Partner's Workshop: Stage Five; Lesson Five

Codependency and Enabling

So much has been written on the terms codependency and enabling since the 1980's that it evolved into its own genre — providing a common identity for a whole wave of individuals struggling as a result of the destructive actions of another. Here, the goal is not to seek inclusion into such a community, but rather, to identify unhealthy behaviors/attitudes that will tend to make your healing process that much more difficult.

There are many definitions for codependency. In the late 70's and early 80's, it was reserved mainly for those wives of alcoholics who engaged in protective, caring behavior that unwittingly enabled the addiction to continue. In the 90's, a much broader definition took root, with almost any type of caring behavior (including the ongoing caring offered by health care professionals, parents, friends, etc.) at risk for being logged under the codependent label. For this site, codependency will be referred as any action that you engage in that either perpetuates your partner's addiction (enabling) or creates additional obstacles in the recovery process. In other words, here, codependency will be referred to as any unhealthy pattern of behavior that you engage in that will keep you from reaching your ultimate goals involving trust, respect, intimacy and the like.

"How do I know if I'm being codependent or just a caring partner?"

Tough question...and it is one of the reasons why you are strongly encouraged not to tie yourself to the codependency label if at all possible. Caring about a person with whom you have shared your life with is not something to be ashamed of. Even if that person has completely decimated the bonds that once held the relationship together. To think that the only role that you can play is to sit back and watch them destroy their lives (or cross your fingers in hopes that they can find their own way back to health) is nonsense. There are many things that you can do that will not only promote health and recovery within the relationship, but stability and control in your life as well. Role modeling values and boundaries. Displaying compassion and acceptance. Offering support. Offering objective feedback. These are all healthy actions that should be engaged in — when it feels natural to engage in them.

It is the behaviors that, while you may be engaging in them unknowingly or with the best of intentions, are likely causing more damage that need be addressed. Such is the purpose of this lesson. To identify those patterns.

Codependent Thought Patterns

The following thoughts are frequently found at the root of codependency. If you find yourself holding on to any of these beliefs, recognize that a change in your own identity will be needed to establish a healthy foundation for moving forward.

"I am essential to my partner's recovery."

Typically, such thoughts include the belief that, if you were to end your role in the relationship (or their recovery), your partner would then be helpless to control his/her compulsive behavior. That you need to be there in order for you to save your partner from themselves. That without you, there is little hope of recovery.

This is how most people see codependency and it is by far the most common unhealthy thought pattern experienced. The trouble with this pattern though, is that it could very well be true. It very well could be your role-modeling, your support, your objectivity that helps your partner make the transition from addiction to health, and without it, they may never have had the confidence to do so alone. So what is the right thing to do?

As always, the line between healthy and unhealthy lay with the values that you set and the boundaries that you have put in place. Live within those boundaries, demand that others do as well, and you can be fairly certain that what you are engaging in is caring, compassionate and healthy behavior. Allow those boundaries to be violated, allow your values to be altered, diminish your own worth at the expense of your partner's recovery/addiction and you can be certain that you are engaging in codependent behavior.

"My partner is not my equal."

In a codependency role, this belief tends to dehumanize your partner — seeing them more as a label, than a person. The perceived inequality fosters dependency (your partner on you) and promotes a lack of accountability when relating to their actions. For instance, rather than accepting full responsibility for a particularly poor decision, they take an approach similar to, 'Well, that's to be expected. I'm inferior. There's something wrong with me. I'm trying, but I just don't have the same (strength/control/patience/maturity/etc) as you." By expecting your partner to act as your equal, you ensure that they are held equally accountable for all of their actions. You disavow the notion that they are somehow diseased/broken and therefore, predisposed to making such destructive decisions. Additionally, your perception of equality will help smooth the transition for their own identity changes — a critical aspect of a full recovery.

