Codependency has many different definitions, but it is widely recognized as a psychological reaction that places the needs of others before one’s own needs, often to a detrimental degree.
Codependency can include a variety of other psychological issues, including problems defining healthy boundaries, inability to express feelings, fears of abandonment and a strong desire for approval. Experts believe the tendency toward codependency starts in childhood and may be worsened by several common social pressures.
One of the strongest social pressures is to hold the family unit together, regardless of whatever upsetting actions occur because of substance abuse and its effects. This expectation often has a powerful effect on family members, causing them to take on unusual behaviors in order to preserve the family unit. Some take on the role of peacekeeper, nurturer or jester to divert attention from the problems of the addicted individual.
However, these roles only serve to create more tension within the family unit and do not help the addicted person in any way. Children of alcoholics often develop a wide range of codependent behaviors in dealing with their parents that can last well into adulthood. These individuals often join groups for adult children of alcoholics in order to deal with residual dysfunctional behavior and emotional pain(1).
The need to appear to be a good spouse to the addicted individual or a good parent to the addicted child is another strong pressure. This role requires that the individual be endlessly patient and giving to the person with the substance abuse problem. However, in reality, the behavior serves to continue and enable the addiction. In addition, the long-suffering codependent may experience severe mental and physical reactions from the stress of always having to be “good” to the addicted person.
In many cases, male family members may become involved in codependent behaviors as they try to set up ways to control the addicted individual. The societal pressure is to be the person handling the problem. However, this attitude often leads to being drawn into manipulations and conflicts that do not help the individual with the problem. These situations can create enormous frustration and stress for the person trying to maintain control.
Many families feel the societal pressure of keeping family business private, and this silence often leads to codependent behavior to maintain the public illusion of stability. This expectation often occurs in dysfunctional families where problems such as substance dependence, mental illness and physical or sexual abuse is not discussed (2). Keeping the family secrets and maintaining silence about problems is highly valued in these families. However, the anger, shame and frustration show in other ways to disrupt relationships and create emotional chaos.
In some cultural circles there exists a strong command to be of service to others. This requirement is often seen in groups that have a strong religious background that believes that each person’s behavior affects the spiritual welfare of all of them (2). These “service-oriented” expectations often make it difficult for spouses and other family members to break old patterns of behavior, so that they can support the addicted person in recovery in other ways.
Breaking a habit of codependent behavior often takes intensive counseling and therapy to find the reasons behind it. However, once the behaviors are recognized, new responses can be learned that break the cycle of addiction and enabling.