Addressing Codependency and Drug Abuse

Families are made up of unique individuals with their own particular wants and needs. Yet, family units can also be considered distinct organisms in their own right. Since we know that organisms naturally seek self-preservation, family members will often make great sacrifices in order to keep the family intact.

When one member of the family has a drug problem, other members of the family may neglect their own wants and needs in order to provide the hurting member with more support. Over time, this behavior can move from helpful to harmful. One way it can be harmful is by “codependency.”1


Let’s take a look at this type of relationship and how it can turn drug abuse into full-blown addiction.

How Does Codependency Develop?

Living with an addiction and keeping the family together is a very challenging task, especially with no outside guidance or support.

Drug abusers are typically so wrapped up in the acquiring and using of substances that they ignore their own personal health. Their entire family’s well-being and safety are likely put at risk as well. Users might drive while intoxicated, get arrested for drug use, or share injection needles with total strangers. Stealing from the family in order to buy more drugs and blowing off work duties for extended periods of time are not an uncommon occurrence for those with substance use disorders. They essentially step away from their families as they cling ever closer to the very drugs that are tearing their life apart.2

When a loved one notices what’s going on with the drug abuser, that family member might attempt to “help” by:

  • Calling the user’s boss with excuses for not showing up.
  • Paying the bills that start piling up and are overdue.
  • Taking complete control of needed childcare.
  • Asking repeatedly about the user’s whereabouts.
  • Providing the user with more drugs or drug money so withdrawal symptoms are avoided.

These actions, on the surface, seem completely reasonable, right? It helps maintain some order and consistency within the family. To protect the user from harm and to keep the family going, the codependent person(s) take on added responsibilities. They shield the addict from the natural consequences of their disorder. The focus of the codependent’s life is outward to the one suffering. What the addict needs gets all of the attention – not what might be good for the codependent person. Since addicts aren’t thinking rationally, they take advantage of others – even if they normally wouldn’t do so.

That hyper-shifted focus to a loved one in need stands at the heart of codependent behavior.1

What Are the Signs of a Codependent Relationship?

Codependency has long been associated with women, as this gender is culturally expected to care for the family unit, keep it running, hold it together. Modern research suggests, however, that codependency can occur with either gender. Yet, how that behavior looks can definitely vary by gender.

Codependent women typically show five traits, according to recent research. This includes an increased sense of control, an intense sense of responsibility, the view that worth comes from outside the person, a compulsion to rescue others, and a desire for constant change. Codependent men, on the other hand, commonly exhibit only two traits: a strong sense of duty and a need for control.

In general, a “codependent” person tends to feel:

  • It’s best to avoid arguments.
  • It’s hard saying “No.”
  • I help everyone else, but no one helps me.
  • I know that I am bad. I work hard to hide that fact.
  • What others think is more important than what I think.
  • I don’t bother telling others what I think. They’d just reject me if they knew my true thoughts.
  • I hate it when people acknowledge me. Yet, I get mad when I’m ignored.
  • My romantic partner(s) generally have some sort of abuse or addiction issue.3

Codependents, as you might expect, pride themselves in taking good care of other people. In fact, they may believe that it’s their duty – even their right – to control how others think, feel and act. They may compete quite forcefully to capture that authority. However, since it’s impossible to completely control other people, codependents set themselves up for inevitable failure. And when that occurs, depression or other mental health issues may even result our of their frustration.

A study was conducted with women diagnosed with depression. 36 percent of them were found to be moderately to severely codependent. Yes, fighting a battle that can never be won has its consequences.4

Getting Codependents to Seek Help Can Be Challenging

Since codependent people are so accustomed to focusing on the needs of others – without addressing their own wants or needs – it’s extremely difficult for them to admit that they need help or to accept any help. One study found that a whopping 67 percent of participants – most of whom showed codependency traits – never sought counseling for the issues they faced.

What does it take for codependents to seek help for themselves? In some cases, it might take their loved one’s admission into an addiction treatment program. In the midst of that release – when they realize that their controlling actions are no longer needed – they might discover that they need a new life focus.

Conversely, some people may enter codependency treatment because their loved one will not get help for addiction. Such codependents might view life as unbearable due to the mental illnesses plaguing the family.

Codependents hopefully come to the point, somehow or other, where they allow themselves to move on, to attend to themselves, as they should.

Bottom line, this irrational relationship really doesn’t help anyone. As codependents neglect themselves, they seek to simply put a bandage on what is a much bigger problem. What their loved one really needs is a sound, long-term strategy for treating the drug addiction and any other mental condition – bringing healing and wholeness to that loved one…and, indeed, to the entire family.5

What Does Treatment Look Like for Codependents?

The treatments provided to codependent patients can depend heavily on the causes of this disorder. For example, some people may develop codependency traits because they experienced considerable trauma when they were small. They may be trying to keep others safe in what they see as a dangerous world. Codependency can, therefore, be a coping mechanism that helps them to deal with life as they see it.6

In one recent study, 69 percent of participants were raised in a family that dealt with alcoholism, sex abuse or violence. Of that 69 percent, many had codependent traits. These people might need counseling in order to help them resolve their feelings about the issues that occurred when they were young.

Another study found that many codependents had low self-esteem scores. They were quick to blame themselves and felt shame for their actions. People like this might benefit from therapies in which they’re asked to identify their negative thoughts, then utilize techniques to prove those statements false.

Family behavior therapy is a good option for many codependent people dealing with family members who have an addiction. They can work with a therapist on the specific behaviors they’re using in relation to the addict, and they can learn how those behaviors might be helpful or harmful for the addict.5

Some codependent people also benefit from attending peer support group meetings. These meetings allow codependent people to meet others who are struggling with the same issues, and, together, they can come up with new strategies and techniques to help ease the pain and make living with an addict easier to bear.

At The Canyon, we believe that families can play a vital role in the recovery process – for treating both codependency and addiction. In fact, we offer family therapy sessions to most of our patients. We do this in order to better help them work through big, family-impacted issues with the support of their loved ones. In most cases, this sets a solid foundation for healthy, happy, drug-free living following treatment.

We’re here to help, so we invite you to call us today to receive more helpful information, guidance and encouragement.


1“Co-dependency”, Mental Health America, http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/co-dependency .

2 “Maintaining Abstinence”, National Institute on Drug Abuse, https://archives.drugabuse.gov/TXManuals/IDCA/IDCA11.html .

3 “Do You Have a Codependent Personality?”, Everyday Health, http://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/do-you-have-a-codependent-personality.aspx , (January 12, 2016).

4“Depression and Co-dependency in Women”, PubMed.gov, National Center for Biotechnology Information, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9868824.

5 “Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy”, National Center for Biotechnology Information, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64269/.

6 “Recovery from Codependency”, PsychCentral, http://psychcentral.com/lib/recovery-from-codependency/, (July 17, 2016).


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