It’s hard loving someone who abuses alcohol.
These relationships, whether romantic or familial, can become toxic and codependent.
If you or someone you know is trying to navigate the rough waters of a relationship with a codependent alcoholic, this guide will help you understand what’s going on and how you can get help.
What is codependency?
In broad terms, codependency is the type of relationship where the people involved are mentally, emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually reliant on each other. It is prevalent in relationships where one partner abuses alcohol.
This makes sense, considering where the term comes from.
The term became popularized in the 1980s with the book “Codependent No More” by Melodie Beattie. From there, codependency branched out and evolved from its original context. It is sometimes used to talk about needy, interdependent relationships.
The Connection Between Codependency and Alcoholism
At their core, codependent relationships are lopsided, but to an extreme. Alcoholic partners are fundamentally needy, and their codependent partners often bend over backward to meet those needs.
Everything revolves around the alcohol-dependent partner. If they’re having a good day, it’s a good day for the partner and family. The same is true of bad days.
They nurse their partners back to health, cover for them with family and friends, and even pick up the slack financially when their partner struggles to hold down a job.
At some point, the codependent caretaker loses their sense of self. Everything becomes about their alcoholic partner.
They might even find a weird sense of purpose and fulfillment, and it becomes part of their identity.
If this is you, that might look like feeling trapped by the situation but having no actual existence outside of it. Who are you, if not the person who holds it down while your alcoholic partner spirals?
If that resonates, you’re probably in a codependent relationship.
Why some people fall into codependent relationships:
Codependency is about a desire to feel needed. Some people experience a compulsion to “fix” others.
In a codependent relationship, the person enabling the other person’s addiction or immaturity might feel that they aren’t worthy if they aren’t needed.
Because alcohol-dependent people have so many high-stakes needs, this can attract codependent partners with a strong desire to fix and be needed.
They sweep their needs to the side and never feel empowered to ask for help or support from their partners. Compulsive caregiving makes them feel safe and secure in a relationship, which creates all kinds of dysfunction in a relationship.
They’re giving too much and getting little in return.
But it’s unsustainable, leading to both partners resenting the other. Despite the internal desire to fix and care for the other person, they still feel exhausted.
They don’t like taking on all the household responsibilities and micromanaging their partners, yet, it is the only thing they feel secure about – feeling needed.
It gives them strange security in the relationship. A codependent alcoholic partner cannot leave because they rely on them. At the same time, they wish they could speak up and ask for more from their partners.
But because codependency is often rooted in low self-esteem, the cycle continues.
What are the signs of a codependent alcoholic?
A codependent alcoholic is someone who:
- Relies on their partner for basic needs
- Expects their partner to keep the household functioning, so they are free to drink without fear of consequences
- Puts their own needs and struggles first
- Does not contribute to primary household duties or parenting responsibilities
- Expects to be cared for without reciprocating
- Depends exclusively on their partner for physical, emotional, and mental support
A codependent alcoholic prioritizes their own needs in a relationship and relies on their partner for everything, allowing them the freedom to continue abusing alcohol.
Risks of Codependency and Alcoholism
Codependency and alcohol use disorder (AUD) can intertwine in profound ways. It’s not always so straightforward as one alcohol-dependent partner and one codependent partner struggling to care for them.
Sometimes codependency can lead to alcohol abuse.
I can speak from my own experience on this point. I was in a codependent relationship with a classic narcissist for many years. He wasn’t an alcoholic, but he was going through a transitional period that required a level of caregiving that I was all too eager to provide.
I ticked all the boxes.
I had low self-esteem and found meaning in doing things for him. Eventually, I didn’t exist outside of him. I canceled plans for him, stayed home on the off chance he might need me, and halted my own life for this relationship.
It took a lot of me, and I drank to cope.
Other times, one partner might start to drink to deal with the stress of their partner’s drinking or other destructive behavior.
The more two dysfunctional people become intertwined, the harder it is to break free or get the help they need.
They become mutually addicted to the relationship and how they enable each other’s worse behaviors and tendencies.
Why are codependents attracted to addicts?
People who derive their sense of worth and value from fixing others will be drawn to broken people.
Codependent people seek each other out.
If a person actively struggles with addiction, this can almost be seen as attractive to a codependent partner who believes they can save them.
The alcohol-addicted person likes natural caregivers because they see a potential ally and support system. Chances are, they have burned many bridges and may not have many (or any) people fulfilling that role.
In more extreme or cynical cases, the alcohol-dependent person might recognize the codependent partner as someone they can use to their advantage. They see a person who will care for them, allowing them space to continue drinking and not take responsibility for their life.
