by Linda S. Barnes, Ph.D.

Slipping into a codependent relationship can happen slowly or in the blink of an eye.  The first step is recognizing that you are in a codependent relationship.   This, however, is not so simple.  Devoted parents, spouses and/or caretakers must ask, “Are my attempts to help, actually facilitating a change in my loved one’s behavior?”  Often, the answer is “No.”

A desperate wife may cover for her husband’s inability to work because of a night out fueled by drugs and alcohol.  A parent may rationalize, “All teenagers experiment with marijuana and alcohol.  We’ll just keep an eye on it.”  Before they realize it, they are struggling to control someone who is out of control.

In order to accurately evaluate yourself and your relationship, it is important to distinguish normal dependency from codependency.  Codependency, at its root, entails excessive worry and concern, to the point of obsession, about the other person.  The codependent repeatedly attempts to control the behavior of someone close to them.  For example, Ben and his mother were in a constant state of worry about Ben’s alcoholic father.  Often Ben and his mother would load themselves into the car and cruise the father’s local hangouts in an attempt to find Ben’s father and convince him to come home. Ben would often search the house, find bottles of alcohol, and drain the contents into the sink.  Years later Ben, now a psychologist, would tell me how he did this year after year.

Codependency should not be confused with healthy dependency.  A healthy relationship is relatively free of both obsession and the feeling that one needs to control or change the other person.  In a healthy relationship our loved one can depend on us, but, we, in turn, can depend on them.  In a codependent relationship, our loved one is undependable.  We often become obsessed with trying to control things in order to make the person dependable.  Ben and his mother were locked in the fantasy that they could somehow control Ben’s father and, therefore, the father’s alcoholism.

In a healthy relationship, one of mutual dependence, the tendency is to feel positive about our loved one and ourselves.  The relationship is secure and dependable, maximizing the potential flow from intimacy to independence.  For example, Patty’s husband Joe, was off or a “boy’s week” of golf.  Patty felt content in that she would be able to catch up with her girlfriends.  She knew Joe would have a good time but miss her, and they’d both be happy to see each other upon his return.

Melody Beattie who wrote the book Codependent No More said, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect his or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”  One might imagine how differently Patty might have felt about Joe going off for a week if Joe were undependable because he was addicted to cocaine.

Our loved one’s addiction and our subsequent codependence often run parallel courses.  As the addiction becomes more severe, it’s likely our codependency will become more severe.  It is difficult to detect codependency in oneself, especially if our loved one’s addiction runs a slow but progressive course.

If you suspect you may be codependent, ask yourself a few simple questions:

  1. Am I increasingly worried about my love one’s use of alcohol or drugs?
  2. Do I feel I can’t be okay until my loved one changes?
  3. Do I feel trapped with no end in sight?
  4. Do I feel compelled to control my loved one and/or the situation?
  5. Have I lost sight of my own separate needs and desires?
  6. Do I feel compelled to rescue my loved one even though nothing changes?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you could benefit from seeking help from a therapist who specializes in addictions.  There are also self-help, twelve step programs available such as Alanon, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Coda.

You are not suck with the status quo.  You can learn what does and does not work in dealing with someone who suffers from addiction It is crucial to understand how your behavior may be hurting not helping. It is always important to keep an eye on the long run.  What you do may fix the situation for now, “a quick fix”, but, in the long run, enable your loved one to keep on using.

Learning how to detach with love doesn’t stop the pain of knowing someone you love is wasting their life.  However, with practice, each time you bring yourself back to what you can control, i.e., yourself, how you behave, you are assured of not wasting your own life.

Many people are reluctant to seek help, but when they do, they are able to climb out of what previously felt like an impossible situation.  Seeking help does not mean that you have to abandon your loved one.  However, you can learn to live a more fulfilling life, one that is not ruled by constant obsession and worry.


Dr. Barnes is a psychotherapist in practice in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

© 2017 by Linda Barnes, Ph.D.