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The Hidden Dangers of Co-Addiction

When you think of the word “co-addiction,” what comes to mind? You might associate it with codependency, or even two people sharing an addiction. While both of these terms hit on an aspect of co-addiction, neither is fully correct.

Today, we’re covering what co-addiction is and how to handle it. Let’s get started.

What is co-addiction?

While there is more research necessary before the term will be used widely in the scientific community, many people in recovery have adopted the term “co-addiction” as a way to explain a type of harmful relationship.

In simplest terms, co-addiction is a relationship defined by an addiction to an addiction. One person will have a substance addiction. In response, their partner, child, parent, sibling, or friend may adopt a pattern of behavior in order to cope. The exact response will vary widely depending on the individual and the situation, but it’s characterized by a compulsive desire to control the addict in an effort to help them recover.

Co-addiction is more than just selflessness or a desire to help. It’s when you put the addict’s well-being above your own.

Even when you see how your actions are hurting you, you feel the compulsive need to continue supporting them. Letting go of the addict in any way feels impossible.

Co-addiction is very similar to codependency, and the terms may even be used interchangeably. But one way to understand it is that co-addiction is a specific type of codependency. A codependent relationship may not involve substance abuse, but a co-addiction always does.

Signs of co-addiction

The signs of co-addiction are very similar to the signs of a codependent relationship. These might include:

  • Feeling like you might lose the addict’s love and attention if you don’t take care of them.
  • Covering for them to their boss or friends.
  • Putting the addict’s needs above your own.
  • Feeling resentment toward the addict when your efforts aren’t working.
  • Trying to keep track of their whereabouts at all times, or trying to control where they go.
  • Feeling like you’re the only person who can save them.
  • No longer spending time with friends or family that you used to see.
  • Feeling like you’re losing control.

These signs might seem random at first, but they make sense when you take a closer look at what’s going on beneath the surface.

Understanding relationship functions

A healthy relationship is balanced. Each person has strengths and weaknesses, but the two people try to support each other where the other falls short. Each person is functioning normally.

In a co-addiction situation, the addicted person begins under-functioning. It might start small, such as leaving messes around the house or forgetting their normal responsibilities. But over time, it might get worse—skipping school or work, blowing large amounts of money on their addiction, or even becoming abusive.

To compensate, their partner may begin picking up the slack. They’ll take on the addict’s normal responsibilities, cover for them, feed them, and try to maintain some sense of normalcy. They may feel like they need to rescue the other person and shower them with love, hoping they’ll see the light. Alternatively, they may feel the need to break down the addicted individual through arguments and calls to the police to make them see how bad it’s gotten. Regardless of the co-addict’s actions, the desire to control and fix the addict lies at the heart of the issue.

Of course, being controlled and/or pampered can make the addict feel inadequate, and the co-addict will eventually feel used. Both people wind up resentful toward one another, but will ultimately live in denial of how bad their situation actually is.

Co-addiction as a learned response

We as humans are wired to stick with what we know. That’s why many individuals who are in a harmful relationship with someone who has an addiction grew up with a parent who struggled with addiction. Research has shown an association between codependency and parental alcoholism, as well as between codependency and childhood abuse.

When we are raised in a harmful environment where we feel ashamed and unworthy of love, that’s what we know. And when we’re older, we’ll gravitate toward those who give us those same feelings.

It’s not healthy, and we might know it’s not healthy, but it’s familiar. And sometimes, that feels safer than anything else.

In the mind of the co-addict, there’s often the subconscious thought of “This isn’t the best, but at least I know how to handle it.”

Does that mean the cycle will never be broken? Of course not. You can learn new, healthy responses and discover how to have a balanced, fulfilling relationship. But it starts by addressing the relationship you’re currently in.

What to do if you’re in a co-addiction relationship

Co-addiction can happen regardless of the type of relationship (parent, spouse, friend, etc.), and in either gender. If you think you might be in a codependent relationship, here’s what you need to know:

You are not broken

Co-addiction is a learned behavior, a natural response to an addict’s behaviors. If you’re in a co-addiction situation, you’re not broken. Your body has just developed responses in order to survive and to cope.

Co-addiction can be harmful to your loved one and your whole family

While trying to control the situation and take care of the people around you might feel like your only option, it’s not. And it can actually have more serious consequences than you expect.

For example, co-addiction is highly associated with enablement because the co-addict will try to make everything seem normal. The addict doesn’t have to deal with the pain of their actions. There have also been cases of children being removed from families with parents who were unable to overcome their addiction and co-addiction, respectively.

You can, and should, get treatment

We’re not talking about couple’s therapy—in fact, that can even be harmful if your partner is abusive. We’re talking about you.

Contact a counselor. Many workplaces have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that can put you in touch with someone. It’s often helpful to attend Codependents Anonymous meetings as well to meet others in similar situations.

A professional intervention specialist can help get your loved on into treatment

You’re not in this alone. If you’ve been trying to get your loved one to confront their addiction, a professional interventionist can be what it takes to get them to accept treatment.

Let’s talk about it

We’re real people who want to really help. If you have a loved one who needs addiction treatment, we can get you in touch with an intervention specialist in your area. Give us a call at 844.630.4814 and let us know the situation. You don’t have to figure this all out on your own.

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Carson, A.T., Baker R.C. “Psychological correlates of codependency of women.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb 1994. Web. 27 Jul 2016. <>.

“In Re Damion H. and Alexandria J.” Nebraska Court Improvement Project. Nebraska Court Improvement Project. Web. 26 Jul 2016. <>.

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August 4th 2016 | By: Jessie Gould | Posted In: Substance Abuse