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How to Set Healthy Boundaries: Codependency Explored and More

While substance abuse on its own can be a particularly difficult addiction to kick, when it’s coupled with codependency, it can be infinitely harder to get sober and healthy.

That’s because these two addictions are intricately intertwined. Continued substance abuse can lead to more dishonesty, manipulation, and resentment thus fueling the toxicity of codependency. And a codependent relationship, on the other hand, can make it easier to abuse drugs due to the silence, blind support, and enabling behaviors involved.

And worse yet, actually acknowledging the reality of both of these addictions is a crucial step that many simply can’t find a way to take.

That’s why knowing what codependency looks like, why it’s so often mixed up with substance abuse, and how to set healthy boundaries is so important to overcoming these addictions. Otherwise, you may not even see the signs in your own relationship.

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What Is Codependency?

With its original roots in family members of alcoholic parents, codependency is a concept that describes a relationship where each party is unable to act independently from one another. While the idea might sound a bit far-fetched at first, even romantic to some, the truth is that these relationships are often fraught with emotionally destructive behavior, manipulation, and toxic power struggles.

And despite all of the turmoil, the members of the relationship are often unable to grow, change their tumultuous habits, or leave the other party on their own.

This destructive pattern has also been termed “relationship addiction” and has a strong connection with substance abuse.

In fact, the term was first defined in the late 1970s to describe the patterns of behavior observed in families where one member was an alcoholic. Other members would often ignore the obvious and vicious addiction, refuse to acknowledge it, or might adopt new behaviors in an attempt to distract themselves from it entirely.

Where Does Codependency Come from?

Like many other types of addiction, the risk of codependence is often passed down from parents to their children. But unlike substance addiction, genetic factors aren’t heavily involved. Rather, codependency is a learned behavior that children adopt by “watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior,” according to Mental Health America.


An alcoholic, for example, may be emotionally or physically abusive to their spouse in front of their children. And rather than fighting back or leaving the abusive party, the victim instead detaches their needs from the relationship and focuses entirely on making the other party happy. 

Abandoning your own needs, the children learn, is the only way to truly keep your partner satisfied and prevent yourself from being harmed or abandoned. This is the mindset of the “caretaker.”

The connection, however, is not always obvious to the codependent individual. They may, for example, feel an overwhelming need to satisfy others, so much so that they put their own hopes and desires aside entirely.

And while they may know that these behaviors are in fact destructive (some don’t even acknowledge that fact), they might not recognize exactly why they’re so driven to perform these self-sacrificing deeds in the first place.

That’s why it’s absolutely crucial if you suspect you are in a codependent relationship that you get qualified help immediately, especially if there is substance abuse involved as well.

12 Symptoms of Codependency

According to Everyday Health, some of the most notable signs of codependency in a caretaker include:

  • Difficulty making decisions in a relationship
  • An inability to communicate and identify feelings or emotions
  • Valuing the approval of others more than your own integrity or personal needs
  • Low self-esteem and/or severe depression
  • Incessant fears of abandonment
  • An inability to set personal boundaries

For the controlling party, a few identifying characteristics that might indicate you’re in a codependent relationship are:

  • Extreme jealousy
  • A need to control where your partner goes, who your partner sees, or even what they talk about
  • Using deceit and manipulation to change the way your partner behaves
  • An inability to admit you are wrong
  • Chronic anger
  • An inability to respect personal boundaries

9 Differences in a Codependency vs. an Interdependent Relationship

One of the best ways of really demonstrating the characteristics of a codependent relationship is by comparing it to a healthy, interdependent one. That’s why we’ve put together a quick comparison between the two pointing out nine specific qualities (as outlined by Webster University) and how they’re manifested differently in each kind of relationship. 

Freedom of Choice

Codependent relationships thrive off of possession and the need to keep the other partner guarded. Interdependent relationships celebrate individuality and give each party personal space for growth.

Defining Identities

Codependent relationships are threatened by individual differences and identities are completely intertwined. Interdependent relationships feature differences of personality or opinion that are respected and appreciated. 

