Codependency is a phrase we’re becoming much more familiar with in recent years. Defined as a mental, emotional, physical and/or spiritual reliance on a partner, friend or family member, codependency incorporates certain aspects of attachment style patterns that we often develop in early childhood.


If you’re familiar with the area of substance dependency, codependency may sound like a completely separate concern. However, you might be surprised by the link between codependency and its relationship to substance dependency. Whether you’re on your own journey with substance dependency or a loved one close to you is navigating this space, there’s much to learn about both codependency and substance dependency in the unpacking of their link.


Codependency in relationships

Codependency presents in a wide range of ways and with varying severity. Its root is found in a poor concept of self and a lack of firm boundaries, commonly making itself known in the lack of ability for individuals to have an opinion or to say no.

Codependent relationships can develop in all kinds of contexts, including between parents and children, partners, spouses, friends, and employee-employer.

In a codependent relationship, the relationship pattern is imbalanced, with one person assuming responsibility for the needs of the other, often at the exclusion of being able to acknowledge their own needs or feelings. This creates an inequity of power, with the needs of the taker always sitting above the needs of the giver, who keeps on giving even at their own expense.

While it’s difficult to confirm the exact prevalence of codependency within the population, it’s more common with those who’ve experienced early life trauma, are in a close relationship with someone with a substance dependency issue, or those who have high levels of anxiety.


Related: Stress, sleep and your health


What causes codependency?

Codependent tendencies are often rooted in childhood experiences. This is because as children, the basis for healthy relationships are formed from our relationships with our parents and other close family members.

Codependency issues can occur when an individual is raised by parents who are either overprotective or under-protective. Overprotective parents can inhibit their child from gaining the confidence they need for independence in the world, while under-protective parents can fail to provide necessary support during crucial development years.

If children aren’t supported to build independence at a healthy rate, they can overcompensate, becoming resistant to support. This can be particularly prevalent in cases where parents had substance dependency issues, with children stepping in as the primary caregiver for their parents or siblings, leading to an unhealthy role reversal.


What are the signs of a codependent relationship?

There are a wide range of signs that can point to a codependent relationship, including:

  • A desire to walk on eggshells, minimising conflict with the other person
  • Seeking permission from someone else to do simple daily tasks
  • Being quick to apologise, even if you’ve done nothing wrong
  • Feeling sorry for the other person in scenarios where they’ve hurt you
  • Trying to change or ‘fix’ troubled, addicted people whose problems are complex
  • Doing things for the other person that make you feel uncomfortable
  • Needing the approval of others in order to approve of yourself
  • Lacking a sense of self within the relationship
  • A lack of time for yourself, with your free time devoted to the other person

If you’re unsure if you’re in a codependent relationship, you can monitor your interactions against these signs as a starting point in understanding your relationship dynamic.



Substance dependency as a coping mechanism

Substance dependency can be a common coping mechanism, which are compulsions or habits that are formed over time which help people manage with particular situations or as a response to stress. Ruth Limkin, CEO of The Banyans, agrees with the description of dependency as ‘habitual, ritualised comfort seeking’.

While some coping mechanisms may not be destructive, substance dependency can cause great and ongoing harm. The rate of substance dependency within the Australian population is high, with approximately 1 in 20 Australians having an addiction or substance abuse problem.

The most commonly abused substances within Australia are tobacco and alcohol, with just under 1 in 6 Australians drinking at levels that put them at risk of both short-term and long-term harm.

Related: Rethink your Relationship with Alcohol


What are the signs of a substance dependency?

There are a number of distinct signs of substance abuse that you can use to evaluate your own relationship to substances. These include:

  • Using more of the substance than you intended on a regular basis
  • Trying to cut down or stop using the substance regularly, but never succeeding
  • Spending a significant amount of time getting, using or recovering from the substance
  • Substance cravings
  • An impacted ability to meet responsibilities at work, home or school due to substance use
  • Continuing substance use even when it’s negatively impacted a relationship
  • Letting go of social, work or leisure activities because of substance use
  • Increased tolerance, where the substance does not have much impact on you, or more is required in order to achieve the effect you want
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as physical illness, when not using the substance


Related: Signs of addiction: spot them now


The link between codependent relationships and substance dependency

The link between codependent relationships and substance dependency can be seen when you consider codependency as a dependency to another person, rather than a substance. In the same way that ongoing substance abuse can be harmful, so, too, can codependent relationships.

Codependency and substance dependency can share links in their root cause, with codependent and substance-dependent individuals alike often sharing childhood trauma where they learnt certain coping behaviours. Children may grow up witnessing unhealthy relationships between parents, intentionally then developing this same approach to relationships. The same can occur for those who are dependent on substances, who may find those substances bring relief from coping mechanisms and traumas incurred when they were children, or witnessed in their parents.

Codependency can also play a role in substance or alcohol abuse, with many codependent people enabling a loved one who is addicted to an external substance. Codependent relationships are also exacerbated by substance abuse, with the enabler willing to fulfill their significant other’s needs, regardless of how it impacts their or their partner’s wellbeing. If that partner is reliant on a substance, the codependent individual may hide their behaviour and help to support their addiction.


How do I get help for codependency or substance dependency?

One of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves and for our loved ones if we’re experiencing dependency of any kind is to truly believe that recovery is possible. Asking for help is one of the hardest steps that someone can take in their recovery journey, so if you or a loved one are ready to seek help, you have made a brave decision.

There is a wide range of support available for those with codependency or substance dependency concerns, including The Banyan’s residential and day programs.

This page was reviewed by Peter Hayton (BPsych (Hons), MEd), Clinical Director at The Banyans Healthcare Group.

Follow the link to watch the full video and hear more from Peter Hayton