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Let’s start with a description of addiction: the compulsive, habitual use of a habit-forming substance – all types of drugs or alcohol. Now let’s define codependence with an addict for the purposes of this article: this is a disorder in which an individual has become preoccupied with the dysfunctional behavior of a friend or relative to the exclusion of all else.

When someone we love is dependent on alcohol or drugs, we can lose ourselves in their care, or worry about them constantly. Our happiness depends on the happiness of the dependent individual.

Not all giving people are codependent. When it’s to help another grow and develop a healthy sense of self, it’s not codependence. However, when we cave into someone’s demands when we know it will hurt them, it is codependence. Being codependent with an addict means that you are enabling them to continue in their addictive behaviors.

You can see many examples of this type of behavior on the Dr. Phil show. Although much of what he does is for entertainment, the themes are often the same – a mother enabling bad behavior in a child; a husband or wife enabling their spouse to act out for fear of losing their love, friends who have become so enmeshed in each other’s lives that they encourage or support the addict’s behavior. They come onto the show when they can’t deal with it anymore and don’t know how to stop it the codependence.

In a family where one person is the addict, all the other people are forced to revolve around that person. In my practice, I see people who were raised in households where one of the members is the addict, and the others must function around them.

Everyone learns to tiptoe around a drunken, enraged father; all mom’s attention is directed toward the child who has a heroin addiction to the exclusion of all other family members. As a result, these people have been forced into codependency too.

Codependence is a problem when you are always putting others’ needs ahead of your own. If you are always worried about another’s behavior and seek ways to control it or if you fear that they will reject you if you don’t enable them, you are probably codependent. When your identity is tied up with keeping them happy and feeling responsible when they are not, or you lose sleep trying to solve others’ problems, you are probably codependent.

The Importance of Setting Boundaries

Getting out of codependency in relationships is difficult but not impossible. It will require setting some boundaries for yourself and the other person. Think of a boundary as a line down the center of a room. On one side are all your possessions and things that belong to you, including your feelings, thoughts, choices, etc. On the other are those that belong to the other person. If a boundary is tangible, then you would not want someone to take your favorite sweater – that would be stepping over the line into your space. In the same way, you wouldn’t take something that belongs to them.

No one is born with boundaries. They have to be developed. People with a healthy sense of self can see that. So the first thing to remember is that if you are in a codependent relationship with an addict, boundary setting is going to be difficult. You will probably have to take baby steps in that direction.

Here are a few suggestions to begin to establish boundaries for yourself:

  • Don’t start with a big boundary – it will take time to learn this skill, so start with something small that you can feel successful with.
  • Seek support – finding a counselor who can help you with boundary setting is a good first step. You can find help from others in your community, such as through church or trusted friends.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you are struggling with this. You may have grown up in a family where codependence was the norm. You may have had to be a caretaker for other members of the family, always giving of yourself. It will take time to become self-aware and to develop healthy boundaries.
  • Don’t allow others to make you feel guilty for your boundaries. Addicts are particularly good at making others feel they are letting them down.

These are big changes and may require the help of a therapist to begin to implement them. I’m here to help. If you think you are codependent, I’m here to help you unravel it and gain a healthier perspective.

“Autumn Pathway,” courtesy of James Petts, Flickr Creative Commons, CC0 License; “Green spaces,” courtesy of jean_mingmo, Flickr Creative Commons, CC0 License;  “Twilight Bridge,” courtesy of arodseth, Flickr Creative Commons, CC0 License; “Follow the Path,” courtesy of Olga Bulenko, Flickr Creative Commons, CC0 License 

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