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My Mom Says I’m Codependent. Am I?

I’ve been in a relationship for five years. My boyfriend has all sorts of issues he’s dealing with—he drinks too much, he’s depressed, he yells at me when he gets down, and he can’t hold a job—but I truly love him and am doing everything I can to support him and see him through. Sure, it gets tiresome at times, and sometimes I admit that I think about leaving him, but I’m convinced he’s the love of my life and things will get better. I can’t talk to my family about this anymore. My mom, who is NOT a therapist, mind you, says I’m codependent. Am I? And what if I am? Is it some kind of disorder I need therapy for? —Hopeful Hope
Dear Hopeful Hope,

Thank you for writing. You’re in a difficult situation here. It sounds like both staying and leaving are or would be painful; staying means more suffering of the kind you describe, leaving may bring intense guilt and other painful feelings. That’s the bad news. The good news is you have options—and you’re wise enough to know something needs to change, or you wouldn’t be writing in.

Clearly, your boyfriend has some issue with alcohol. Again, I can’t and won’t diagnose from afar, but the fact “he drinks too much” says something is going on with booze. I find problem drinkers exist on a spectrum—you don’t have to be a “hair-of-the-dog,” 7 a.m. drinker to need help.

People who struggle with alcohol or drugs (or other addictive behaviors) often have a kind of “dual nature” where one moment they are lovable and warm, and the next it’s the opposite. Sometimes you don’t know who you’re getting, which is a real mind warp. You feel pulled in two directions, or wary of when that “other guy” will appear. It must be painful to be yelled at, and so you understandably think about leaving while also thinking/hoping that “things will get better.” The fact you can’t talk to your family about this anymore probably means they have a hard time listening or understanding why you live with someone who continues to mistreat you. This, I imagine, might add to whatever feelings of loneliness or isolation you may be having.

It is a terribly painful dilemma to love someone who is struggling so profoundly with some personal demons which make the relationship itself stressful. I would imagine, or hope, that your boyfriend is remorseful and feels guilty after yelling at you or getting drunk. Part of him wants to improve his situation, while the other part is terrified of change. If so, where does that leave you? It takes a high toll on a person to feel like they’re living with two or more personalities. I would imagine you’re wondering how to keep the “good one” while getting the hurtful or abusive one to pack his bags.

While there is something you can do, it probably has to start with you; I doubt, alas, that you can “get” him to resolve this problem. I wouldn’t use the word “codependent”—a blanket term I don’t much like, as it is often used pejoratively; to me it indicates a deep fear of saying “no” to abusive behavior or setting limits due to the terror of being abandoned or feeling like the other person can’t “handle” boundaries. As in, “He’ll fall apart if I leave.” So perhaps the question is, “If he won’t change, what can I start changing within myself to make this situation more tolerable?”

It’s a subtle, albeit difficult, thing to grasp, this idea that there are no “fixes” in a relationship among equals. In reality, you and your boyfriend are peers. You could not ever be persuasive/good/strong/loving enough to “get” him to change anything. It sounds, quite honestly, like some professional help is needed here. You can support his finding this support, but it sounds like you are carrying the load here—and without mutual support, a romantic relationship usually implodes. It sounds like there may be some mental health issues (including his alcohol abuse, possible depression, anxiety) which require professional intervention. You can help him finding this, but your direct financial and emotional support might only drain you and leave you resentful.

To start with, though, I recommend finding support for yourself, to help you decide what you can and can’t put up with, and implement these new boundaries or ways of protecting both you and the relationship.

At some point, it sounds like it will be up to you to say “no” to the destructive behaviors. As in, “No, you can’t yell at me anymore,” “No, I can’t live with someone who drinks like this … you must get help,” and so forth. What your boyfriend is doing now is very destructive to both you and the relationship. He’s inadvertently destroying it. You might check out Al-Anon, which offers precisely the same kind of support and guidance I’m talking about.

I know that neither 12-step programs nor therapy is right for everyone. But if you start making changes—even tiny ones, a baby step at a time—they will likely have a “ripple effect” and your boyfriend will either want to “keep up” with you or get left behind. “It starts with me,” as the old (sometimes annoying) saying goes. But otherwise, as another old saying goes, “If nothing changes … nothing changes.”

Thanks for writing, and I wish you the best of luck.

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Daniel

    February 7th, 2014 at 11:25 AM

    This is hard because I know that you love him but sometimes you have to step back and look at the good versus the bad. If someone is bringing more hurt and pain into your life than they are bringing good, do you then think that this could be your signal that it could be time to move on?

  • CD

    February 8th, 2014 at 6:32 AM

    I am not therapist either but maybe your mom has a paoint. Just what you wanted to hear, right? I am not saying that there is no hope for the two of you because I believe that is a couple is meant to be together then you can make ti work. But what I am saying is just that, that the two of you need to work out some things before this relationship can progress.

    It is clear that you have issues or you wouldn’t be writing in here, right? Why not get him to try some counseling, both alone or as a couple? I think that this would be a great first step for the two of you and I think that eventually it would open your eyes as to whether this is actually a relationship that is going to add enough good things in your life for you to continue to wish to pursue it.

  • Devyn

    February 10th, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    He needs help, but please don’t neglect your own needs in the process. You are important and worthy of being taken care of too, and I know that the temptation must be great to ignore your self because his needs seem so large in comparison, but to be of any use to him you have to stay strong for you.

  • laura f

    February 11th, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    Five years is a whole lot of time to spend and give to someone who is doing all of the taking. That is a lot of your own pesonal energy that you are using up on him when I truly think that now should be the time that you start thinking about yourself again. If he really loves you then he will want to get help so that your own relationship can be saved. We have probably all had someone like this in our lives and it is hard for any of us to deal with, but look, they take so much and we are constantly giving, and this becomes a pattern of behavior that in the end isn’t healthy for either of you. I think that the answer is to put some space between the two of you and see if he is willing to start the process of getting sober, cleaning up, so that he can keep you. It might show you pretty quickly if you are a priority to him or not.

  • cam

    February 14th, 2014 at 5:20 PM

    I have lived with family members that where drinkers for many years and they in there way are manipulative cuning and able to twist there words to get what they want out of you and when,they do that you are trapped pychilogicly and don’t realize it I read the book emotional black mail and what they have done to me for all those years suddenly became clear please don’t sacrifice your life for some one who won’t take care of them self’s you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink you are not codependant when a person is being manipulative and hurting you pychilogicly

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