Has anyone ever referred to you as a “fixer”? Have you ever been in a relationship with someone where you felt like you had to rescue them from themselves or were giving them support at the cost to your mental, emotional, and physical needs? This sacrifice for your partner’s happiness without getting anything in return has a name, codependency and enmeshment.
Codependency can arise in any type of relationship, but it can commonly occur in the relationship between an addict and their highly enmeshed spouse or partner. Drugs and alcohol can seem to provide an answer to the hole that the person is trying to fill. The relief that the addict feels from distressing emotions wears off and as use continues, more drugs will be needed more often to achieve the same effect. As dependence grows, addiction may result. When dating an active addict, the addict’s relationship to drugs can soon define and control your whole relationship if proper care is not taken, hence the CO- in codependency.
By denying the existence of a problem to others and themselves, trying to control the addict’s drug use or rescuing them from the consequences of their actions, and accepting blame when it is given, the partner enables the addiction. The enmeshed partner then feels needed and the addict continues to maintain their drug habit. It’s a twisted win-win that actually ends up being lose-lose situation. I know this pattern all too well, having seen many clients needing support for a partner’s addiction, and even my own personal experience being in a codependent relationship.
“How do I know what enmeshment and codependency looks like?”
Many people who struggle with codependency feel a sense of responsibility for the thoughts, decisions, needs, and life satisfaction of others. Often in a controlling way, they try to solve other people’s problems and doing far more than they should to ensure the other person’s happiness. They put the other partner’s feelings before their own and can lose themselves in the process. They can become defined by the addicted partner’s emotions and become wrapped up in the other partner’s identity.
For example, if the addict is having a bad day, so is the codependent spouse/partner. They may have difficulty expressing and identifying their own feelings and may stay in a dysfunctional relationship for fear of abandonment and losing that feeling of being needed. Most codependent partners have difficulty setting boundaries with others, saying yes when they want to say no, and taking control when others are capable of doing so. Many partners of addicts secretly (or not so secretly) wish to save them, to have their love for them be enough for them to change, but as much as you might want to, you can’t overcome the addiction for them. You CAN create a healthy, emotional environment for recovery to take place.
“Where do we learn codependent behaviors?”
Most people learn from role models growing up, especially if they were raised in an addicted or dysfunctional home. For example, about half of the children of alcoholics go on to marry an addict and duplicate the addict/codependent model they saw in their parents’ relationship. For most “fixers”, seeing the pain in others mobilizes the pain within them, either consciously or subconsciously. For example, if someone suffered a traumatic or painful experiences early in life, it can contribute to low self-esteem, a fear of abandonment and other codependent traits that mobilizes the need to “fix” the pain they see in others, essentially attempting over and over again to fix the pain that is triggered within ourselves.
Since enmeshment is the only way they know how to be in a relationship, few people recognize their own codependent patterns, instead labeling themselves selfless, loving or just “too nice.”
Although their efforts may seem noble and come from a honest place, they actually can hurt the recovery process of the addict and are in fact driven by the person’s subconscious need to feel needed. Serving others to the exclusion of their own needs and desires is the way that they feel valued and loved. All of this self-sacrifice can eventually build up to anger and resentment towards the addict, along with other mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse, as well as physical health problems.
“What can I do? “
Just like the addict needs help and support to stop depending on drugs, the codependent can benefit from counseling (what is the pain that keeps getting triggered for you?), support groups, books (I recommend Codependent No More by Melanie Beattie and Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood), so that they can become less dependent on the neediness of others. It is not about the relationship with the addict, but more about forming a stronger sense of self.
It is learning how to be loving and care for themselves instead of trying to “fix” someone. Trying to fix someone is like trying to nail jello to a tree, it just doesn’t work. For those people who love an active drug user: Let them know you understand the difficulty of the challenge they face, and that you are in their corner. Encourage them to explore the roots of their addiction with a professional; the drinking or drug use may seem like the main issue, but it is often a symptom of a deeper problem and keep in mind that relapses are also a part of the recovery process and should not be seen as a failure per say, but more of a set back.