Codependency in the Family of an Addict

30 March, 2021
When one family member has an addiction, it affects the entire family. However, when relatives try to help, they sometimes end up aggravating the situation. This is known as codependency.

Substance addiction is one of the most distressing psychological disorders. There’s no cure for this chronic disorder, only rehabilitation. In addition, it not only affects the addict’s life, but also wreaks havoc on their finances, social relationships, and psychological state. However, the consequences of this disease also have a significant impact on those close to them. It can often lead to codependency in the family of an addict.

When a member of a nuclear family is a substance abuser, it affects the whole family. In fact, parents and siblings are forced to deal with the family member’s disorder but are unable to help.

With the passing of time, this can result in very damaging relationship dynamics. These make the situation worse for everyone involved. Consequently, it’s important to identify and prevent this type of codependency.

A woman looking stressed.

Codependency in the family of an addict

If you have a loved one who’s an addict, it’s natural to worry about them and offer them support and help. Drawing back from them emotionally would be both very complicated and not particularly helpful.

It makes sense for the addict’s relatives to talk to them to try and understand them, encouraging them to seek assistance and to stand by them throughout the rehabilitation process. However, in many cases, their involvement becomes so intense that it becomes harmful and dysfunctional.

Codependency in the family of an addict occurs when another person in the family becomes too involved in their illness. In fact, they start to overidentify with the addict. Furthermore, they become obsessed with caring for them, and focus all their attention and energy on them, to the extent of neglecting themselves. Some of the main characteristics of this phenomenon are:

  • The family member’s life completely revolves around rescuing, curing, or protecting the addict.
  • All their frustrated attempts at help create tremendous emotional discomfort, leading to a harmful relationship with the addict.
  • They deny that the addict has a problem. In fact, they might justify their behavior or play down the severity of it.
  • They try to hide the problem from other people and cover up for the addict. Consequently, they waive their right to sharing the problem with others or asking for any help.
  • They become emotionally dependent upon the addict. In other words, they limit themselves to reacting to the actions of the addict rather than their own. Therefore, their well-being becomes dependent on the addict’s well-being.

Why does codependency develop?

Not all relatives of an addict develop codependency. It tends to be more common in people with low self-esteem and poor emotional management.

Often, the codependent feels guilty about the addict and feels the need to try to control their behavior. Furthermore, they tend to believe that this is totally within their grasp. Generally, they’re people who have difficulty establishing boundaries in their relationships. As a matter of fact, they tend to see what’s happening as quite natural, like a betrayal or a lack of loyalty.

A father and son depicting codependency in the family of an addict.

Codependency in the family of an addict is detrimental to all those involved

Generally, the codependent person doesn’t realize how damaging their behavior is. They feel that, by getting involved, they’re helping the addict and even aiding their recovery. However, in reality, it’s the complete opposite.

When the family member denies or plays down the existence of the disease, or when they take care of the effects of the disease, it takes the responsibility away from the addict. This perpetuates their addiction. However, the codependent also damages their own well-being by carrying all the weight of a problem that isn’t even theirs on their shoulders.

Therefore, the best thing that the codependent can do, both for the addict and themselves, is to return to their former self. Furthermore, to allow the addict to start taking responsibility for themselves. It’s extremely important that they stop denying and covering up the addiction. Neither should they feel any responsibility for it. Finally, they should start setting boundaries.

It’s never possible to solve another person’s addiction problem. An addict has to do it themselves. In fact, the best thing for family members to do is to keep a distance and look after their own emotional health.

  • Biscarra, A., & Fernández Acevedo, G. (2010). Codependencia: el lado oculto de los trastornos adictivos. Normas Editoriales, 14.
  • Gómez, A. P., & Delgado, D. D. (2003). La codependencia en familias de consumidores y no consumidores de drogas: estado del arte y construcción de un instrumento. Psicothema15(3), 381-387.