by Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

The concept of Co-Dependency was developed as a way of explaining how family members of alcoholics, especially their spouses, became emotionally ill apparently as a result of living with an alcoholic for years.

"Co" is a prefix that means "like" or "with" - the family member becomes sick like and with "the dependent" (the person dependent on a chemical). There are several common problems that often go along with life with an alcoholic or drug abuser, including their unpredictable moods, selfish and irresponsible behavior, angry outbursts which may include verbal or physical abuse, broken promises and commitments, embarrassing public behavior, financial irresponsibility, legal problems, and inability to return love or affection. However, most chemically dependent people have periods when they function well, and this generates the hope that they will stay well, quit or control their chemical use, and become responsible and loving for good.

Most chemically dependent people have jobs, families and houses, so if you don't know them very well they appear to be doing alright. Because of the fear that embarrassment, shame and loss of prestige will be the result of others finding out about the drinking or drug problem, the co-dependent does everything possible to cover up the problem and present the image of the "perfect" family. He or she may borrow money or take a second job to cover debts incurred by the addicted person, make excuses to bosses and children for the alcoholic's or addict's failure to keep promises and commitments, and in other ways "hold the family together" while keeping the addicted person from having to face the consequences of his or her behavior. They will also train the children not to tell anyone about the other parent's angry outbursts or irresponsibility. When the problem is revealed, others often say they had no idea and can't believe what was happening in "that nice family."

Because the chemically dependent person, in anger, will make it clear who they believe has the problems (everyone else), the co-dependent will try to accommodate them in the hope that this change or that effort will make the alcoholic or addict happy and thus, he or she will stop using or drinking. Any attempt to discuss the alcoholic's drinking will be met with anger or defensiveness, so talking about how the co-dependent feels when the alcoholic drinks is also taboo. Eventually, the co-dependent comes to feel that their own feelings are unimportant, as indeed they are - since how they feel about things rarely makes any difference as the addicted person bulldozes his or her way through life with no thought for how his or her actions affect others.

This denial of attention to one's own feelings is the hallmark of co-dependency. As the joke goes:

The co-dependent person was driving along and hit a patch if ice. The car slid over the edge of the road, and on the way down - someone else's life flashed before their eyes!

Co-dependent people, when they come for therapy, are often confused about what the problem is and what to do about it. They may come seeking the answer to how to make their alcoholic stop drinking, and may later choose to set up a Family Intervention (to confront the addicted person and attempt to get them into treatment for their addiction), but usually they are fearful, anxious, depressed, guilty and ashamed and they need to spend some time sorting out their feelings. Sometimes they are unsure of whether they even love their alcoholic or addicted partner anymore. Sometimes they need to think through the possibility of separating from their partner. Whatever stage they are in, they need an unbiased person to help them look at their situation objectively, rather than through eyes of anger or through a pink haze of false optimism.

Many spouses and families have made numerous attempts to take a stand on the alcoholic's drinking or the addict's drug use, but caved in out of fear or from being worn down. Sometimes the addicted person will, when confronted, cut down or quit for awhile and get the family to back off, but once the pressure is off will go right back to their substance of choice.

A psychologist, trained in chemical dependency and familiar with the problems of co-dependent families, can help the spouse and family sort through their feelings, decide on a course of action, stand firm in following through on that course of action, and cope with the consequences of their choices. The psychologist can also help the family understand what to expect from the addicted person if they do get sober (believe us, that is not the end of the struggle or the solution to all the family's problems!).