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Correcting Codependency: Supporting a Loved One During Substance Abuse

It can be hard to support a loved one struggling with addiction, navigating a delicate balance between setting healthy boundaries and enabling your loved one’s substance abuse. Many people unconsciously develop codependent relationships, which become even more dysfunctional in the face of addiction. You want to support your friend or family member who is struggling, but you may unknowingly contribute to their issues. How can you learn to correct codependency and still support someone during substance abuse?

The first step toward healing is understanding precisely what codependency is and how it plays out in relationships. Keep reading to find out if any of these examples describe your relationship with your loved one.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is a vicious cycle that can affect romantic relationships, friendships, and familial ties. The term is frequently used to describe how one party becomes very dependent upon the other person. A codependent person needs the other person to help validate them and boost their self-esteem. They are willing to continuously play the martyr if it means pleasing the other party. On the other hand, the other person is all too eager to utilize your sacrifices for their gain.

When it comes to substance abuse, this cycle can become even more dangerous. You may find yourself in a situation where you are willing to do anything to fix your loved one’s problem. This could look like loaning them money, bailing them out of jail, paying for an expensive rehab facility, or footing the bill for their squandered rent money. While these actions in isolation may not look problematic, yielding to repeated demands without changed behavior can turn into a cycle of codependency. In other words, you could be unwittingly enabling them to continue down the path to their addiction or substance abuse issues.

Common Codependency and Substance Abuse Narratives

Many people are better able to identify their own codependency with examples. Consider whether any of the following narratives describe your relationship with your loved one.

Sacrificing Your Well-Being

It’s normal to want the best for your loved ones. Meeting them with compassion is acceptable, but many people take their empathy a few steps too far. You may find yourself becoming obsessed with a desire to save your loved one from their substance abuse. When you begin to sacrifice your own well-being in favor of helping your loved one, you know that you have crossed the line of codependency.

Cleaning Up the Mess

Substance abuse can lead people to lie, cheat, and steal to get what they need to feed their addiction. Addiction takes over, and responsibilities can fall to the wayside. If you find yourself stepping in to unravel a tangled mess for your loved one over and over, then you might be on your way to developing a codependent relationship with them. People in codependent relationships frequently refuse to hold their loved ones accountable for their actions and make great sacrifices to maintain the status quo.

Using Emotion as Manipulation

One of the hallmark features of codependency is the tendency to use emotions to manipulate outcomes. When you have a loved one with a substance abuse issue, this might look like using guilt to convince them to enter into treatment before they are personally ready to commit to bettering their lives and seeking help. Ultimately, this approach tends to backfire and does not produce any lasting result.

Other examples of codependency include:

  • Justifying your loved one’s behavior by explaining away substance abuse problems; saying they deserve a drink after a long day at work or they need those pills because they are in pain
  • Making excuses for why your loved one doesn’t attend an event
  • Assigning blame to outside influences for their addiction
  • Loaning money or paying bills when they have spent their money on drugs or alcohol
  • Giving away your own prescription medication
  • Handling each crisis they create and refusing to hold them responsible for their part
  • Becoming the victim of their verbal or physical abuse while under the influence
  • Minimizing the effects or severity of their substance abuse issues

While codependency can certainly take on many different forms, these are just a few of the most common narratives that might help you to identify red flags in your own life. Fortunately, there are ways to combat this struggle.

Coming to Terms with Codependency

The first thing you need to do if you want to make strides toward correcting a codependent relationship is to approach the situation with raw honesty. Acknowledge the many ways that you may have been unconsciously enabling your loved one to carry on with their substance abuse issues. You might have made excuses for them, attempted to repair their relationships on their behalf, loaned them money, or quietly ignored their growing substance abuse. No matter how you contributed, it is best to face it upfront with unflinching honesty.

From here, you must be honest both with yourself and your loved one. Confront them with the many ways that you have contributed to their disorder. This does not have to be an attempt to spark a fight, but it helps let them know that you can acknowledge where you have gone wrong. This conversation is an opportunity for you to set the stage for change in your relationship.

Explain to them that you will be approaching the relationship differently from this point forward, even though it may be uncomfortable for both parties at first. Being honest about your own needs can feel challenging, but it is the only way for a healthy relationship to begin.

The silhouette of two people riding bikes with hands outstretched towards each other and a twilight sunset in the background.

