Recognizing & understanding co-dependency

What is co-dependency?

Co-dependency affects the loved ones of those struggling with addiction.

Co-dependency is an unhealthy set of behaviors that have been learned trying to adapt to the dysfunction of substance use disorders in a family.

Feeling out of control themselves, a person can desperately try to control their addicted loved one. If left unchanged, these behaviors can move into other relationships outside the family, treating others in the same unhealthy ways.

When substances are being misused, many family members have their own journey of healing too.

Older man and woman looking pensively into the distance

What does co-dependency look like?

  • Obsession: Similar to the person struggling with their substance use disorder, a co-dependent person becomes equally obsessed with their loved one’s drinking and drug using behavior. Are they coming home tonight? Are they going to kill themselves or somebody else? Are we going to be able to pay the bills if they don’t go to work?
  • Denial: It is often conscious denying the full extent of the problem. It is how we have learned how to cope, a survival behavior. We think we’re loving our family member when we bail them out of jail, paying their bills, making excuses for them. This protecting/covering-up behavior is often to protect our own views of ourselves. We’re embarrassed. We begin to avoid people.
  • Unexplained mood swings: If our addicted family member is feeling good today, we’re feeling good. If our loved one is having a difficult time, we’re having a difficult time. We follow their mood swings, so our lives are depending on their feelings.
  • Irrational behavior: Many times we will act as irrationally as the addict in our lives—taking away their money or their car keys, following them to places that are not safe. We act in ways we would never act if it weren’t for the alcohol and other drugs.
  • Lashing out: We may strike out at a loved one in a way that would never happen if the alcohol or drugs weren’t involved.
  • Self-hate: We experience the same loss of self-esteem as the person with the substance use disorder. We lose ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and even thoughts of suicide.
  • Displaced feelings: We avoid our real feelings. We push them down and they come out inappropriately in other ways. We get angry at the kids, co-workers, the dog, but we don’t get mad at the disease.
  • Covering up feelings: We substitute compulsive activities like work, eating, cleaning, exercise, staying on the internet for hours—anything to not deal with the real world around us.



Finding recovery in co-dependency

People who struggle with co-dependency can find recovery the same way as their loved one with a substance use disorder—by admitting that we are powerless to control this disease and we need to seek help ourselves.

We need help to learn how to stop blaming ourselves or our loved one, focus on ourselves and take responsibility for our own actions. We need to deal with our feelings rather than avoid them. It’s time to begin taking care of yourself, to recognize your co-dependency and to identify the behaviors you need to change to get well yourself. You can get better, even if they don’t.You can love your addict to death or you can love yourself back to health and, in turn, stop enabling them.

To overcome co-dependency, we must build a circle of well friends and healthy interests, a circle of support from people who have been living with this disease in their lives who can share their experience, strength, and hope with us.

Man and woman eating apples and looking at each other

It’s time to begin taking care of yourself, to recognize your co-dependency and to identify the behaviors you need to change to get well yourself. If you need help taking a step, please contact us.