Primary versus Secondary Codependence

“At its heart, Codependency is a set of behaviors developed to manage the anxiety that comes when our primary attachments are formed with people who are inconsistent or unavailable in their response to us. Our anxiety-based responses to life can include over-reactivity, image management, unrealistic beliefs about our limits, and attempts to control the reality of others to the point where we lose our boundaries, self-esteem, and even our own reality.”

~Mary Crocker Cook, Awakening Hope: a Developmental, Behavioral, Biological Approach to Codependency Treatment

It has long been established that one of the consequences that people with addictions leave in their wakes is their codependent loved ones, typically their spouses and children.

In their frantic efforts to “fix” or “rescue” their suffering addict or alcoholic, the also-suffering family member often starts to lose their own identity in the process, neglecting their own needs and priorities to the point that they are often just as sick – or even sicker – than the person who is drinking and drugging.

The Two Types of Codependency

In the 1997 book, The Selfish Brain: Learning from Addiction, two different types of codependency were defined –

  • Primary Codependency – This is a type of codependency that is thrust upon a child when they are exposed to a loved one suffering from some sort of chemical or alcohol dependency. This pattern of traumatic experiences as a child creates a sort of disorder with symptoms that will continue into adulthood.
  • Secondary Codependency – This type of codependency develops when an adult is exposed to a loved one with a substance abuse problem. This disorder has symptoms that manifest after the pattern of exposure.

What Are the Differences?

Some research has indicated that up to 45% of the US population has, in some way, been exposed to alcoholism within their family. Those numbers include almost 27 million children.

A person who is primary codependent because of childhood exposure faces a number of challenges.

  • adult children of alcoholics/addicts are far more likely to be addicted themselves
  • they are also more likely to marry someone with substance abuse problems
  • a tendency to suppress their emotions and/or be overly-submissive
  • often have control issues and/or problems with intimacy and trust
  • typically suffer from some sort of psychological disorder, such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression

A person who is a secondary codependent because of adult exposure will suffer from many of the same problems faced by someone exposed as a child, with one very important distinction.

Adult exposure results in emotional and psychological difficulties that are learned reactions that are much more easily corrected than the responses and adaptive behaviors that were ingrained during childhood. Typically, the severity of the codependency is much worse in those individuals who were constantly exposed to the addiction during childhood.

Signs of Codependency

Like any other psychological or emotional problem, codependency can manifest itself in various ways, depending entirely upon the individual and their situation. Although a person may not exhibit all of the symptoms, anyone suffering from several may need to seek professional support to overcome their own “co-addictive” behaviors.

  • Hiding one’s feelings
  • Low self-esteem
  • Extreme submissiveness/compliance to avoid negative reactions
  • Engaging in emotional blackmail
  • Avoidance of intimacy
  • Exhibiting negative emotions due to someone else’s behavior – anger, shame, guilt, self-loathing, depression, etc.
  • Dependence upon a relationship for any feeling of self-worth
  • Constantly seeking approval
  • Neglecting one’s own needs and obligations to try to help, fix, or rescue another
  • Making excuses for the addict’s behavior
  • Shouldering the blame as the cause/reason for the addiction
  • Avoiding confronting the addict about their problem

Solutions for Codependency

Like addiction, codependency is not a disorder that can typically be addressed alone. To break the cycle and regain some semblance of normalcy and sanity, professional or structured help is almost always required.

For some, individual counseling to treat past emotional trauma and wounds is the right solution. For others, educational and/or behavioral therapy can teach the individual positive emotional and mental responses.

Many codependents find solace and support in 12-Step groups such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or Codependents Anonymous. Simply finding out that they are not alone in the pains they have suffered or the challenges they have faced can go a long way toward the restoration of their battered self-esteem.

When she served as Chairperson for the Board of Directors at the treatment center that bears her name, Betty Ford wrote “Getting well is not about blaming someone else for one’s problems; it is about living honest lives filled with loving connections to other people…”.

If you or someone you are close to is struggling with addiction, make the call to Lasting Recovery today—a nationally accredited outpatient drug rehab in San Diego. You CAN restore stability, sanity, and sobriety to your life.

Lasting Recovery – “Where Wellness Begins…”

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