The difficulty in this thought is that, it may very well be exactly what you believe: that your partner is not your equal. And they likely aren't in many developmental areas. Addiction destroys a person. It destroys their value system. It destroys their life skills (or keeps them from being developed). It alters how they identify with themselves and the world around them. There will certainly be noticeable inequalities between a healthy person and one with an addiction. The idea then is not to identify with that person as 'an addict', but to see them as a human being with an addiction. Further, to see that addiction within the context of that person's entire life — past, present and future. To see it not as who they are, but rather, as a pattern of emotional immaturity that dictates how they manage their lives. This approach will allow you to avoid the many obstacles that arise when you start making allowances and exceptions to accommodate your partner's perceived deficiencies.

"I've already invested too much to give up on him now..."

In an unhealthy sense, this is similar to the gambler 'chasing their bet'. It is the belief that you have already invested so much time and energy in the relationship, that you MUST make the relationship work in order to validate all of the pain you have suffered through. Keep in mind, the amount of time and energy already invested in a relationship is an absolutely valid reason to work through the recovery process. To 'ride out the storm', if you will. It is only when the purpose of continuing on so that you will achieve a sense of return on your investment that it sets the stage for codependent behavior.

Too much is involved to provide any useful guidance as to 'when it is time to give up'. Too much individuality. Too many nuances. This will always be a uniquely personal decision that hopefully, you will never have to make. The point in bringing it up here, in the context of codependency, is that, should you recognize that you are holding on to the relationship because of what it would mean if you ended it (e.g. failure, wasted effort, shame, etc.), this is an unhealthy foundation for healing that will further jeopardize your value system.

At some point, it makes sense to give yourself permission to let go. To take the losses and begin moving forward again with a foundation that you can control. To continue on past that point, you will be forced to act in ways that will seriously jeopardize your own values and stability.

"I must be a perfect partner. And a perfect partner stands by their man when they are in trouble."

In this approach, you find yourself standing dutifully by your partner's side, no matter what. Of all the codependent approaches, this one has the potential to violate your boundaries more than any other...as it places your relationship at the very top of your priority list. Issues such as health, stability and personal satisfaction then become subordinate, and so the majority of your value stems from the role you play as a partner. In a relationship with an addict, this role will invariably become unstable and unbalanced — in relation to the remaining values you hold.

"My partner is more important than I."

Often, this 'importance' is measured in terms of financial worth...without sufficient consideration begin given to the effects of the whole person on the family structure. While not as common as the others, this approach also has the capability of significantly damaging your value system as you tend to place an extraordinary amount of value on what is, without logically taking into account what could be. In other words, you place so much value into the role that your partner plays in providing financial stability (or other such roles), that you don't seriously consider other options for achieving a similar stability by another means; and, you do not seriously consider the effects that placing such an unbalanced value has in diminishing the other values you hold.

Additional Unhealthy Perceptions/Thoughts

There are many additional roles that partners often drift towards in the aftermath of a discovery: the parent; the protector; the doormat; the disengaged partner; the micro-manager; the vindicator; the victim. Each with their own unique mannerisms that are often based in natural feeling, but faulty logic. Of these, the parent is by far the most common role played by partners of someone with an addiction...and with good reason. Those who have come to manage their life with the immediate gratification that comes with addiction are likely to be immature — even childlike — in many areas.

If you find yourself engaging in any of these patterns, don't panic. They are common and again, quite natural roles to assume — given the circumstances. But, to successfully heal, they must be addressed by you through your ability to establish your own identity, your own healthy boundaries and your own value system. (And in case you haven't recognized the pattern yet, everything keeps coming back to your value system. Everything.)

Exercise Thirty-Three

Rather than labeling yourself 'codependent', it is much healthier to think in terms of the patterns that you have engaged in that may be obstructing the recovery and/or healing process.

A. What patterns are you NOW ENGAGING IN that may be impeding the healing/recovery process? What unhealthy roles/thought patterns might you be holding onto?

B. Of these patterns/roles, what have you done/think you should do to change them?

If you did not relate to anything in this lesson, there is no need to respond to this exercise.

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