been through it yourself, it’s hard to imagine the emotional
tangles that life serves up to someone who is married (or otherwise
intimately linked) to an alcoholic or drug abuser.
are filled with guilt, exasperation, loneliness, anxiety, resentment,
fear, and depression.
attempts to come to grips with their partner’s drinking or drug
use may even trigger physical and emotional illness for themselves
— one reason that addiction is sometimes called a “family
who’s enmeshed with a drinking alcoholic or an active drug abuser
and they’ll tell you they’d do anything to make their partners
believe them. Because as often as not, they’re lying — or confused.
truth is that a husband or wife (or friend or lover) can’t make
an addict or an alcoholic change. They can’t control out-of-control
behavior or drinking.
The only thing
they can change is themselves, and the sooner they find that
out, the faster they discover how they can really help their
..Partners & Pain
I be the one to change?” an exasperated wife might groan
in frustration. “It’s his problem!”
Sorry. In case
she hasn’t noticed, it’s her problem, too. By blaming a partner
for their own mixed-up emotions and by refusing to deal with
their own behavior, partners of chemically-dependent people can
become what professionals call codependents.
are people who, through ignorance or fear (and maybe even a little
chemical dependency of their own), can actually enable a dependent
person to keep on avoiding the reality of a drug or drinking
a conscious choice, but in trying to protect themselves, their
partner, or their children from embarrassment (or worse), a codependent
will deny, cover-up, excuse, even lie about the extent of the
Too bad, because
all they usually get for their trouble is more trouble — and
a continuation of their partner’s chemical career. Because the
fact is that people generally don’t seek help for problems they
don’t admit they have.
Why would anyone
in their right mind do such a thing? Why stand in the way of
someone coming to grips with a potentially life-threatening behavioral-health
There are a
lot of answers, mostly one-syllable words we all know — shame,
fear, guilt, hope, and love.
..Addiction, the Disease
now recognized as a treatable disease.
mean it’s something you catch — like the flu. It’s a disease
you develop over time, like diabetes or high-blood pressure.
Still, many people attach a shameful stigma to the addicted person
and his or her family.
is based on stereotypes that do more harm than good: of drunken
louts and no-good dopers, weak-willed, irresponsible characters
who are both selfish and hopeless. The truth is that of an estimated
13 million American alcoholics in 1997 (and 5.5 million addicts
in need of treatment), probably fewer than 10 percent fit the
description of the hopeless drunk or brain-addled junkie.
Most are responsible,
hard-working people — when they’re straight or sober. The ranks
of recovering people include successful athletes, entertainers,
business people, even members of Congress and former First Ladies.
a codependent will deny to family, friends, and anyone else who’ll
listen (or demands an explanation) that their partner’s drinking
or drug use is abnormal, even if he or she displays signs of
blatant alcoholism or addiction. (See the list, “Warning
But even though
codependents ignore the symptoms, the symptoms don’t go away.
often go, instead is from bad to worse.
Even when codependents
recognize the problem for what it is, they often make the mistake
of trying to control their partner’s consumption — the amount
an alcoholic drinks or a user uses — while fighting desperately
to keep the bottom from falling out from under the family.
They may count
drinks or water whiskey. They may hide a stash or flush pills
down the toilet.
All that usually
succeeds in doing is to drive the drinking or drug use underground.
Then they can
only guess about the extent of actual use.
And since chemical
dependency tends toward increasing levels of use, a dependent
person’s behavior often becomes less predictable and more unreliable.
The web of stress and unhappiness their partners live inside
gets tighter all the time.
If you need
proof, try juggling a dysfunctional partner’s moods and demands
with one hand, while balancing an overdrawn checkbook, bewildered
friends and angry family, and their own anxiety and depression
with the other.
worst feeling of all is the gnawing guilty feeling that maybe
the dependent partner wouldn’t drink or use so much if he or
she were a better partner, better lover, better person.
that’s crazy. But that’s often the way it is.
..Love & Recovery
usually don’t want their relationships to fall apart, even though
in moments of anger they may talk divorce or threaten to leave.
And the most
common reason they give for staying with a drinking or using
partner is the simplest reason of all: Love.
