Codependency Series #2: Classic vs. Non-Classic Codependency and Addiction

by Anne Grisham-Pleas, MC, LMHC and Addiction Specialist

Codependency can come in many shapes and forms. My lens is through that in the addiction field, with over 20 years working with patients and families that are addicted.  I believe many people think of codependency in the classic sense, in relationship to the alcoholic. With classic codependency, the alcoholic acts and the family and friends react. It’s that simple.

Non-Classic Codependency is less defined and clear. Non-Classic codependency often involves a family where there is no alcoholism in its immediate structure.  For many this non-classic codependency manifests through over-doing for others, not having the ability to say no, and having poor boundaries.   It can also include not doing what is good for oneself, to put others needs above your own needs, which then creates an unhealthy balance in the family. Other aspects I commonly see regarding non-classic codependency is with unhealthy personal relationships- a tendency to create chaos and drama in relationships, passive communication and an inability to set healthy boundaries. The level of emotional pain that occurs with regards to this pattern is high and it affects everyone in the family, much like the disease of alcoholism.

In my experience as a therapist, I have seen many people come into therapy asking for help from what others are doing "to them". It is common for untreated codependent individuals to lack the personal insight-  we have a part in all our relationships. I commonly hear blaming others as the solution from codependent individuals.

The key is: Personal accountability needs to develop for any healing to begin.

There are many people suffering from the pain that non-classic codependency creates and they are often very surprised to hear their emotional pain is a product of their own codependency.

Some of the stories including non-classic codependency I can recall from my work as a therapist include:

A Mom, husband and their adolescent daughter in a family where there is no alcoholism involved in the immediate family. The codependency manifests through Mom’s over-doing for the family, where she puts her spouse and daughter above her in priority and then resents them for it. She punishes them through her passive, aggressive nature and ineffective communication patterns through yelling and blaming them for her suffering. Mom also over-reacts in many situations with her daughter regarding her responsibilities where Mom gets very stressed out and causes a more stressful  environment in the home due to her over reacting versus letting the daughter take responsibility for herself and facing the natural consequences of her actions. Mom saves her by not allowing her to face the consequence and then punishes her by being passive aggressive. Much of Mom’s suffering comes from her inability to realize she has choices other than over reacting and over doing for the family. 

Another story I remember involves a young adult woman who was in business for herself. She did not come from an alcoholic family, but from a single parent family where she had to care for her Dad as a young girl and it affected her in various ways. Her non-classic codependency showed up as an adult by attempting to over-please her clients, and promising them things she could not live up to, in the timeline allotted. This led to becoming resentful of her clients due to her over-pleasing and feeling exhausted as a result. This is a vicious cycle of many codependent people. She also over committed in her primary relationships with men and she did things that made them happy and ignored what was important to her in her relationship, This led to ignoring red flags, over-pleasing them at her expense- saying yes when she meant to say no. This all increased her level of personal suffering. Each time a new relationship would end I would ask her how she abandoned herself in her relationship and over time she began to see the commonality between her codependency and the failure of her relationships.  

Getting help for codependency is fairly easy. But there can also be some barriers to getting help. Al-Anon & Al-Alateen meetings offer a solution to those suffering from codependency. Another important factor is they are not exclusive to those suffering from Classic Codependency and Alcoholism in the family.

Some common barriers to getting started with Al-Anon include:

  • not knowing how to find a meeting
  • not knowing how to find a home group
  • not knowing how to find a sponsor 
  • not knowing what the purpose of a home group or sponsor is
  • being shy or introverted
  • not wanting to talk in meetings
  • difficulty putting yourself first and taking time for yourself away from the family
  • feeling guilty when your children ask you to stay home instead of going to another meeting
  • not understanding how attending a meeting helps

Many of these barriers can be understood by looking up and finding an Al-Anon meeting to attend. This is a crucial first step, just getting there. Some of these common barriers are talked about in the Al-Anon meetings and are explained as some of the norms of getting started in this 12 step program. Yet, at first reaching out for help may feel more frightening than continuing to struggle alone.  One of the first things many of you will learn at Al-Anon is that you did not cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it. Everyone’s “it” is different, but it is a wonderful place to begin for many, it’s a new way to see the world and to conceptualize that it’s not your fault, whatever “it” may be. Many people in Al-Anon are seeking change, an end to their suffering, but are weary to make the necessary changes. Change is a process and it involves taking an honest look at oneself, your life and the circumstances that have led you to needing Al-Anon. Often, many become master avoiders and therefore after years of hiding the unhappy aspects of reality from ourselves and others we are surprised to see there is quite a struggle in the ability to be honest with ourselves. It is this honesty however that can lead to emotional freedom in Al-Anon.

By allowing yourself to be honest with yourself about the level of  suffering you are in regarding your codependency, you are giving yourself a gift and it’s a gift of freedom. The emotional freedom you can achieve by attending Al-Anon is tremendous, I encourage you to make a decision to live a healthier life by attending Al-Anon, or you can choose to continuing living life as you currently know it and continue to suffer in all the ways you are suffering today. 

Anne Grisham-Pleas, MC, LMHC is a therapist at Mindful Therapy Group. She has over 20 years experience working with addicted individuals and their families. She provides mental health counseling to those in the active phase of change, in concurrence with outside treatment for their addiction. She also provides counseling to individuals and families affected by addiction and codependency.