When it comes to our relationships, we all have fairly consistent ways we interact with others. For example, with our parents, we may be prim and proper, but with our friends, we might swear and drink a little too much. This is how people, in general, do relationships. When addiction is added to a relationship, however, other forces impact relationships and how we act within them. These patterns of behaviour are often referred to as codependency and enabling.
Codependency in addiction is a term for how a person acts within a relationship where the other party is struggling with addiction. This describes how they almost act as if they are a hostage in the situation, and work to maintain everything and the sense of normalcy they develop. This does not mean that they are in a normal relationship; no, they are just trying to adapt to the new normal their life has now.
In a codependent relationship, the person has learned that their well-being, love, and acceptance are conditional; they must help keep things going, or those important aspects of the relationship are withheld, or otherwise unavailable. This means that the codependent person will work very hard to maintain the normalcy, the illusion of control, and the comfort and status quo as much as they can. They will often do so to their own detriment.
Codependency is all about getting the non-addicted person’s needs met. Like all human beings, they have needs for companionship, love, and acceptance, and have found themselves in a committed relationship with someone who is actually in a relationship with drugs or alcohol. The codependent person has made the decision, for many different possible reasons, to remain with this person and make it work one way or another. Unfortunately, what often happens is that this all grows beyond their ability to manage and it, and their world, spirals out of control as the other’s addiction does as well.
Enabling is slightly different than codependency. When a person is enabling, they are in some way, either actively or passively, helping the person continue their addiction. This is likely not even a conscious thought; the enabler is just trying to keep things going and manage their lives, but in doing so they provide the person with the substance use disorder the ability to continue using.
This can appear in many different ways. A common way for a person to enable is to cover for the addicted individual when they are drunk or high. This could be a wife calling into work for her husband, saying he is sick when he is really too drunk to drive. Or it could be a husband going to a parent-teacher conference alone, saying his wife is sick when really she is high on painkillers. Enabling could also be more obvious like giving someone money so they can get their next fix. This may be through deception, or just honestly giving the individual money so that they will feel better. It’s not necessarily about helping the addiction; most of the time the enabler just wants to help the other person and the only way they see it is to do things that help, or enable, them to keep using.
In the minds of the enabler, they see themselves as actually taking care of the individual with the addiction. They may see themselves as the only one who is helping, because they do things that take the pain away in the moment, or the short-term, which usually involves helping them drink or use. This could easily turn into an “us against the world situation”, where the enabler feels trapped and forced to defend and protect their partner. This can be what makes enabling behaviours difficult to work with when it comes to substance abuse treatment.
Codependency and enabling behaviours are very common in addiction. Often this is how people and families survive while the individual with the substance use disorder is actively using.
Seeking treatment is part of the solution — both the individual with the substance use disorder and their family. Addiction affects the whole family system, not only the one using. Getting counselling and support will be vital, as often what is needed is called tough love. This means learning to say no and set boundaries with the addicted individual. It will be tough and will take practice, but it is doable.
Support also comes in the form of support and recovery groups. There are recovery groups for family members of people with a substance abuse issue, so take advantage of them. That way, the family can hear from others who have been there and receive the support and validation that comes from a group.
Codependency and enabling behaviours are actually very common and treatable in families with addiction. It is important that everyone in the family seek support and go through recovery together. This will help everyone. If you find yourself or someone you care about is in need of help, please contact us immediately.