Alcoholism and Codependency

Codependency is an unhealthy reliance on the other person in a relationship. It often refers to a spousal relationship yet can also happen in a parent/child or other type of relationship. Codependency can be present in the spouse or child of someone with alcoholism, yet it also occurs in relationships with people who have mental or physical illnesses. Treatment can help the codependent person learn to focus on his or her own needs, to have self-esteem that’s not dependent on the relationship, and to change the current relationship or find a healthier one.

Alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, is the most severe form of an alcohol use disorder. The nature of alcohol addiction is that it creates problems in the person’s life, which can include relationship difficulties. Relationships are tested when the addicted person puts most of his or her focus on getting and using alcohol. Spouses and children of those with alcoholism are often put on the back burner to the addiction.

People in a relationship with those who have alcohol use disorder can develop codependency, which is an unhealthy focus on the other person’s needs over their own. Nonetheless, codependency can happen in relationships without alcoholism, generally in a different type of caretaker situation, such as a relationship involving a physical or mental illness. People with codependency can improve their own self-esteem and learn to have healthier relationships.

What Is Codependency?

Codependency is a type of dysfunctional relationship that involves one person’s self-esteem and emotional needs being dependent on the other person. The codependent person may also enable the other person’s unhealthy behaviors.

Symptoms of codependency can include:

  • Being dependent on others, including for one’s self-esteem
  • Having weak and/or inflexible boundaries with others
  • Giving up the self in the process of helping others
  • Trying to control everything and everyone in one’s life
  • Aiming to please people to an extreme level
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Having no defenses against absorbing and reacting to other people’s thoughts and feelings
  • Having difficulty communicating and speaking true feelings, beliefs, and needs
  • Obsessing over other people
  • Having trouble being emotionally close to someone in an intimate relationship
  • Experiencing anxiety, fear, and other difficult emotions
  • Being in denial about codependency and one’s need for help

The Development of Codependency

There is a connection seen between codependency and alcoholism. In fact, the term was created to refer to the spouses of those with alcoholism. However, since then professionals have realized that codependency can be independent of alcoholism and can happen in other types of relationships than spousal ones.

Codependency is a learned behavior. One way it can be learned is within a parent/child relationship. For example, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found strong evidence of codependent behavior in women with alcoholic parents compared to women without alcoholic parents.

It was a common belief that having an alcoholic parent was the sole cause of codependency. This can be a cause, yet it has become apparent that it is not always the cause and that having an alcoholic parent does not always lead to codependency.

Codependent behaviors could also be learned from other relationship dynamics, such as:

  • Dysfunctional parents
  • Mental health disorders
  • Chronic physical illness
  • Childhood abuse

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Alcoholism and Codependency Treatment

If you show signs of codependency, professional treatment is available that can help regardless of the cause of the codependency. Treatment will generally focus on helping you develop self-esteem separate from the other person and focus on your own needs and emotions. You can also work on your health within relationships, whether that means improving your current relationship or ending it to find a healthier one.

For a codependent relationship to become healthier, both parties will need to work on themselves and on creating change toward a different type of relationship. Also, a main part of the solution is that the other person in the relationship needs to seek professional treatment for alcoholism or a mental health disorder.

Treatment for both parties could include individual therapy and possibly couples counseling. In some cases, outpatient treatment is enough, while others require the comprehensive treatment and around-the-clock care associated with inpatient treatment. Living on-site for inpatient treatment provides an opportunity to completely focus on recovery.

Codependency is a behavior people can learn in relationships that involve alcoholism, a mental health disorder, or a physical illness. One person loses his or her own sense of self in favor of taking care of the other person’s needs. However, just as you can learn this behavior, you can learn to change it through treatment.