A recent study in Australia stated that up to 240 million people worldwide are addicted to something. Drugs, alcohol, internet, sex, shopping, eating were all mentioned. These were just the ones that are receiving some form of help for their addiction. There are surely many stuck in denial who do not see the need for help or indeed where to go for it. It seems to be a never ending issue with no real end in sight.
One group of addicted people that are not included in this list and indeed, in any list are codependents. I firmly believe this love or relationship addiction is just as destructive at its core as any drug or bottle can be. In my experience treating codependents, the same factors drive the process. The relationship, usually with an elusive partner is their drug of choice…the fix being their never ending mission to change said partner. Let’s look at the addiction cycle that drives typical addictive behaviour and see how this fits with codependency.
The Case Of W
W has just finished a 3 year relationship with a man with clear narcissist tendencies. He took advantage of her emotionally, financially and sexually. She finished the relationship only after starting therapy and being made aware of her situation. Despite her attempts to block him and go no contact, she is still vulnerable to his attempts to tap into her as a source of supply. One recent incident highlights the Cycle of Addiction perfectly in terms of codependency.
W ended the relationship but was never really sure that it was what she really wanted. Her obsession with R was dysfunctional and drove her behaviour. She had a similar relationship with her father who was also emotionally distant and was not easy to please. Despite her constant attempts to connect with her father, it never really worked. Logically, she can see this but emotionally, it is difficult. The same forces are at play with R. For one week, she had held no contact well, mainly because of distraction and there had been no attempt by R to break it. That was all about to change. One Saturday night, W was home alone watching tv when a text arrived. The cycle was about to start….
Emotional Trigger : The text arriving cut W to the bone. It expressed regret about the break up, that R had changed and was ready to be the partner W wanted. Even worse, it suggested that they meet up “soon” to discuss getting back together. For a codependent like W in a vulnerable state, the worst possible message.(she was later to find that R was bored and had been turned down by other women on that night). W was going crazy in her mind…logic and emotion clashing…rumination and total focus on the text.
Craving : W started to romanticise her relationship with R, remembering the few good times they had. Her mental filter is set on this and she she cannot see that the relationship was mostly very negative for her. She is craving being with him, wants him to come to her and is starting to think that she cannot survive without him. This is a very dangerous phase for W, she is likely to leave herself open to abuse yet again.
Rituals: W is entering the preparation phase to allow R back into her life. Rituals are constant patterns of behaviours performed prior to acting out , driven by preoccupation. Rituals allow one to control the environment before acting out. Examples of rituals might be feeding the dogs in order not to be disturbed, choosing a specific time of day or preparing one’s physical appearance before acting out. W is entering into a phase that she always did before she met R, obsessing about her hair and how it looked. It was always a source of self-esteem for her and now it was important for her to get it right….
Using: After much deliberation, W decides to answer the text, giving in to her impulses and against her better judgement. She writes back telling R she misses him and wished that everything could have worked out better for them. She blissfully tells him that she would like to try again even though she knows logically that it would never work. Emotionally, she has been hooked in again to the narcissist illusion. The message fell on deaf ears. R rejected her suggestion saying he needed her on the Saturday but is now ok.
Guilt: After rejection comes the emotional fall and guilt. W cannot believe that she fell for R’s overtures again and realises what she was about to do. This brings guilt, shame and self-loathing. How could she do this? She wakes every morning with mixed thoughts….trepidation and anxiety. Half of her hopes R will make contact again and the other is terrified he will. The chances are that the cycle will start again.
Psychotherapy, especially CBT could help W understand why she overcompensates, fulfils everyone’s needs but her own, or why she puts herself last. Cognitive behavioural therapy is well suited to treating codependency, although any form of therapy is likely to help. A therapist could help W identify codependent tendencies, understand why the behaviours were adopted in the first place, and develop self-compassion in order to heal and transform old patterns. According to Holtz, a therapist might work on some of the following aspects to help W change codependent patterns:
Improving self-care: Because codependent individuals tend to focus on the needs of others, their own needs often get pushed to the side. This can become dangerous. Understanding self-care is important for one’s overall well-being.
Setting boundaries: Setting limits with others forces them to learn to take responsibility for their own lives and facilitates self-reliance. It also allows the person who is codependent to invest time and energy into himself or herself instead of another person. It defines identity and how people should be treated.
Tackling the root cause. Using techniques such as inner child therapy to reframe early experiences and treat early guilt and shame.
Helping others in productive ways: Fulfil the need to help others in a productive and healthy way, such as volunteering, instead of through personal relationships that may be unhealthy.
Learning about family patterns: Understanding the unhealthy codependent patterns in the family will help make a person sense of how the family relates to one another and how these patterns of relating have transferred to other outside relationships.