What is Primary Codependence?

What is Primary Codependence?

Primary codependence exists from childhood exposure to an addicted loved one with symptoms that continue into adulthood

Codependence is a word with many modern connotations, but it originated within the context of alcoholic treatment in the 1970s. The concept was that addictive behavior leaves emotional wounds on loved ones, which in turn influences their future behavior and psychological state. Codependence, in essence, was viewed as a behavioral defense mechanism. In the 1980s and ’90s, influential authors like Timmen Cermak, Melody Beattie and Anne Wilson Schaef helped popularize codependence theories, and a difference between primary and secondary codependence was defined. The 1997 book The Selfish Brain: Learning from Addiction explains the difference, which is as follows:

  • Primary Codependence – Exists from childhood exposure to an addicted loved one with symptoms that continue into adulthood
  • Secondary Codependence – Develops from adult exposure to an addicted loved one with symptoms that emerged afterwards

With primary codependence, Cermak suggested that codependent traits are fused into children’s personalities as they try to adapt to the presence of trauma and addiction to drugs like Xanax. While this describes where primary codependence may originate, Psychology Today noted in 2013 that the actual definition is broader and much debated. The 2001 Chemical Dependency Handbook for Nurse Managers describes it as a pattern of enabling behavior and denial when interacting with an addict, but a clearer picture may come from looking at its potential symptoms.

Primary Codependence Symptoms

The Co-Dependents Anonymous website includes a list of common patterns and characteristics associated with codependency, which include the following:

  • Denial patterns that include masking pain, self-deception and denying true feelings
  • Low self-esteem that complicates decision making and produces tough self-recrimination
  • Unhealthy compliance to avoid rejection and anger even if it means ignoring reality
  • Control issues epitomized by disingenuous behaviors and emotional blackmail
  • Acts of avoidance to maintain distance, avoid intimacy and suppress emotions

In a 2010 online piece, Addiction Treatment Magazine pointed to hallmark symptoms of codependence, namely attempting to appease/control other people’s behavior and assuming responsibility for them. The article also pointed to several common characteristics including the following:

  • Manifestations of anxiety, depression, numbness, anger, shame, guilt and self-loathing
  • Behaviors ranging from clingy and submissive to demanding and manipulative
  • Dependence on a relationship and another person’s approval to feel confident and happy
  • Need to live one’s life through others with a disregard for personal health and goals

The article also made a key observation about the difference between codependence and addiction. While the first step in Alcoholic Anonymous is to admit “we were powerless over alcohol,” the first step in Co-Dependents Anonymous is to admit “we were powerless over others.”

Codependence and Enabling Behavior

In 2007, a Psychology Today article estimated that 76 million Americans have been exposed to alcoholism in the family, including nearly 27 million children, and that the adult children of alcoholics are more likely to be addicts themselves or to marry an addict. If a person with primary codependence marries an addict, it can produce several detrimental behaviors, including the following:

  • Provide dishonest excuses for the loved one’s addictive behavior
  • Take the blame for the cause and motivation of the substance abuse
  • Avoid addressing the addiction for fear of rejection or angry responses
  • Accept unreasonable justifications for the substance use and promises to change
  • Allow the addiction to compromise work security and family finances

Unfortunately, enabling addictive behavior is dangerous for many reasons including the following:

  • The addiction plants the seeds of primary or secondary codependence in other loved ones.
  • The addict may be damaging vital organs, experiencing side effects and risking overdose.
  • Family security and safety are likely being compromised in numerous ways .
  • Family members often possess the most influence in getting an addict help.

Furthermore, leaving primary codependence untreated presents its own concerns. “Relationship Functioning Among Adult Children of Alcoholics,” published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in 2008, argues that primary codependents have increased risk of mood disorders, antisocial behavior, relational problems, interpersonal difficulties, low self-esteem and substance abuse. Primary codependents need help, too.

Comprehensive Help for Addicts and Primary Codependents

If a spouse, parent, sibling, child or other loved one suffers from addiction to drugs like Xanax, professional treatment can help. Rehabilitation centers can provide a number of possible services including the following:

  • Medically supervised detox in a comfortable setting
  • Integrated treatment for co-occurring mental health and personality disorders
  • Relationship and family counseling to address problems the addiction caused at home
  • Development of new life skills and relapse-prevention tools
  • Identification of what originally motivated the substance abuse
  • Therapies to avoid substance abuse triggers and improve behavioral responses
  • Group therapy to express frustration, share ideas and provide mutual support

Treatment for the addict will typically include services for loved ones, but a primary codependent has additional resources that can help including the following:

  • Local support groups like Al-Anon and Co-Dependents Anonymous
  • Counseling to treat past trauma, unconscious conflicts and emotional wounds
  • Behavioral therapies that produce more positive mental and emotional responses
  • Educational therapies to provide greater understanding of addiction and codependency
  • Optional holistic treatments that promote an overall sense of wellbeing

Addiction and codependence are serious issues, but caring professionals are ready to help.

Professional Help Now

Call our toll-free helpline, and our admissions coordinators can provide information regarding treatment, facilities, support groups and other valuable resources. We can even check health insurance policies for treatment benefits for addiction to drugs like Xanax. We are available 24 hours a day, so please call now.

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