Attribution of Strength of Relationship

Codependent relationships are built on the strength of the other person or the control itself over the other person. Interdependent relationships attribute strength to two separate identities working together. 

Volatility

Codependent relationships are highly volatile with intense ups and destructive Interdependent relationships are consistent and predictable with few spikes in intensity. 

Support Systems

Codependent relationships shut out family, friends, and other social support staples in either one or both parties. Interdependent relationships have a broad support system with each member participating in activities and maintaining friendships outside of the relationship. 

Influence on Mood

Codependent relationships feature members that are overwhelmingly affected by the emotions of the other (i.e. their bad day means you can only have a bad day). Interdependent relationships involve sympathy and empathy without taking on the pain or problem as one’s own. 

Evaluation & Criticism

Codependent relationships usually involve parties that are unwilling to confront the truth about deep problems in the relationship. Interdependent relationships are open to evaluation and change if it means the opportunity for growth. 

Control

Codependent relationships are about the need to either control or be controlled by another. Interdependent relationships surrender power willingly only for the good of the relationship or the other person. 

Honesty

Codependent relationships are built on lies, deceit, and manipulation. Interdependent relationships value honesty and integrity.

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How Codependence Factors into Addiction

The nature of addiction within a codependent relationship can vary between three different scenarios.

First, the dominating party may be the only one struggling with substance use disorder. This scenario is the most common in codependent relationships. In this scenario, the addict holds the power in the relationship and benefits from the people-pleasing caretaker because their need for approval lets the dominant party support their addiction.

It may be financial contributions, cooking, cleaning, or even emotional support that the addict uses the caretaker for. What’s important to remember is that the dominant addict actually does need the caretaker.

Substance abuse can also present in the caretaker as well. The depression and low self-esteem common in these individuals can often lead them to supplement their lack of confidence and mood by abusing drugs. Or perhaps it begins as a way to help them not confront their own feelings of inadequacy.

And finally, the dominant party and the caretaker may both be wrapped up in substance abuse, making it even more difficult for each to start adopting healthier life habits.

Codependency & Enabling

Addiction is a chronic disease. It’s true. And despite what most people think, being physically and mentally dependent on a substance does in fact alter the way that people process information.

As the National Institute on Drug Abuse put it:

The initial decision to take drugs is typically voluntary. However, with continued use, a person’s ability to exert self-control can become seriously impaired… Brain imaging studies of people with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning and memory, and behavior control.

However, just because a substance use disorder may be outside of your partner’s control doesn’t mean you should let it continue.

Maybe you do so by picking up after them after they’ve been high all day and night. Or maybe you handle the financial side of the relationship and are giving them money that you know they’re just spending on drugs. Or perhaps it’s just your silence that’s letting their pattern of substance abuse continue time and time again.

No matter how you’re handling the situation, the fact is if you aren’t actively doing something about your partner’s substance abuse problem, you’re more than likely helping it continue. This is called enabling, and it’s a hallmark of codependent relationships.

And though you may think you’re helping, you’re actually preventing your partner from growing and recovering.

How Do I Know If I’m Enabling?

Similar to seeing the signs of substance addiction in yourself, it can be incredibly hard to recognize your own behaviors as enabling your family member’s addiction. You may even think you’re helping by giving them a better opportunity to finally give up their substance abuse and finally get clean.

But like most people in a relationship with an addict, your mind probably just won’t let you see the signs.

And one of the best ways to recognize this fact is by taking a quick online enabling quiz. This short assessment will let you objectively look at your behaviors and help you determine if you need to contact professional support.  

If these scenarios from Psychology Today sound a bit too familiar though, it’s likely that you’re enabling your family member’s addiction:

  • Do you find yourself ignoring unacceptable behavior?
  • Do you hold back expressing disapproval due to fear of being yelled at, hurt, or abandoned?
  • Do you lie to cover up the mistakes of your family member?
  • Do you keep offering to help them even though that help isn’t appreciated or even acknowledged?
  • Do you put the blame on others instead of on your family member, even when they’re clearly responsible?

Am I Codependent?

