There is much written on the internet (including by me) about the “new codependency”, the “love addiction”, documenting poor souls trapped in relationships with “narcissist”, emotionally distant partners. In therapy, we quite rightly talk about how to fix the broken childhood of neglect and abuse that created the situation in the first place. We always talk about taking responsibility for behaviour, choices and the need to set healthy boundaries. However, in many of the case of codependency I deal with, the spectre of addiction looms large in the background.
A striking number of cases of codependency I deal with are associated with a partner who is an alcoholic in the true sense of the word. Perhaps not surprising when we look at the original definition of codependency:
relating to a relationship in which one person is physically or psychologically addicted, as to alcohol or gambling, and the other person is psychologically dependent on the first in an unhealthy way.
Much of the work around alcoholism created since the foundation of AA, treats it as a disease. Before this, it was seen as a weakness of character coupled with poor motivation to stop drinking. One thing we do know, is that most alcoholics are in denial and will use manipulative tactics to continue their passion for drinking. They will also be subject to the addiction cycle as depicted below where feelings and triggers drive the need to drink.
One factor important in the addiction cycle is the presence of a partner who will enable the addiction by not setting strong, healthy boundaries around the addiction. A Codependent is the ideal person for an alcoholic to be around. One, they like to fix and will often enable. ( I worked with a client who wanted to divorce her husband because of his alcoholism but kept the fridge full of beer for him), Secondly, they will sympathise with the struggle their partner addiction produces and will sacrifice themselves and their needs to help them. Thirdly, and most importantly, they are easily manipulated by an alcoholic partner who will often blame them for the fact they drink.
It is often a relationship that spirals out of control. The codependent threatens and tries by setting ultimatums, leaving (and soon returning), pleading, shouting, trying to get friends and family to help, in fact everything to try to stop their partner drinking. The alcoholic will respond with denial or violence, will offer to go “cold turkey”, switch from spirits to beer and from beer to non-alcoholic beer. They may be able to maintain this for days, weeks or even months but one thing can be stated for sure. Without professional help (rehab and therapy), they will drink again.
It is a well known saying but one very true in these cases. It states that addicts will only start recovery if they really want to or if they are left with no choice. Codependents will not be able to healthily set boundaries and as such become part of the cycle with the alcoholic. Difficult as it may be, the only real solution is to state categorically that unless effective help is sought then a relationship is untenable. It is a concept also of self-protection. There is also evidence that many alcoholics will seek help only when they contemplate that they are about to lose everything.