Setting Boundaries with Substance Abuse

Codependent relationships form because of a lack of boundaries. You must remember not to take your loved one’s substance abuse issues personally. Fixing them is not a requirement for you to remain in a relationship with them. Your only job is to accept them as they are without attempting to change them or persuade them to move through life differently.

If you cannot handle their addiction or continue to take it personally, it may be helpful to distance yourself from the relationship. This doesn’t have to be permanent, just some space to help you reconsider your role and establish boundaries. Spend time doing things you enjoy on your own. Go out with other friends, celebrate your achievements, and attempt to live life on your terms. Discover your own needs and desires and attempt to fulfill them instead of constantly sacrificing yourself at the altar of your loved one’s addiction.

Take Time for Self-Care

Codependency makes you feel as though you have to put the other person first in your life, even at the expense of your own wellness. Attempting to forge a different path can overwhelm you with guilt until your adjust to your relationship’s new dynamics. Tending to your own needs may make you feel selfish, particularly when those needs are in direct opposition to what your loved one has required from you in the past.

The truth is that you need to set aside time to take care of yourself. Loving someone through their substance abuse can be incredibly draining emotionally. If you aren’t taking excellent care of yourself, you won’t be able to fully support your loved ones in the way that they truly need.

Self-care looks different for everyone. Some people set aside time to pursue hobbies that make them feel fulfilled. Others might set aside specific time throughout the week to spend time with other friends and family members that energize and encourage them. The idea here is to develop your own sense of self that does not revolve around supporting your loved one with substance abuse. You should be your own independent person without them, allowing yourself to thrive even if they are still struggling with substance abuse.

Attend Therapy

Even if your loved one is not a family member, you may still benefit from attending family therapy together. Under the guidance of a skilled therapist, you can begin to unweave your relationship’s codependent nature. Many people are hesitant to involve a third party because they don’t want to air their dirty laundry, however, this unbiased and objective opinion may help you to save your relationship without sacrificing yourself. This feedback may feel uncomfortable at first, but it is the stepping stone to change.

If your loved one has not yet decided to seek treatment for their substance abuse, it might be a great first step for them. It can feel less overwhelming for them to enter into a therapeutic relationship with someone else by their side. Remember that addiction is a disease, it doesn’t have to be a secret that you keep for your loved one. Seeking out professional help and treatment is the key to long-lasting sobriety and long-term success.

Sometimes, your loved one may not be in a place where they are willing to attend therapy with you just yet. Instead of skipping over this step, consider entering into therapy on your own. This can give you a safe space to evaluate just how their substance abuse affects you. You can dive deep into your relationship’s codependent nature and start developing tools to set better boundaries with the addict in your life.

Find Peer Support

In addition to finding professional help, it can be useful to surround yourself with other people who understand the situation that you are in. Others in the same situation or those who may be further along in the healing process can offer feedback and advice. Consider finding a support group dedicated to codependency or perhaps a group that focuses on people who have loved ones with substance abuse. It can be nerve-wracking to take this step and lay your issues out in front of a small group of other people, but sharing your secrets in a supportive environment can be incredibly healing.

Refuse to Be a Doormat

Once you have some boundaries in place, it is time to set some hard and fast rules with your loved one. Refuse to be a doormat for them any longer. This means no more making excuses for their behavior or absences. If it means that they might lose their job when you refuse to call in sick for them, it is an uncomfortable risk that you have to be willing to make.

Additionally, loaning them money to help them make their rent payment or car payment must become a thing of the past. Most people with substance abuse problems will go to great lengths to secure the funds they need to purchase drugs or alcohol. They may make a compelling case for why you should financially support them, but the longer you give in to this temptation, the longer they will remain trapped in the cycle of addiction.

Redefining a Relationship with a Loved One with Substance Abuse Disorder

Understanding codependency and how to correct it is important if you want to maintain a healthy relationship with your struggling loved one. Developing a codependent relationship with a friend or family member during substance abuse is a common learned behavior.

Fortunately, that means that the damage can often be undone with plenty of hard work and dedication to a healthier future. Begin to put yourself first so that you can better confront your loved one’s substance abuse with them. Setting these boundaries in place is key to helping you maintain your own identity and self-worth in the face of your loved one’s substance abuse.

If you need help getting support, or want to explore options around family therapy, or addiction treatment, we’re here to help. Call us at 855-510-4585 or open the  to talk with a recovery specialist now.

Jess Johnson

Content Marketing Manager

As a fierce proponent of mental health services, Jess believes in the compassionate care and person-centered approach at All Points North. She works to create content that inspires clients and families to advocate for the support they deserve.