The first step in dealing with your codependency issues is actually identifying the signs that you are in fact living in a codependent relationship. As this type of behavior addiction is often deep-rooted in core personal characteristics that an individual’s entire sense of self may be attached to, overcoming this hurdle can be admittedly tough.

But once you take the time to truly look at yourself and your actions objectively, you can finally start recognizing your behaviors for what they really are. And most importantly, you can finally get the help you so desperately need. 

It may take talking to a professional counselor, getting honest and informed input from friends and family members, or even taking a short online codependency quiz to help you figure it out.

Codependency Quiz

But no matter which method you use, the key is to look outside of the relationship. Not only are you likely unable to approach your partner or family member about this particular aspect of your relationship (it may even result in further abuse), you also may not be able to see the truth by yourself.

It’ll often take an outsider looking in to truly know how dysfunctional your relationship really is.

In any case, the important point here is that taking the steps to actually question whether your partnership is healthy is one of the most important parts of recovery. It not only pushes you towards a brighter, interdependent future, it also shatters the illusion of “everything is fine.”

And that is one particularly hard spell to break.

4 Tips on Overcoming Codependent Behavior

After you’ve taken the first step towards recovery, the next step is to start eliminating your codependent behaviors. It may be difficult at first but it’s important to remember that your behaviors are contributing to a toxic and unhealthy association that simply needs to stop.

Here are a few tips to get you started towards interdependence:

First thing’s first, get treatment for your (or your partner’s) substance abuse problem.

Nothing is going to change if your relationship is still fueled by unclear thinking, emotional volatility, and physical addiction. And even if it does temporarily, that respite from the abuse that it causes will most likely be short-lived. 

Start putting an emphasis on communicating your feelings.

The #1 reason couples split up is a lack of communication. Funny enough, one the biggest contributors to the development of a codependent relationship is also a lack of communication.

You may be used to ignoring your feelings or even not fully understanding what they are and where they’re coming from. But the more you start to express your feelings, the better you’ll get at identifying what’s actually wrong and communicating what you want to change.

Having a voice is having power.

Learn to process your childhood.

Codependency has a profound link to past trauma during childhood. As a child, you may have been abandoned by a parent, forgotten by a friend, or ignored and made to feel useless by someone you loved and respected. In order to overcome your codependent habits, it’s essential that you actively begin to acknowledge these feelings so you can overcome them. 

Next time you feel an overwhelming sense of fear or anxiety, try to think back to times when you were younger that you felt the same emotion. Pick out specific details about the situation and really take a look at why you were experiencing that feeling in the first place. And most importantly, recognize that in most cases, what happened to you was not actually your fault. 

This simple acknowledgement can have a cascading effect that helps you understand that the emotions and compulsions causing your codependent behavior today don’t need to rule your life.

Treat Addiction First.

If your spouse or family member is struggling with addiction, determine if they’re also dealing with symptoms of a co-occurring disorder like post-traumatic stress disorder before seeking out a treatment center. While you may think that it’s better to treat the addiction first and the other mood disorder later, the truth is that these two mental health issues actually tend to exacerbate each other. As such, treating them one at a time may never work since they’re both constantly adding fuel to each other’s flame.

Instead, take the time to find a dual-diagnosis addiction facility that’s equipped to treat both disorders at the same time. Doing so will ensure your loved one’s rehabilitation is far more successful and the likelihood of eliminating codependency will be even higher.

Setting Boundaries to End Codependency

One of the most important steps in breaking outside of your own codependency is to set boundaries within your relationship. As a caretaker, it might be especially difficult in any situation to say no to your loved one.

But doing so is undoubtedly the only way you will ever be able to salvage the relationship and transform it into one that’s both healthy and respectful.

Here are a few tips to help you start setting reasonable boundaries for your loved one:

  • Don’t set boundaries when either you or your partner are in any way under the influence, whether by substances or by intense emotions. Presenting boundaries with a clear head will help you stay calm and collected and reduce the chances of things spiraling out of control.
  • Communicate your boundaries unabashedly. This one can be tough since you’ve probably been conditioned to feel ashamed when talking about your own needs. But if you can put on a stoic face (even if it is just a mask at first) it’ll help your partner take you more seriously.
  • Be specific. Communicate the exact actions you want to stop or changes you want to see as well as what you’re prepared to do if these requests aren’t met. They should be within reason, of course, but don’t be afraid to threaten leaving the relationship as long as you’re prepared to do so.
  • And finally, communicate why you are doing what you’re doing. Tell them about how their actions have made you feel in the past and why you deserve a change in the future. Specificity here is crucial.

