What is a Co-Dependent and How Do They Enable an Addict?

Anyone who has a loved one struggling with addiction may be asking themselves: what is a co-dependent and how do they enable an addict? This is an important question to ask as you begin to learn about what it looks like to love someone struggling with addiction or a substance use disorder. The takeaway here is that love looks very different when it comes to overcoming co-dependency and actually giving an addict the support and treatment that they need.

The truth is that addiction does not exist in a vacuum. While only someone struggling with addiction can make the choice to get the professional help that they need, they can either be helped or hindered in finding this help. An addict is either enabled or supported in a healthy way by the loved ones around them. This is where co-dependency comes in, and it can be detrimental both to the addict and the co-dependent.

Addiction is complicated, and it can be complicated further by others. In simple terms, a co-dependent is someone who either tries to protect addicts from the problems linked to drug abuse, or help the addict to hide these problems from those around them. Even from this initial description of codependency it is relatively clear how co-dependents enable addicts to continue in their addiction.

What is a Co-Dependent in Addiction?

Being a co-dependent means consistently putting others' needs above your own. While this may seem altruistic at first, over time this results in extremely unhealthy relationship patterns. When co-dependency meets addiction, it can become particularly damaging - both to the addict and the co-dependent.

A co-dependent unconsciously enables an addict to continue their substance abuse by trying to show them love in the way they know how. A co-dependent may hide the addiction from others, enabling an addict to continue their addiction in secret. In some cases, a co-dependent may even supply the addict with drugs because they see them in pain during the withdrawal process. Either way, co-dependency is not healthy when added to the mix of addiction and relationships.

"Some adults feel insecure in all of their relationships. Some feel occasional insecurity when they are with an inconsistent or unreliable lover or friend. When we are secure, we believe that we deserve to be treated with kindness, compassion, and consideration. When things are not going well, secure people do not get as anxious, agitated, angry, or obsessed when they experience a moment of separation or rejections; insecure people do. Anxiety is a normal emotional response and it is important to acknowledge it when it arises. Hoping that your loved ones will change their feelings and choices to help you feel better is an insecure approach."

~ Ann Smith, Healthy Connections

In other words, codependency in addiction means changing one's behavior in the hopes that it will change the choices or behaviors of the person you love. This hurts the emotional health of the co-dependent, and it certainly hurts the physical and mental health of the addict being affected.

It is important to note here that co-dependency should be a source of shame. In most cases, an enabler (another word for a co-dependent) is acting on what they see as loving and supportive motives. They try to protect the addict rather than expose them. They want to see better for both the addict and their relationship with them. However, co-dependency starts with these admirable emotions and turns into an unhealthy cycle for everyone involved.


How Does a Co-Dependent Enable an Addict?

Someone who is co-dependent with an individual struggling with addiction tends to enable the addict whether they mean to or not. This is because the best intentions of a co-dependent are usually the opposite of what the addict needs in order to recover. A co-dependent wants to maintain the relationship at any cost, while an addict often needs tough love. A co-dependent wants to hide the addiction of their loved one, while an addict often needs an intervention. You get the picture.

"It is natural to want to protect someone you care about. However, you are not helping substance abusers by shielding them from the negative consequences of their behaviors. The best way to assist a substance abuser is to let them face the reality of their situation. As long as you are there to save the day, the user can continue with their destructive behaviors. Sometimes, the enable acts out of shame, embarrassment, and fear to protect themselves as well as the negative outcomes of the addict's behavior. Enabling is done usually out of good intentions, love and care for another person. An enabler means well by their actions, but this simply prolongs the consequences of an addict's behavior."

~ Washington State Employee Assistance Program

Replace the word 'enable' in this quote with 'co-dependent' and you will have a good idea of how a co-dependent enables an addict. Enabling an addict is rarely purposeful, and nobody means to be a co-dependent. However, the description of a co-dependent here makes it clear that co-dependency and enabling typically go hand in hand. An addict rarely needs the kind of love that a co-dependent tends to offer.

How Can You Avoid Becoming a Co-Dependent?

It is already clear what a co-dependent is and how co-dependents enable addicts through their desire to help and keep the peace. The next question then has to do with how best to avoid becoming a co-dependent. You can love well without being an enabler by following these two specific tips.

  • Educate Yourself: Knowing how addiction works and why people still addicted will go a long way toward your ability to help. Learning about various treatment options will also put you in a better position to support the addict during recovery.
  • Remain Calm and Neutral: This may be easier said than done, but strong emotion rarely makes for an effective tool in supporting and loving an addict. Instead, taking a neutral approach when discussing addiction will often result in a better outcome for everybody involved - including the addict.