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#4: How do you treat Co-Dependency when it has become an addiction?


The previous ‘‘thought snippets’ in this series suggests that typical client behaviours are highlighting the underlying condition of co-dependency.

This ‘‘thought snippet’’ considers how to deal with co-dependency when it crosses from the realm of dysfunctionality into a full blown addiction (in my experience, this is more often than is commonly thought!). Following an addiction treatment programme provides the client with huge clarity about where their power actually lies and enables them to deal with relapse should it occur.

Working with co-dependency or relationship addiction

There are a typical set of stages which the client can be brought through to enable them understand their situation and, more importantly, fully grasp how to recover.

Step 1: Naming the addiction

Most addiction counsellors agree about the importance of identifying and naming the addiction with which the client is struggling as quickly and clearly as possible. So, in working with co-dependent clients, I do exactly that.

First of all, I explain what addiction means i.e. when a substance (alcohol, drugs, food) or a behaviour (gambling, people) has reached a stage where it has control over us and where we no longer have control or choice over it. When we return to it time after time, even when we know it is doing us harm, that’s addiction!

Step 2: Explaining the addiction

The next step is usually to explore ‘people addiction’ with the client. In my experience, people who come into therapy often suffer from severe social anxiety or narcissistic relationship addiction. In such cases, I will explore with them the extent to which they have become externally validated and seek to highlight for them how much of their power they have given to others.

Step 3: Owning the addiction

My experience is that, as clients start to see what is happening with a new focus, they begin to understand relationship addiction. In this way, they can easily grasp the extent to which it applies to them. There is real progress as clients ‘own’ that they fear rejection, judgement or loneliness to such an extent that they are actually dis-abled from properly meeting their own needs. They realise how often they disavow their own needs / choices while deferring to the needs / choices of others.

Step 4: Taking back power

When exploring such relationship issues, framing it as ‘co-dependency/ relationship addiction’ brings huge clarity for the client. They fully comprehend how they are seeking external approval and really grasp that their own personal choice is gone. The realisation that people have significant control over them, in the same way as alcohol has control over the alcoholic, helps the co-dependent fully appreciate what is happening and how to break free. Then, when they understand how they can support themselves to take their power back, and to recover, they immediately have hope again!

Working with your client to help them recover from co-dependency

As in most therapeutic situations, I work with the co-dependent client through childhood trauma, shame, anger, fear, anxiety and self-compassion as appropriate. However, as we are dealing with a relationship addiction, we also devise a comprehensive recovery treatment plan, just as in other addictions. This encompasses the practical skill sets that the client might require (such as communication and assertiveness skills) if they are to fully recover.

Some of this work requires a psychoeducation approach on the part of the helping professional. I believe that this re-parenting is our most important task i.e. to help correct the client’s childhood conditioning, their self-belief and their way of relating to themselves and to the world. Many of these clients did not learn any of these skills in their childhood and, so, critically need to learn them if they are to fully recover from their co-dependency. Indeed, to allow a client to finish counselling without acquiring these life skills would practically guarantee relapse.

So what happens when the client lapses into denial and goes back for more?

In addiction circles, it is said that relapse is part of recovery. A co-dependent is a relationship addict and, as such, is just like any other addict. Therefore, the co-dependent can slip into denial at any time and can be drawn to the toxic people or behaviours that caused them to lose touch withthemselves in the first place.

As discussed, co-dependents often come from dysfunctional backgrounds or narcissistic family systems where their needs were not heard or seen as important. So, to survive, they learned to become 'people pleasers' - especially of the people who had the 'power' (such as parents, siblings, teachers etc.) in their relationships.

This pattern followed on into adulthood and most co-dependents continued to 'people please' to survive. In such cases, it takes an amount of time for such co-dependents to learn how to value themselves and to put these new values into practice.

The main benefit of the addiction approach is that, because the client realizes that they are dealing with an addiction, they learn to be compassionate with themselves. While undesirable, relapse is not unexpected so is viewed as a setback from which they can recover.

As an aside, it is helpful for such clients to participate in a recovery programme such as Al Anon or CoDA. Regular attendance at these meetings supports those who need to detach from unhealthy relationships and stops the denial process from taking hold.

A hierarchy of addictions?

It is very important to realise that relationship addiction and co-dependency can exist alongside other, more easily identifiable, substance addictions (e.g. alcohol, drugs etc.). The co-existence of co-dependency or relationship addiction, when not identified, can be an adverse factor in the recovery from substance abuse of those affected. Indeed, on one of my recent courses, the senior manager of an addiction treatment centre recognised that probing for this type of co-addiction would be very helpful for clients who are trying to progress in recovery from a more easily identifiable substance addiction.

Dealing with co-dependency addiction – the responsibility of the helping professional

It is my belief that it is essential for all helping professionals to be equipped to recognise co-dependency and relationship addiction. Many of my clients have told me that putting a name on their relationship addiction, as soon as possible, was particularly helpful to their expeditious recovery. The reason for this is very logical since we cannot recover from something of which we are not aware or about which we are in denial! In this vein, it is essential that the helping professional is aware of the possibility for such an addiction (even if the client is not) and acts accordingly.

In the same way, it is just as important that the helping professional acknowledges if he / she has a difficulty recognising co-dependency as an addiction or, indeed, the existence of relationship addiction at all. In such situations, I believe that the helping professional still has a responsibility to identify relationships in general as an issue for the client. He / she then needs to refer the client on to either a treatment centre or a therapist who does recognise co-dependency as an issue or who works with relationship addiction.

Learning to work with ‘relationship addiction’

My experience of dysfunctional relationships as possible sources of addiction, and the huge strides in recovery that are possible when it is named for those clients who are affected, has prompted me to put together a course which deals with this issue. It provides a real and meaningful resource for the helping professional who wants to give his / her clients the best chance of recovery from whatever is their issue or addiction. For further information, click courses

Note: This is one of a series of ‘thought snippets’ through which I am hoping to bring co-dependency centre stage with caring professionals. By being alert to its pervasiveness, they can ensure that their clients reap the benefit of early identification. To read other ‘snippets’ in this series, click: margaretparkes snippets

For more information about the subjects covered in this blog, contact Margaret Parkes - phone: 086 832 0422 email:

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