What is Co-dependency?

Co-dependency is a term that is used to describe a common, but maladaptive, reaction to growing up in an addictive or painful home or being in an ongoing relationship with an addict. It is also used to describe a shame-based pattern of behaving and relating to others, self, and God that underlies most addictive behaviors and also seems to characterize many people in our society, including clergy.

Love and Desperation

Being in a relationship with an active addict is very stressful. “Co-addiction” is a form of co-dependency that affects those close to an addict. As the addict progresses through the stages of addiction, and progressively loses control over the addiction, life for the co-addict becomes more stressful, more confusing, and often more embarrassing.

The co-addict feels compelled by both love and increasing desperation to try to “fix” the addict; do whatever it takes to prevent the addict from engaging in the addictive behavior; change or control circumstances so as to remove stress from the addict; lie, cover-up, or minimize the destructive consequences of the addictive behavior; and increasingly take on responsibilities that the addict can no longer live up to.

This process is called “enabling” and frequently keeps the addict from experiencing the painful consequences of their addictive behavior, and recognizing the need to change.

Stress and Powerlessness

The cumulative effects of stress and powerlessness upon those close to the addict often leads to an unconscious process of denial in which the co-addict may truly not recognize the addiction for what it is. The co-addict may also experience a blurring of appropriate boundaries; isolation; a profound lack of self-care; overwhelming feelings of resentment, anger, guilt, and shame; and exhaustion and physical illness.

Life for the co-addict progressively revolves around the addict, and they lose touch with themselves and their own needs, feelings, and personal goals.

A Family Disease

These effects of living with an addict are what make addiction a family disease. Unfortunately, these patterns of behavior do not automatically diminish when the addict gets into recovery, and can sabotage the recovery process for the whole family.

Research indicates that in families where the non-addicted spouse does not get into their own recovery process, the addict is more likely to relapse. Thus, even though this can be very difficult and even counter-intuitive, it is very important that everyone involved with an addict reaches out for support and education, and gets involved in their own healing process.

Recovery for Co-addicts in Families and Parishes

Recovery for the co-addict is facilitated through involvement in 12-step programs such as Alanon, Narcanon, or CODA; participation in a family program through a treatment center; individual therapy; education; focus on taking good care of physical needs such as rest and relaxation; proper nutrition and medical care; and supporting a balanced spiritual life.

In parishes where the clergy are addicted, key lay personnel as well as the entire parish council may be in denial, or may progressively engage in enabling behavior. Thorough education and restructuring of the responsibilities of these personnel are crucial for the healing of the parish and the successful reintegration of the recovering clergy.

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