Learning to Embrace Codependent Recovery

Recovery from a codependent relationship can be incredibly hard. After all the work you’ve put in to try and change the nature of your relationship or even separate yourself from a toxic individual, you may still feel tempted to slip back into old habits.

Change is hard for any mental health problem, especially when it comes to changing the way you interact with daily life. But it’s important that you remain strong throughout the process and continue to foster healthy life strategies that keep you free and honest in any relationship.

Easier said than done, right? 

That’s why we’ve put together a quick list of exercises to help you maintain your healthy habits during recovery. Relapse may seem right around the corner. But with the right strategies in place along with a determined mindset, you can overcome this disabling disorder.

4 Tips for Recovery from Codependence

Physically Take Care of Yourself

Physically Take Care of Yourself

The first 90 days of recovery are the most important times during the healing process. This is the period when most people relapse and turn back to their old ways that landed them in rehab in the first place.

It’s critical, then, that you keep your body in good health throughout the process by eating healthy foods so you’ll feel as energetic and strong as possible. Not only will you be giving your body the nutrition it needs to recover from your substance use disorder, your mental health will also experience a boost as well thanks to all those extra vitamins and minerals.

What’s more, getting extra exercise will help keep your mind off of the addiction while relieving stress at the same time.

Manage Your Stress

Manage Your Stress

Stress is one of the key risk factors for relapsing, both into destructive personal habits as well as destructive patterns of substance abuse. It may be difficult to do so (especially if you’re coming out of a codependent relationship) but try to keep your stress levels down while you adjust to a life outside of codependence.

When you find yourself becoming especially stressed out, try to practice some calming breathing exercises or looking at the problem objectively rather than emotionally. Keeping a cool head is critical to maintaining the healthy lifestyle habits you learned about during rehab and is essential if you want to avoid falling back into old habits.

Stop Trying to Control Everything

Stop Trying to Control Everything

An incessant need to control is one of the core codependent behaviors that you need to get over before living a healthy, interdependent life. And while it’s essential to let go every now and then, doing so is easier said than done.

A great way to start embracing whatever life throws at you rather than trying to control every aspect of your life is by trying new things. Head to a different restaurant that you’ve never tried before. Try taking up new hobbies like painting, karaoke, or exercising.

The important part is getting outside of your element (just a bit) to help you realize that the world won’t end if you give up a little control.

Stick to Your Guns

Stick to Your Guns

Last but certainly not least, live up to your new standards no matter what. You’ve struggled to regain your self-confidence and kick your substance abuse problem. You’ve certainly suffered your fair share of emotional turmoil and physical pain. As such, you must do everything in your power to prevent relapsing into old habits.

If you’ve separated yourself from your codependent partner, that means keeping your contact with them extremely limited if they even need to be seen at all. Like substance abuse, codependency can come back full swing from just a single trigger. Knowing how to cope with those triggers (or avoid them entirely) is crucial to your recovery.

If you’re working on fixing your codependent relationship, preventing relapse means enforcing the new boundaries that you’ve set. Don’t make excuses for your partner and certainly don’t avoid bringing it up when they’ve violated those boundaries either. Reinventing your take on relationships can certainly be hard. But it’s only worth doing if you can actually stick to it.

Getting Help for Codependence & Substance Abuse

Codependent relationships and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand. Whether it’s the dominant party with the addiction, the caretaker that’s abusing drugs to cope, or even both members using drugs together, the truth is that any relationship where the honesty, integrity, and respect of both parties aren’t honored is not a relationship worth continuing.

If you or someone you know is struggling with codependency and substance abuse, it’s essential that they get the proper help to recover from their addictions. And that can only be found at an experienced and professional codependency treatment center.

You owe it to yourself to get better.

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