Brian Shrawder, MSMFT, Doctoral Candidate


Those of us with a loved one struggling with drug or alcohol addiction are used to them being referred to as an “addict.” In
12-step support groups such as Nar-Anon, Step one begins by stating, “we cannot control our addicts” (Recovery, 2016). But what about our addiction? This may be a real shock to think that as a family member of an addict that we may struggle with problematic behaviors. These behaviors may consist of enabling, co-dependency and unhealthy boundary setting in regards to our addict. Perhaps a new term for you is co-addict. A co-addict can be a spouse, partner or loved one of an addict or alcoholic. Generally these individual’s mean well but can end up doing more harm than good. For the purpose of this article the term co-addict will be used.

Often times, a family with an alcoholic or addict living in the same home experiences stress. The stress experienced typically will change family roles. The role change is generally due to the desire to accommodate the addict or alcoholic. Enabling, co-dependency, and setting unhealthy boundaries are a few ways co-addicts try to deal with the stressful environment experienced when addiction is in play.

Enabling is a form of dysfunctional behavior which is meant to reduce and or eliminate stressful and or problematic situations. Typically, enabling only makes these situations worse. Co-dependency is when a loved one enables their partner or child’s addiction. Lastly, unhealthy boundary settings are when a parent or partner does not reinforce rules which are in place to provide safety and security in a home and or relationships.

I will provide a few examples of each behavior a family member may exhibit when addiction is involved in a family system. For example, a father with a son addicted to heroin would have a strong desire to not see his son struggling through withdrawal. Therefore, he may provide his son with opiates in order to help reduce and or eliminate the aversive symptoms of withdrawal. Or a wife who knows if her husband has a bad day at work and comes home to no beer in the fridge becomes angry or upset. The wife, a co-addict will likely make sure she does not bring any further stress to her husband’s day and will have her partner’s drink of choice ready when he gets home. These are examples of both enabling and co-dependency. An example of an unhealthy boundary would be the parent of a heroin addict allowing their child to stay in their home when they know the addict is using at the residence. A healthy boundary would be telling the child they need to not use in your home, they can go to rehab or they can live somewhere else. This is not an easy step and I respect that it is difficult. Sadly, some parents or partners feel that if their child or partner uses at home it is safer than being on the streets or somewhere else. The bottom line is that setting unhealthy boundaries is not going to help your loved one nor will it reduce the stress and struggles you are experiencing. Only by setting healthy boundaries can positive change possibly happen.

Co-addiction is the family and or loved one’s way of dealing with
a loved one struggling with drugs and alcohol addiction. Co-addiction is not a sign of weakness. It is also not something which is avoidable. Even if a wife were to divorce her alcoholic husband the co-addiction would still be present.

Three stages exist for co-addiction. The first stage is called Early Stage. During the Early Stage the family members attempt to problem-solve the behavioral issues which come about when the addict begins using drugs or alcohol. However, the family members are unable to stop the addict and struggle with stress and anxiety.

Stage two is the Middle Stage, during which the family members continue to use the same problem solving skills as in the first stage. The problem-solving attempts continue to fail leaving the members to experience the feeling of self-dejectedness.

The final stage is known as the Chronic Stage. During this stage the family members continue to experience the feelings of self-defeat.

The reason is, the same approach and problem-solving skills which were used in stage one and two are still being used in stage 3 with the same results. They are not working.

You may wonder if you’re aware of these three stages, how they can help. The point of identifying the three stages of co-addiction is not to make the co-addict look foolish but for them to understand that groups such as Nar-anon, Al-anon or other family groups can help. Co-addicts need support just like the addict. This is why 12-step groups exist for both the addict and family.

It is important to note at this point that even once in treatment
via 12-step or family groups, relapse can occur. Relapse of a co-addict is behavioral in nature. Behavioral signs of co-addiction may present in the following ways:

Situational Loss of Daily Routine- The family member’s daily routine is interrupted by the addiction. The family member does not return to their normal recovery program following the addict going into treatment.

Lack of Personal Care-Family member takes care of others first and self-second.

Indecision- Daily life decisions become more and more difficult to make.

Lack of Rest – Restful sleep is not met by the family member.

Return of Unreasonable Resentments- Family member reviews addict’s behaviors which have brought hurt, pain and sadness. When reviewing these experiences the family member experiences old emotions attached to these situations.

Self-Pity- Co-addict begins to think about current or previous problems and magnifies them. The co-addict may ask themself
“Why do these things always happen to me?”

Eating Disorders- Family member loses their appetite or may start to over eat. Both are done in order to feel better.
Return of Fear or General Anxiety- Situations which previously did not bring about anxiety or fear do so now. The source of the anxiety may be unknown to the family member.

Scapegoating-Co-addicts tend to put blame on other people, places and things to figure out why they feel poorly.

Recovery for co-addiction is all about learning your signs and using supports. Co-addiction is chronic in nature and therefore susceptible to relapse. Personal needs should be met -it is crucial. The co-addict needs to understand they need to come first and that by doing so they place themselves in a position for recovery to happen. Remember, one day at a time is how recovery works and can work for you.

Brian Shrawder is a Therapist at Harbor Counseling located in Wellsboro, PA.
References Provided Upon Request