Addiction is an illness that is often referred to as a family illness; the reason for this is that it is an illness that affects far more than the individual. In fact, families are often torn apart when one member has an addiction to substances such as drugs or alcohol. It may be difficult for those closest to the addict to carry on with normal life because they become consumed with helping their addicted loved one or have become so resentful of them that they cannot stop thinking about them. Family members react in various ways to a loved one’s addiction; one of the more common side effects is known as co-dependency – but what does co-dependency mean?

What is Co-Dependency?

In most family units, every member will do their own thing but will still be affected by the actions of other members. It is common for people to assume that those who abuse substances such as drugs and alcohol are affecting only themselves, but this is rarely the case. In fact, the actions of one family member can have a devastating impact on everyone else within the family unit.

Each family member may react in a different manner; some will do all they can to help the addicted loved one while others will become upset or angry with the affected person. Those whose lives are deeply influenced by the actions of the addicted individual are often referred to as co-dependent. The reason for this is that they can also be described as having a dependency. While their loved one may be dependent on alcohol or drugs, the family member has become dependent on the addict. Their life becomes so consumed with the actions of their addicted loved one that everything they do and think revolves around that person. They may even change their own behaviour and actions to cope with the stress of living with or being around the addicted individual.

How Does Co-Dependency Affect Loved Ones?

There are many different forms of co-dependency:

  • Rationalising – Many loved ones may start to rationalise their addicted loved one’s behaviour rather than facing up to the fact that it has become unreasonable due to the person’s illness. For example, they may tell others that the reason their loved one uses drugs or alcohol is because they are under a lot of stress at work.
  • Covering Up – Addicts tend to manipulate others and lie to them in a bid to get what they need. However, addicts tend to make liars of the people closest to them too. Family members will often try to fix their loved one’s problem, and because of the stigma attached to this illness, it is common for them to try to hide it from others. Some will try to cover up the problem to help their loved one while others will do it in order to hide their own shame and embarrassment. For example, family members may lie to the addict’s employer about why he or she is unable to go to work, or may make up stories as to why he or she is unable to attend a specific event.
  • Blaming – The temptation to blame themselves for their loved one’s behaviour is all too common among family members of addicted loved ones. They might believe that they should have done this or that, and if they had, the individual would never have been tempted to turn to drugs or alcohol. It can even get to the stage where they convince themselves that the addicted person was not wrong to use chemical substances at all. With careful manipulation and rationalising from the addict, it may even get to a point where they believe the root of the problem was themselves and not the addict’s own issues.
  • Withdrawing – Withdrawing from society is something else that co-dependent family members often do. They may believe it is better to stop going out with friends for fear that their addicted loved one will drink too much or will take drugs and then cause a scene. Children of addicted parents may not invite friends over in case their secret will be revealed.
  • Controlling – Begging and pleading is common among families where one member is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some family members become so obsessed with helping the addicted individual that they try to control their behaviour.

What are the Consequences of Co-Dependency?

In a home where one member of the family is addicted to alcohol or drugs, chaos will undoubtedly reign. Family members may mean well and want to help, but the reality is that their attempts will rarely be successful. True feelings and emotions are typically supressed, which can lead to bitter resentment on the part of everyone.

The actions of co-dependent loved ones often give the addict free rein to carry on with their addictive behaviour. Rather than helping the addict, family members will be unwittingly allowing them to spiral even further out of control.

Since the illness is not tackled head on and the addict is not forced to take responsibility for his or her behaviour, he or she will not feel accountable for things done. This can have a devastating impact on the family. Some will get to the point where they just switch off and will either physically stay away from home or will become emotionally withdrawn and will rarely interact with the addict while trying to get on with their own lives.

The effect on the family can be deep and lasting. In most cases, the effects are felt even after the addict has sought help and gets clean. Family therapy is often required.

Can Family Therapy Help with Co-Dependency?

The families of addicted loved ones will usually need to get involved in the recovery process. Most rehab centres will offer some form of therapy for the loved ones of addicted individuals. This may mean counselling sessions with and without the addicted loved one where everyone can air their grievances and then work through them with the help of professional counsellors and therapists.

There are also a number of family support groups available such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon where family members can meet other people who are in a comparable situation to theirs. These groups can be vital in helping family members to overcome their own issues relating to their loved one’s addiction.

If you have a loved one with an addiction and have been asking yourself what does co-dependency mean and could you be affected, get in touch with us here at Recovery Lighthouse. We can help your loved one to overcome their addiction once and for all, and our excellent programmes incorporate family therapy that will help with the issue of co-dependency. For more information, please call our helpline today.