When we are in a close relationship with a partner, it’s only natural for both people to come to depend upon each other for support, ideas, comfort, and the sharing of labor.
When It Becomes Problematic
The dependence on the other person becomes a problem when our sense of our personal self becomes entangled with what we think the other person needs from us.
Ideally, relationships and intimacy can be tools for personal growth. In a healthy relationship, we love the other person while also knowing that our happiness and security do not depend on them. If your relationship creates fear and guilt more often than it creates freedom and love, it is likely that you have become entangled—you have lost your sense of self and come to depend on the other person for cues about how you should feel and what you should do.
Any relationship can suffer from codependence, but when one partner is addicted to substances, it’s much more likely that the relationship is based on codependence. It’s this entanglement of one partner’s sense of self in the other partner’s needs that leads to enabling, the behavior that allows the addicted person to continue in their addiction without feeling consequence.
How do you know if you are in an entangled relationship?
Fear of rejection. Are you afraid of losing your partner’s love? Are you afraid that if you don’t say or do the right thing at any given moment, your partner will throw you to the curb, either literally or metaphorically? If you believe that rejection will destroy you—if you believe that losing this relationship will mean losing all possibility of happiness—then you have become entangled and codependent.
Fear of telling your partner what you want or need. When we compromise our emotional, physical, mental, or spiritual health to provide what we think the other person wants and needs from us, we are acting codependently. This is where enabling becomes a problem: when you start picking up the slack for your addicted partner because you’re afraid to set a boundary. You think, “If my partner’s not happy, it must be my fault. I’d better do everything I can to make him/her happy, even if it’s hard for me.”
Inability to know what you want and need. After years of ignoring your needs so that you can provide for your addicted partner’s needs, two things can happen: 1) you can get so out of touch with yourself that you don’t even know what you want, and 2) you build up—and suppress—a LOT of anger. What happens when you continually suppress your needs and emotions? You become chronically tired, sad, or anxious. You might experience stress-related physical sickness or pain. You wonder why you’re feeling this way, but the answer is clear: you need something you’re not getting.
You resort to passive aggressive or manipulative behavior. When you are not getting what you need from a relationship, and when you’re afraid to express your anger clearly and confront your addicted partner directly, you might resort to manipulation. If you’re afraid to say “I want you to come home for dinner tonight,” you might instead opt for sarcasm, saying, “I don’t suppose you’d want to come home for dinner at a reasonable hour” or “You clearly hate me since you never want to eat dinner with me.” You may also avoid expressing anger by resorting to tears or silence, hoping that your partner will notice the problem and decide to change—and then you’ll grow even more enraged when they continue as usual.
How do you repair an entangled relationship and begin to heal?
Talk to a therapist. Most people who become codependent learned that behavior in childhood. Talking to a professional therapist can help you see how the relationships you witnessed led to your beliefs about what a “good” relationship looks like. A therapist will help you learn how to break the pattern you’ve created and become your own person, a person you like, respect, and treat with love.
Find a support group. An organization like Al-Anon is designed to help family members and friends of addicted loved ones find support in hearing each other’s stories and knowing they are not alone.
Develop a relationship with yourself. What do you want? Remind yourself, every day if necessary, that you have needs and that your needs matter. On a lighter note, think about what you enjoy. What’s fun for you? Pursue a hobby or a project apart from your partner.
Learn to not take it personally. A codependent person takes everything personally, looking to the other person for confirmation and feedback on everything they do, feeling rejected and hurt when the other person fails to offer confirmation. It can be hard to wrap your head around, but remember: nothing your loved one says, does, or thinks is about you. Even if they’re pointing at you and yelling blame for some way you have “failed,” their anger is not really about you. It’s about their own pain and shame; it’s about the unique way they perceive the world; it’s about all of the life experiences that have shaped them. When you feel rejected or blamed or hated, tell yourself, “This is not about me.”
Set boundaries. Once you develop a knowledge of yourself and what you want and need, you can more easily recognize when your partner behaves in a way that compromises your needs, hurts you, or generally makes your life more stressful. It will feel hard to put your own needs over your partner’s needs—especially when it seems like their will addiction kill them if you don’t intervene—but only by caring for yourself can you be a true help to your partner.
As you practice caring for yourself, you’ll be able to tell whether the relationship is one worth saving. You’ll be able to tell if the other person is willing or capable of meeting you halfway, of getting treatment, of working hard to develop an authentic partnership based on respect, love, and freedom. You may decide, in the end, that leaving the relationship is the healthiest choice.
To learn more about codependency, check out these resources:
- Co-Dependency. Mental Health America.
- What you need to know about codependent relationships. Medical News Today.