How to Identify Codependency And What To Do About It

By Aisha Z. Rush, MD, MA, MBA
Couple holding hands

Alcohol Use Disorder (or “AUD”) can bring about emotions like self-loathing, depression, shame, and fear for those struggling to manage their drinking. Those close to someone with AUD are also often faced with complicated, painful feelings of their own. If you are in a strained relationship with someone living with AUD, you are not alone. Perhaps you feel a tug between being nurturing and giving and practicing “tough love.” Maybe boundaries have been blurred. Do your loved one’s needs always come before your own? If so, we may be looking at codependency. 

Fortunately, codependency is common and treatable. With a foundation of skills, a strong support-network, therapeutic care, or all of the above, we can dismantle codependency from its roots. You can build your independence, and your loved one can build theirs, too. It’s with this independence that you can honor both your relationship and your authentic selves. 

What does codependency mean?

There is no one-size-fits-all model for codependency. Frequently, family members and friends don’t know they’re engaging in codependent behavior. Codependency can be hard to identify, especially from within the relationship. Many times, the “codependent,” or in this case, the loved one of someone with AUD, may believe they are doing what’s in that person’s best interest. Codependents often feel a sense of purpose when they are needed, joy when they make sacrifices, and maintain their behavior because they believe it’s coming from a place of love. Their own life is often taken over by their necessity to fill a caretaker role, and in turn, the codependent frequently serves as an enabler.  

I want to be very clear: codependency is incredibly prevalent within family systems, and particularly systems where a family member has unhealthy drinking behaviors or struggles with other mental health conditions. There is no shame in codependence. Codependence is often well-intentioned, but it ultimately doesn’t serve you or your loved one. 

We’re all on our own paths, and in order to build a family system with healthy dynamics, everyone has to do their individual, internal work. You’ve made it here, which is already a huge step toward healing. 

If you’re unsure where you fall on the codependency spectrum, I encourage you to reflect on the following: 

Signs of codependency

Do these signs of codependency sound familiar?

A lack of personal boundaries. Your limits aren’t clear or respected by both sides of the relationship. You take on responsibility for your loved one’s emotions and actions on top of your own.  

Reliance for self-esteem. Needing your loved one to help boost or maintain your self-esteem. Your sense of purpose and pride is tied to caring for this other person, even subconsciously.

Putting off your own needs. Helping your loved one frequently gets in the way of tending to your own needs. You neglect other components of your life and well-being.

Difficulty sharing, speaking or communicating your feelings. It’s challenging to be honest about how you’re feeling due to the desire to protect the other person or out of fear of their reaction.  

Denial about the codependent nature of the relationship. In denying your own needs, you believe you’re caring for the other person. 

If any of these scenarios ring true remember that changing codependency takes patience, and most importantly, compassion. With time, persistence, and commitment, you can and will overcome it. And we’re here to help.

If you’re starting your journey of changing codependent behavior, I know it can seem daunting. Let’s talk about where to begin.

Where you can start

Commonly, one of the hardest balances to strike is between tough-love and nurture. There are circumstances where you will have to set limits and stick to them. There will also be times when your loved one may simply need a hug or a listening ear. Knowing when to practice tough-love versus nurturing care can be challenging, and with the help of a team, whatever shape that takes, you can do it. Consult with a therapist, join a Monument support group, or write out your thoughts on a forum. 

Caring for yourself while caring for someone in recovery

If someone you care about has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it can be incredibly stressful. You are not alone. Join friends and family of people navigating sobriety or moderation to discuss how to support yourself and your loved one.
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It’s absolutely achievable that patients can reach their goals, and family and friends can act as their support — mindfully. You and your loved one are deserving of it.

Breaking out of codependency is a huge step forward toward mutual recovery. If you can identify it and take action, you’re already well on your way. And remember, you are not on this journey alone! 

Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Aisha RushAisha Rush graduated from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and completed her residency at Temple University Hospital. She has also obtained a Master’s Degree in Sociology and a Master’s in Business Administration. She is Board Certified and is a member of several professional organizations. She comprises a vast array of skills and knowledge when it comes to medicine and the needs of patients, and focuses on each patient from a biopsychosocial model.