Codependency and Enabling Behavior
I can handle this. Don't you trust me?
These are the words that many have heard from their addicted spouse, adult child, or family member. The closer you are, the more power these words have over you.
Don't you trust me?
Implicit in any relationship, especially a romantic relationship, is trust. Not only trust that the other will remain loyal but also trust in the ability to take care of ourselves and to conduct ourselves in an intelligent and capable manner. To challenge the other's behavior, to question whether they really do have it together and can handle themselves, often feels like a breach in trust and in the relationship itself.
In terms of addiction, codependency occurs when one person, such as the addict's spouse or other family member, has learned or believes that the love they receive from the addict is contingent on allowing the addict to behave in a certain way. Challenging the addict’s behavior changes the dynamic of the relationship and transforms the supportive partner into another person who is against the addict.
In making decisions, the addict is allowed to define the nature of reality. For example, the words "I got this" is clearly and obviously an imagined reality. In order for the relationship to work, both must be on board with the addict's illusion.
Let's take an example of a married couple in which the husband is addicted to opioids. He's not out partying or cheating on his wife, he just needs the opioids to function and takes them every day. Life can be difficult and stressful sometimes, and the opioids help him get through the day. Not only do opioids treat physical pain, they also treat emotional pain. Perhaps the addict has had a difficult childhood. Perhaps he struggles with depression or anxiety. These are issues his wife understands; she “has his back” in life, and she supports him.
But when she notices his opioid use is constant and he needs more every day "in order to function," she becomes concerned. When she raises the issue, he's insulted. "I know what I'm doing, this not out of control, I don't use that much, don't you trust me?"
There is a sense of betrayal in his argument, a demand that "if you love me you will understand and support me." His wife does love him and doesn't want to lose him. She senses this may be a deal breaker. He will resent her if she takes away what he needs. He might even leave her.
In response to his argument and her own fear of abandonment, she apologizes and drops it.
Sometimes under the guise of being supportive and loving, those closest to the addict enable and encourage their behavior, either directly or indirectly. This can include giving the addict money to buy the drugs they need, or it can be deliberately hiding the addiction from family, employers, or the law. The person who loves the addict most is the one who will protect them from any unwanted consequences of their behavior.
The irony is that this protection will lead to even bigger consequences. If the addict manages to avoid legal consequences and continues to use, they could suffer severe health consequences. They could lose their job, or even worse, allow their closest relationship to deteriorate to the point that it dissolves.
Let’s go back to our example of the opioid-addicted husband and his wife. Years may go by while she remains quiet. His health and his quality of life begin to deteriorate, and he's spending most of his time feeling high and not really participating in life with his wife. When she wants to go out or visit friends, he is more interested is getting high, and he doesn’t enjoy being around people. She’s forced to find ways to be happy without him. Eventually, the marriage is not what it once was, and she decides to leave.
This is a tragic situation and unfortunately, the husband does not bear sole responsibility for the deterioration of the marriage. All along the wife said nothing; rather, she remained in a codependent state and enabled his behavior. She participated in his version of reality until she couldn't anymore.
Then she left.
The husband, if he's lucky, will find someone else, or he may not. After years of opioid addiction, his health is beginning to fail, and the one person he has always relied on is gone.
What you need to know
What you need to know is that codependency and enabling can happen even when you don't realize it. Codependency and enabling often feels like love. Not just love but fierce, protective love. An addict needs love, but an addict also needs people who can show him the truth of his situation and refuse to enable his self-destructive behavior.
Tough love is a term most of us are familiar with. Sometimes we use tough love to protect our children by not letting them do things that may harm them or put them in danger. Tough love is also a concept many of us use when dealing with addicts. It is a promotion of the addict's own welfare or well-being. It is the refusal to enable behavior that will ultimately destroy the addict's life.
Tough love means we don't give money to buy drugs. We don't quietly stand by and say nothing. We don't participate in their delusions. We call them out when they declare, "I'm good, I got this, you can trust me."
If you or someone you know is in a codependent relationship, help is available. Retorno, a center for rehabilitation and empowerment, offers detox, recovery, outreach, and even prevention services for all types of addiction.
If you would like to learn more, visit us at retorno.org