How you might be enabling your alcoholic partner:
In early studies of codependency, practitioners found that with alcoholics, there was often a family member or partner who needed to keep them unwell on a subconscious level.
So rather than doing things to help stop the behavior, so their partner realizes there are consequences for the drinking, they created an environment where the addiction could continue.
Sometimes they did this out of a deep desire to be needed, and other times it was for fear of what might happen to their partner if they stopped.
Sadly, this is incredibly common in families where someone struggles with addiction. Because not enabling the behavior can come across as cruel at the moment.
We want to protect our loved ones. It’s in our DNA.
But when our protection prevents them from getting better, we are at a psychological impasse that can tear us apart.
What does enabling a codependent alcoholic look like?
- Allowing your partner to drink while you’re around and not saying anything.
- Succumbing to pressure to buy alcohol for your partner.
- Nursing your partner’s hangover and getting them water or food instead of allowing them to experience the consequences of their behavior.
- Allowing them to live in your home
- Staying in the relationship even when they break promises and fail to meet your needs.
- Picking up their slack on household bills, maintenance, grocery shopping, etc.
Anyone in this type of relationship knows how difficult it can be.
It’s not just romantic partners who suffer. Parents can also get into codependent relationships with adult children who abuse alcohol.
Nobody wants to see a loved one suffer. When you say, “I’m not going to stay with you as long as you keep drinking,” you are potentially severing their last-remaining lifeline.
That’s why ending a relationship with a codependent alcoholic can be traumatic for both parties.
A great resource on alcoholism and navigating the addiction landscape is Put The Shovel Down on YouTube. Here’s a video with great pointers on how to stop enabling a codependent alcoholic:
How to Treat Copendency and Alcoholism
At this point, you may be wondering if a codependent relationship can be saved. Can you treat both codependency and alcoholism and come out the other side healthy and happy?
Maybe, but it will take a lot of time and work from two willing participants. If you can manage those, your chances are better.
First, the alcohol-dependent partner will have to see professional treatment for alcohol addiction.
Next, each partner will need to get individual therapy and couples counseling to unlearn the codependent behaviors and learn how to set healthy boundaries within their relationship.
You’ll learn to:
- Acknowledge and prioritize your emotional needs
- Create a life outside of your relationship
- Develop hobbies and commitments outside of your relationship
- Set healthy boundaries
- Take care of yourself
- Nurture feelings of self-worth and self-love
- Address the root causes of your codependent behavior
Beyond professional help, you may want to join support groups for codependent relationships or even Al-Anon which helps partners and family members of alcoholics learn how to cope.
For anyone struggling with alcohol addiction, there are several wonderful online communities you can join to supplement what you do in treatment.
The most important thing is committing to getting help, doing the work, and becoming a healthier, improved person.
I can’t guarantee your relationship will survive that process, but it might better equip you to face whatever comes next.
Access should not be a barrier to help.
Codependent Alcoholic FAQs
What does codependency mean in alcoholism?
As it relates to alcoholism, codependency is when one partner puts their own needs and happiness second to the needs of their alcohol-dependent partner.
They engage in compulsive caregiving, doing everything to maintain the household responsibilities and care for their partner, who continues to engage in destructive drinking while getting little in return.
Is codependency the root of addiction?
No, codependency doesn’t cause addiction. We don’t exactly know what causes addiction, but we do know some risk factors, which include:
- Childhood trauma and aggression
- Neglectful parents
- Experimenting with drugs or alcohol at an early age
- Stress and mental health problems
Some of those same risk factors can make a person prone to codependent relationships, but codependency does not cause addiction.
What are some characteristics of an alcohol-dependent person?
Common characteristics of an alcohol-dependent person include (but are not limited to):
- Prioritizing alcohol and drinking
- Being unable or unwilling to restrict the number of drinks
- Feeling strong cravings to drink
- Failing to fulfill major obligations at home or work because of drinking
- Experiencing physical withdrawals from drinking
- Continuing to drink despite its negative consequences on your relationships and health
- Developing a tolerance so that you must drink more to experience the same effects
- Making excuses and blaming others for things
- Engaging in risky behavior
- Using alcohol in situations where it isn’t safe
- Experiencing financial hardships due to drinking
What is the main symptom of codependency?
One of the main symptoms of codependency is feeling like you can’t live without another person. You have a compulsive need to stay connected to them and constantly fear losing them.
Additionally, you might have an enmeshed sense of self with this person, meaning you lack an identity separate from your relationship with them. In some situations, you may feel compelled to fix or save them and derive your primary sense of worth from being needed.