Codependency is a term that was first used to describe an unhealthy, or “lopsided”, relationship between a person struggling with addiction and their loved ones. Due to the “taker” and “giver” roles being fulfilled by loved ones enabling the person to continue their active use, the relationship was deemed unhealthy. From its origin in the 1980s, codependency has taken on a life of its own in the social sphere. As we see it now, it has evolved to carry new weight outside of substance use disorder (SUD). While codependency is not scientifically a supported concept, we still see a tremendous use of this concept within the SUD community, and other social groups. In this post, we’re digging into what codependency is, a brief history of codependency, and how it is used in the SUD community.

What is Codependency?

Healthy relationships are mutually beneficial to both parties, and include characteristics such as honesty, trust and respect on both sides. With this, healthy relationships display the defining quality of balance and mutual effort. This is a stark contrast to what we see in codependent relationships. While baked in nuance, codependency can be defined as a dysfunctional relationship dynamic in which one person assumes the “giver” role, sacrificing their own needs and wellbeing for the sake of the “taker” within the relationship. Oftentimes the “giver” in the relationship will experience dissatisfaction within the relationship. This results in them feeling an imbalance of effort and feelings of being undervalued.

We want to greatly emphasize the fact that there is no scientific research to support the concept of codependency. While not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, codependency is a frequently used term within substance use disorder circles. For this reason, it’s important to understand the concept, and how codependency is used to explain dysfunctional relationships affecting problematic use. To understand codependency a bit more in depth, keep reading for a brief history.


A Brief History of Codependency

Beginning within AA 12-step programs, codependency emerged as a shorthand term describing co-chemical dependency. This was first coined during the shift to referring to alcohol use disorder and all other substance use disorders within the same bucket of chemical dependency. As it grew in popularity, codependency evolved into describing the compulsive predisposition to be in relationship with individuals living with substance use disorder(s).

Stigmatizing in nature, codependency created a narrative of weakness around loved ones who were in relationship with those struggling with substance use disorder. Codependency tells the story that the loved ones in these relationships willingly enable continued use through “people pleasing” behaviors. From here, we can witness the concept of codependency growing to encompass any individual who continuously participates in relationships with addicts and/or narcissists. 

While we can acknowledge that dysfunctional relationships can be had with individuals who display personality or substance use disorders, we still see the misuse of the term codependency. Thanks to the surge in popularity of social media platforms like TikTok, we hear the terms “codependent” and “narcissist” being used frequently. Below is a deeper look into how modern-day clinicians view the concept of codependency:

Characteristics of a Codependent Relationship

  • An imbalance of power. The partner who has a diagnosed SUD or is pathologically narcissistic having control over the other individual
  • The lack of mutual understanding, respect and effort
  • Feeling like you are unable to change your circumstances even though you recognize the problematic behavior in a partner/loved one
  • Continuously displaying self-sacrificing tendencies and placing the needs of your loved one above your own
  • Taking the blame for or accepting responsibility for a loved one/partner’s actions when they are engaging in problematic behaviors
  • “Managing” loved one or partner to control behavior
  • A lack of boundaries with loved one

These are just some of the common characteristics of codependency. Below we will outline what codependency looks like from the lens of being in a relationship with someone with SUD.

The Presence of Codependency in the SUD Community

When viewing the relationship between codependency and substance use disorder (SUD), it’s important to remember that the loved ones of those in active use are attempting to support their loved one in the best way they know how. There are definite measures we can take to support our loved ones with SUD better. And maintain healthy boundaries within our relationships. People who are in codependent relationships have the power to change their situation, and reshape their relationship – starting with understanding this concept.

The origin of codependency emerged to provide understanding and hope to affected loved ones. Understanding how dysfunctional relationships operate can help loved one of those suffering from SUD feel empowered to reshape their relationships, and build healthier more functional connections. Below are some potential signs of codependency within relationships in the SUD community:

  • Enabling your loved one to continue active use. This can be through financial support like offering money, offering housing, using with your loved one etc.
  • Concealing or defending your loved one’s problematic behavior
  • Ignoring your loved one’s substance use disorder entirely, and not acknowledging the problematic behavior
  • Taking responsibility for your loved one’s mistakes or behavior

The key to resolving this is learning how to support, rather than enable, your loved one. Therapy is a conducive environment to learning how to support a loved one in active use, or other options like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon

Awareness is Key

Being aware of how your relationships impact both your life as well as the other participants is key to understanding how they are functioning. Maintaining healthy boundaries and a strong sense of self is necessary to have functional relationships with others. While this sounds easy enough in theory, it can be difficult in practice. Furthermore, cultivating a healthy relationship with a loved one diagnosed with an SUD is even more challenging. Understanding the ways codependency can contribute to your relationships is the first step to creating healthier relationships that can better support someone suffering from SUD. If you want to learn more about supporting a loved one with an SUD, check out the resource below!

Learn More About Supporting Someone With an SUD

Looking for more information about how you can support your loved one as they strive for recovery? Check out our post that offers tools to support your loved one without compromising your boundaries!

Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) Is Treatable

OUD currently accounts for over half of reported overdose fatalities, and while that figure is quite grim, it’s critical that we continue raising awareness. Increasing access to resources, raising general awareness, and breaking the stigma surrounding OUD are all ways we can combat this epidemic. Check out our blog for more resources, and get in touch with someone who can help immediately below!

Need to Refer Someone for an Assessment?

If you know someone who is struggling with OUD and needs to take the first step towards help, refer them for an assessment today. Use our online instant booking tool to schedule an assessment now!


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