistance. The substance abuser needs to fix both the chemical and psychological bonds, he or she has to alcohol/substances and the co-dependent individual has to understand why he or she feels the need for this dependency. Experts in the field recommend that help in the form of substance abuse counseling be obtained for the substance abuser as well as therapy for the dependent person.

Can this cycle be broken?

Like any other substance abuse problem, steps can be taken towards recovery. In this case, help should be obtained for all parties involved. There are treatment centers in which everyone in this scenario can be assisted. It is a matter of the co-dependent person to realize he or she has a problem and then go from there.

This article was last modified on 2/07/2007.

Works Cited

Banta JE, Montgomery S. (2007). Substance abuse and dependence treatment in outpatient physician offices, 1997-2004. American Journal of Drug Alcohol Abuse.;33(4):583-93.
Campbell CI, Wells R, Alexander JA, Jiang L, Nahra TA, Lemak CH. (2007). Tailoring of Outpatient Substance Abuse Treatment to Women, 1995-2005. Med Care. Aug;45(8):775-780.

“Codependency Resources” Accessed on 1st August 2007.

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