How often do you set our own needs aside for the sake of someone else?
Do you find your mood depends on the mood of someone close to you?
Do you obsess about someone’s else behavior?
Relationships are complicated, especially when addiction is a factor. In families with addiction, the addicted person often becomes a sort of eye at the center of the hurricane. The alcoholic may even be absent from the scene as the rest of the family spins in response to a situation the alcoholic triggered.
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Before recovery for codependency
Jill is married to Steve, an active alcoholic. Steve has been diagnosed with a substance use disorder and has suffered legal and financial consequences due to his drinking. His mood is volatile and unpredictable, especially in the evenings when family life is busy with meals and homework. It’s not unusual for Jill to come home from work to pure chaos after Steve makes an effort to parent their three school-age children.
After a day at work, all Steve wants is a drink. Often, he feels angry and drained. Since he’s the first home, he sees the kids and tries to help organize homework. He makes it a point to wait until the kids have started their homework before having his first after-work beer.
Because of Steve’s short temper, though, this usually ends up with one or more of their children angry or crying. Once things fall apart with the kids, Steve heads to the backyard for a beer and yard work. He tells himself he deserves a break after dealing with the kids.
On one particular day, Jill had a great day at work. She was given a promotion for her management of a big project. When she pulls into the driveway, she hopes she can get the kids and her husband to head out for dinner somewhere nice for a celebration. She worries, though, about her husband’s mood.
The minute she walks in the door Jill knows her evening is going to be rough. Two of her children are arguing over a video game in the family room. Her oldest daughter is crying in the bathroom. She learns Steve berated their daughter over some frustration with math homework. Steve had disappeared into the backyard to work on a “project.” Projects are an easy way for her husband to slip away and drink after work. She likely won’t see him until bedtime.
Instead of celebrating, Jill ends up cooking dinner, calming the kids down, helping with the unfinished math homework, and putting everyone to bed. She goes to bed feeling resentful towards her husband and self-pity for herself.
Sound familiar? This story is actually an example of classic codependent behavior.
Break it down
How is this story about codependency? How is this story about enabling?
Jill was in a good mood until she walks into her house. How could she have done anything differently?
The facts: The evening routine wasn’t a total surprise. Steve has been drinking for years. Instead of relying on an alcoholic to act differently on this one evening, she could have made plans with friends for dinner. Steve, because of his drinking, isn’t available to Jill in a way she needs.
Honestly facing this reality means she needs to find others to satisfy those needs in her life. This may mean that she needs to find a mental health professional with an understanding of addiction, or a 12-step program, or friends who understand the situation, or family members who can help with the kids some evenings.
Expecting an active alcoholic to behave differently than normal is usually cause for a big disappointment. The disease of alcoholism lends itself to unreliability, broken promises, and irresponsible behavior.
What happens next
Six months later, Steve is still drinking, but Jill has been going to Al-Anon for the loved ones of alcoholics/addicts for the past six months. In addition, she sees a mental health professional weekly. She’s been learning how to set boundaries in her marriage in order to protect her frame of mind and the kids.
For instance, she signed the kids up for a homework study group after school. This means she has to make an extra drive to the school to pick them up, but the family doesn’t have to deal with the after school aftershocks with Steve. Plus, Steve can’t use his after school interactions as an excuse for drinking.
With the support of her new Al-Anon friends and her therapist, Jill has made it clear to Steve she will not discuss anything after work with him if he’s been drinking. “It’s your choice to drink, however, I don’t want to be around you when you do,” she told him with a sympathetic family member present.
Jill is noticing she isn’t spending as much of the workday worried about how things will be when she gets home. Steve’s mood, behavior, and feelings aren’t nearly the obsession they were in the past for Jill.
With the boundary set, Steve’s drinking is confined to the backyard or elsewhere. She also started sleeping in the guest room to avoid any interaction with Steve after he’s been drinking all evening.
Jill is aware, at some point, she may have to create a stronger boundary, and it may mean living apart from Steve if he continues to drink. However, for now, she is learning slowly how to speak up for herself and maintain a sense of calm in her home and workday.
The new situation isn’t perfect, but Jill now sees how to maintain some control over her life. If she wants to celebrate an occasion like a promotion, Jill now understands she needs to plan for the event with friends and family members whom she can rely upon. Until Steve gets help, he’s unable to be this person for her.
5 Steps for Avoiding Codependency
As you saw in the story above, codependency can take time and effort to fix. But if you’re committed to establishing a healthier relationship with your partner as they recover from addiction, here are 5 key steps to avoid codependent relationships:
- Seek support for yourself. When your loved one is struggling with addiction, it’s easy to think that their needs should come before yours. But this imbalance can make codependent relationships even worse. Don’t be afraid to seek help for yourself, including finding a therapist familiar with addiction and codependency challenges.
- Find a recovery community. Your loved one may not be ready for treatment, but you can benefit from support from others who have gone through similar challenges. Joining a group like Al-Anon will introduce you to peers whose loved ones have also struggled with addiction, providing you with encouragement and support to get through a tough time.
- Establish boundaries. Within your home, make sure your loved one understands that their substance use behavior has consequences. Set strong boundaries about when and where they can use substances, for example, that they are not welcome to drink or use drugs in your home or near your children. Then enforce these boundaries to make sure your loved one understands you are committed to change.
- Adjust as needed. Codependency can be a tough habit to break, especially if your loved one is resistant to seeking treatment for their addiction. That’s why it’s important to adjust your boundaries as needed. For example, if your loved one isn’t complying with your initial boundaries, you may need to set tougher ones and enlist family and friends to help.
- Don’t try to “fix” your loved one. One of the biggest challenges of codependency is the feeling that you are responsible for your loved one’s wellbeing, happiness, success, and, in the case of addiction, sobriety. Understand that you can’t fix these issues without their cooperation, and you don’t have to shoulder responsibility for their challenges. Encourage them to get help, set firm boundaries, and understand what you can and cannot fix.
If someone in your life has a problem with alcohol or other drugs, recovery is still an option for you. Sometimes changing yourself leads to changes for everyone.