Family Members: Codependent or Grief Stricken?

Codependency Labels Like Codependent or Addict ~ Are they Needed?

Cottonwood de Tucson is a unique treatment approach to recovery, putting health and wellness as the central component of healing from addiction and disorders. It feels incongruent to promote people thinking about themselves as a disorder, such as when family members introduce themselves in small group situations and give themselves a title. For example, a family member may say, “My name is Cathy, I am a codependent.” Titles are useful when they reflect a disorder that is chronic, progressive, and life threatening, such as the case of addiction, where using the label assists in recovery. It is not as useful when the focus of treatment is on an overused set of caring behaviors, as is the case when family members take on a label of “codependency.”

The threat of loss of a relationship is a threat to one’s current life balance, which creates fear and sadness. Parents, spouses, children, friends, and extended family are sources of social relationship that provide contexts within which to maintain balance. To prevent loss people engage in controlling behaviors, hyper-vigilance, and manipulation. Attempts to maintain attachment with people who are needed, or who have moved from available to unavailable, is normal. Understanding a normative reaction to loss experienced by people in social relationships is necessary: Pathologizing that reaction is harmful. In the addictions field we continue to pathologize the normative reaction to social loss with the label “codependency,” putting it in the category of illness, rather than as grief work from an ambiguous loss.

The reaction to loss that is widely experienced by friends and family members of persons who are addicted to mind altering substances is profound grief. It has characteristics of flawed interactional patterns because the loss is ambiguous. If a person dies, the grief is unambiguous: the social role the deceased played is no longer occupied and the deceased cannot fulfill obligations or promises. The spouse who becomes addicted to mind altering substances often ceases to fulfill obligations or promises, but physically the social role is still occupied. “Codependency,” describes a set of skills that were learned in that close relationship, become unsuccessful, and are vigorously pursued because members of the network have not yet identified and grieved their loss. To address these behaviors, fear and uncertainty need to be addressed.

Persons with emotional attachment to those who are addicted need to:

Recognize the loss of the role that the addicted person can no longer fulfill.

Grieve the loss of the original relationship.

Reorganize such that the addicted person is no longer central to the member’s well being.

Identifying and grieving are the key issues in correcting “codependent” behaviors. That understanding is achieved through education, which is why the family program at Cottonwood de Tucson is so successful. Once the education has taken place, family members can:

Detach with love.

Recognize the limits of the relationship with the addicted person in their lives.

Take care of their own needs for balance and attachment in relationships where trust and balance are more available.

Learn to set limits for their own well-being.

Learn to distinguish between caring and obsession.

Codependent-type behaviors are logical responses to ambiguous and chronic attachment loss. Codependent-type behaviors are learned, and can be unlearned.

Vicki Loyer-Carlson, Ph.D., LMFT
Daniel Cook, LMSW
Ed Rusnak, MS, NCC, LISAC
Cottonwood de Tucson
4110 W. Sweetwater Drive
Tucson, AZ 85745
(888) 727-0441

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