Alcoholism and the Codependent Relationship

Codependent relationships are unhealthy and are characterized by an overdependence on one partner, a need to nurture and control, complete devotion to the relationship and an inability to find self-worth outside of it, and enabling of problem behaviors, like drinking. The term codependency was first used to describe the relationship between alcoholics and their partners. While the definition has since expanded, problem drinking remains a common component of codependent relationships.

Codependent relationships can be toxic relationships. Alcohol or other substance abuse is often involved, even a trigger for the unhealthy dynamic. It’s important to understand what a codependent marriage or other relationship is, what it means for each individual, how to recognize it, and how to use healthier coping mechanisms than drinking to improve the relationship.

If there is already an issue with alcohol abuse in a troubled relationship, recognizing the problem and taking steps to correct it is crucial.

What Is Codependency?

The term codependency has been used for many years in psychology, although it is not an officially recognized mental disorder. Codependency is more of a personality or relationship pattern than a mental illness. The term was first used to describe the role spouses or partners of alcoholics played in their relationships, as enablers of drinking and other negative behaviors. Eventually it became clear that codependency was more common than this, that people often developed these unhealthy relationship behaviors even when there was no substance use involved.

Although the term is not limited to drinking, codependent relationships often occur when one partner struggles with substance abuse or a mental illness. For instance, personality disorders like narcissistic, borderline, and dependent personalities in one partner may cause a greater susceptibility to a co-dependent relationship.

Regardless of any existing substance use disorder or mental disorder, the hallmark of codependency is one partner lavishing attention on the other while taking his or her sense of self-worth and self-esteem from that person’s behaviors and attitudes. One partner tends to nurture the other, making excuses for their bad behaviors, making sacrifices to keep them happy, and settling for less in return.

Alcoholism and Codependency – Which Comes First?

Alcoholism was the original reason for the term codependency, and it is often the case in this type of relationship that it stems from drinking or another type of problematic behavior. The other partner tries to nurture the drinker, making excuses, covering for responsibilities, cleaning up messes, and otherwise enabling the bad behavior by eliminating the negative consequences.

However, it is also likely that someone in this position of enabling and being codependent tends to be drawn to someone who needs help, who struggles to function and relies on other people. Personality characteristics in the codependent partner draw him or her to someone who will accept unhealthy nurturing and attachment. And it is often likely that this person is someone struggling with drinking or another type of substance abuse.

It’s also be possible that a codependent relationship may develop first and trigger an alcohol use disorder in one partner. A relationship with codependent behaviors is not a healthy one. One partner relies on the other for nurturing and to improve function. The other relies on him or her to feel needed and worthy and to develop self-esteem. The stress of this kind of relationship may lead one or the other partner to drink or use drugs.

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Am I Codependent?

A difficult relationship is not necessarily one that is codependent, but it is important to recognize the signs. If you are struggling in your relationship, whether your partner drinks too much alcohol or not, know the signs of codependency so you can take steps to make positive changes if you recognize them in yourself and your partner:

  • You have a tendency to rescue people, take responsibility for others, and make sacrifices for people.
  • You regularly make sacrifices for your partner, and it boosts your self-esteem.
  • You tend to do more than your fair share in your relationship, whether that means more chores, financial responsibilities, or emotional involvement.
  • You make excuses for your partner when he or she behaves in an inappropriate way, such as getting drunk.
  • You feel responsible for those bad behaviors.
  • You feel like you would do anything to hold on to your relationship, even though it is difficult.
  • You feel as if you won’t survive without the relationship.
  • You need recognition and approval from your partner and feel hurt and worthless when your efforts aren’t recognized.
  • You keep quiet or accept bad behaviors from your partner to keep things calm and avoid fights.
  • You struggle to find any satisfaction or meaning in things outside of your relationship, such as friendships or work.
  • You often feel depressed, ashamed, guilty, or anxious.
  • You have a hard time trusting people and opening up to others.

What to Do Next

If you do believe you are in a codependent relationship, there are steps you can take for positive change. Ending the relationship is not always necessary, but sometimes it is the best thing to do. Even if you do end it, you still need help learning about and changing your codependent tendencies so you don’t make the same mistake again.

If you want to try to stay together, an important first step is to get your partner professional help for alcohol use disorder. You may not feel like he or she is an, but even a mild alcohol use disorder can be treated and managed to the benefit of the relationship. If your partner enters a treatment program or gets addiction counseling, it will likely include couples therapy so that you can work on your relationship at the same time.

In fact, it is crucial that you address both issues—the drinking and the codependency—because if one is not managed, the other will continue to be a problem. A good treatment plan will include both partners and will offer behavioral therapies, support groups, relationship and family counseling and education, and individualized plans for ongoing change.

Codependency is more a learned behavior than a mental illness. If you are struggling with this issue in your relationship, you can learn to change your behaviors. Seek professional support, and try to get your partner involved. If he or she will not accept help or acknowledge there is any problem at all, it may be time to move on from the relationship.