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Alcoholism and Codependency: Are You Stuck in an Unhealthy Cycle of Enabling?

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A couple arguing over their codependency and alcoholismIt’s hard to recognize yourself. After all, you just wanted to help them, right? But lately, helping has been hurting both them and you.

It’s called enabling. Your support now goes beyond what’s helpful and healthy. Your “help” is now allowing your loved one to continue their addictive behavior.

And for you? Your enabling has now become a foundation for a relationship built around alcoholism and codependency.

It’s important to note that healthy dependence is completely different from codependency. When you’re dependent on someone, you:

  • Ask for support when you need it
  • State your personal desires and needs
  • Feel safe expressing your needs
  • Tell others when they ask too much of you (without worrying about rejection)

But codependency looks a lot different. Have you ever made excuses for your loved one? Hid their alcohol use? Protected them from the consequences of their drinking? These are all telltale signs that you’re in a codependent relationship based on your enabling behavior.

Are You Stuck in a Cycle of Addiction and Codependency?

The following behaviors indicate that you’re in a pattern of enabling. We’ll use Michelle’s relationship with her sister as an example.

You ignore unhealthy behavior and substance use.

Michelle’s sister says she hasn’t been drinking, but Michelle finds receipts from the local bar and liquor store in the trash can. She chooses not to ask her sister about the receipt. After all, it would only lead to an argument.

You provide financial support.

Michelle lets her sister stay with her rent-free. She knows Samantha is struggling, so she doesn’t ask her to contribute to the bills.

You cover for them.

When Samantha is hungover one day and oversleeps, Michelle calls Samantha’s boss and tells her Samantha is sick and can’t come to work.

You take on more than your share of the load.

Not only does Sam not pay rent or utilities, but she also doesn’t help around the house. Michelle takes care of everything.

You avoid the problem.

Samantha always drinks too much when they go out for dinner. So, instead of bringing up the issue, Michelle starts suggesting restaurants that she knows don’t serve alcohol.

You brush things off.

Samantha embarrasses Michelle by loudly ridiculing her at a movie theater one night. And it happens again the following week at the grocery store. The pattern continues, but Michelle tells herself it’s not Samantha talking. It’s the alcohol. She lets it go on, even though she is deeply hurt.

You deny there’s a problem.

Samantha used to drink only once in a while. Michelle tells herself that her sister is just going through a rough patch and will quit soon.

You don’t recognize your own needs.

Michelle stays busy handling all of Samantha’s concerns and never takes time for herself. She has given up her running club and hasn’t knitted anything in months.

You don’t follow through with consequences.

Michelle tells Samantha that she needs to start contributing. She gives Sam one month to get a job and help pay the next rent bill or find a new place to live. But when the month goes by, Michelle lets Sam continue to stay rent-free.

You don’t stick to your boundaries.

Michelle tells Samantha she will no longer allow alcohol in her house. But when Samantha comes home with a bottle of wine, Michelle lets it slide.

You feel resentful.

Michelle says no to Samantha when she needs a ride or money. Eventually, Michelle gets frustrated and angry with herself because she always says yes. And she starts to become resentful toward Sam.

All the above examples reveal an unhealthy relationship centered around alcoholism and codependency. Michelle became dependent on helping Samantha, while Samantha became dependent on Michelle’s enabling.

Codependency or Love? Know the difference.

Do you see any of these warning signs in your own life? There are four main themes to these codependent behaviors:

  1. A focus on others
  2. Self-sacrifice
  3. Difficulty expressing (or even recognizing) your emotions
  4. A need for control

Can you see these types of interactions with your loved one? If so, you may need to take steps to break the cycle of enabling. If you don’t, your codependency can lead to:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Loneliness
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Burnout
  • Isolation

And for your loved ones, your enabling can make them unmotivated to change. They may never get help because they never feel the consequences of their behavior.

Breaking the Pattern of Alcoholism and Codependency

Woman breaking up with codependent boyfriendFortunately, it is possible to change these patterns of behavior. You can break the cycle and create new patterns that are healthier for you and your loved one.

Here are five steps to get started.

Get support. Therapists can give you insight into the reasons for your behavior and how to change it. Consider trying individual and/or family counseling. Groups like Al-Anon are also a good source of support.

Confront the issue. Let your loved one know you’re aware of their alcohol misuse and that you’re not ok with it. Let them know you’re willing to help them make changes but you will no longer support their behavior.

Encourage them to get help. You may have to bring this up more than once. Your therapist can help you figure out the best way to approach this, based on your situation.

Put boundaries in place (and stick to them). Tell your loved one what you will and will not do or tolerate in the future, then keep those boundaries firm.

Explore your own interests. It may have been so long since you focused on you that you don’t even remember what you enjoy. Take some time to be alone — reflect, recharge, and journal. Try doing something you haven’t done in a while. And remember, it’s ok to say NO to someone else to make time for this.

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