And in the
name of love, they hang on to each shred of hope that their partner
will get straight or somehow transform into a social drinker
or a weekend user. In the meantime (and while waiting for a miracle
that never comes), they invent excuses for their kids, for relatives
and friends, for the boss or supervisor.
the dependent partner turns up, remorseful and contrite, after
another binge or bender, the codependent accepts the tearful
apologies and believes the heartfelt promises. Again.
If the partners
of codependents are sick, so are codependents. On the other hand,
they can both recover.
can help the process along immeasurably by realizing that only
they can help themselves.
they need to get help.
problem isn’t their partner’s drinking or cocaine habit, any
more. It’s their own fear, their own anger, their own anxiety,
their own resentment.
..Dues and Don’ts
If you’re codependent
and want to take control of your life, there are plenty of do’s
to pay attention to, and at least as many don’ts. Do the following:
- Learn about chemical dependency.
It’s a disease that thrives on ignorance.
- Talk to a therapist. Well-meaning
friends and others untrained in the dynamics of addictions can
do more harm than good.
- Contact Al-Anon or Codependents
Anonymous. Attend several meetings before you decide if
they’re for you. Each is listed in the white pages of the phone
- Be honest with your kids. They’re
not deaf or blind when it comes to family problems. Plain talk
from you can relieve some of their fears and insecurities.
- Be patient. Change is difficult
and slow. You won’t solve all your problems overnight, but you
will improve your ability to cope and resolve problems with time.
to cope with your partner’s chemical dependency, there are also
specific things you should avoid doing.
Here are some
of the major don’ts:
- Lie, make excuses, or cover
- Blame yourself for your partner’s
- Make threats, unless you can
- Be ashamed.
- Try to control or regulate your
partner’s drinking or drug use.
- Protect your partner from the
consequences of his or her behavior.
- Allow yourself or your kids
to be abused — physically, emotionally, or sexually.
- Nag, criticize, or argue over
trivia. It doesn’t resolve anything and usually makes matters
- Give up. Recovery can be a long,
slow process, but it really is worth the struggle. And you really
can make it if you try.
..Partners & Paradox
main question in the minds of most codependent people who seek
help is this: Will my husband/wife/lover quit drinking or doping
if I change?
The only answer
is a great big unequivocal maybe. There’s no guarantee and no
exceptions to the rule.
The fact is
that addicts usually don’t change until addiction problems outweigh
perceived pleasures or benefits.
And it’s harder
to shift that balance, still, when someone that a dependent person
loves covers for them, makes excuses, and helps minimize the
seriousness of plainly destructive behavior.
the denial associated with chemical dependency, addicts and alcoholics
generally don’t go looking for help until they don’t see many
is that codependents have two choices.
They can remain
accomplices to their partner’s addiction or they can love them
enough to let them experience the effects of their chemical use,
love them enough to let them feel the pain they create, love
them enough to get them started getting well.
..Sidebar 1 | Warning Signs
drinkers (and their families) do their best to deny or minimize
them, signs of alcoholism are obvious and can include any of
- Drinking too much, too often
- Drinking rapidly or gulping
- Black-outs or memory loss after
- Hiding bottles or sneaking drinks
- Belligerence or abusiveness
- Drinking alone
- Impaired sexual performance
- Arrests for drunk-driving or
- Drinking to handle a hangover
- Tardiness or absence from work
due to drinking
drug dependence are similar, and need to be taken just as seriously.
If you think they have a problem, they probably do.
..Sidebar 2 | Are You Codependent?
or drugs are an issue in your relationship, you may be codependent
— or fast on your way to becoming one. If you’re not sure exactly
where you stand, just ask yourself:
- Do you get defensive if family
or friends suggest that your partner has a problem with drugs
- Do you try to control his alcohol
or drug consumption?
- Have you ever lied or made excuses
to your partner’s employer about tardiness or absences?
- Do you cover up your partner’s
chemical use so your children won’t know?
- Have you limited your social
activities because of your partner’s drinking or drug use?
- Do you cover up when she is
caught in a lie or embarrassing situation related to drugs or
- Have you ever offered your partner
a “social drink” (or a toke or a hit) when he was on
- Have you minimized the role
chemical use plays in family arguments?
If you answered
yes to two or more questions, you may have a problem. For your
own sake (and your partner’s), contact Al-Anon, Codependents
Anonymous, or another support group or treatment organization.
health, and peace of mind depend on it.