How Does Codependency Affect Us as Adults?

Woman holding many objects representing different jobsHow does growing up in a dysfunctional family affect us as adults? For adult children of addicts, the behaviors and beliefs that enabled us to survive as children can cause us a myriad of problems in adulthood. These patterns are so ingrained and automatic that we do them without even realizing it, and changing any of them can provoke anxiety and fear. They seem like a lifeline, but in adulthood, they become an albatross around our necks.

The degree to which we are affected depends on the level of dysfunction in the addicted parent and the other parent’s ability or inability to protect us. Some people who are addicted to substances are better parents than others. Some addicts may be able to function as a parent some of the time, and even when drinking may try to show an interest in their children. Others may be gone most of the time and be mean or even violent when they are home. A minority of non-addicted parents may seek help and be honest with us about what is happening in our home. They may be mature enough to put their own feelings aside to do what is best for us. Other parents may deny what is happening and try to put us in an adult role, which adds to our harm.

Consequences as Adults
The majority of adults from dysfunctional families find it difficult or impossible to trust people, especially in close relationships. Since they were often emotionally abandoned by one or both parents, they are terrified of being abandoned as adults. Loving someone makes them feel vulnerable, which is very frightening. To avoid this fear and anxiety, they often keep their feelings inside and don’t share who they really are with their partner.

If there is a problem or conflict they don’t talk about it—why would they? They have never seen two mature adults fight fair, so they don’t believe that it is possible. If they make it to therapy, it’s usually because they’re dragged in by their partner. Due to their fear of abandonment, they question their partner constantly about fidelity, even when they have no reason to. This often drives the partner away.

Most adult children of addicts have very lopsided relationships. People with codependency feel responsible for everyone who needs help and tend to attract friends and lovers who under-function. They are totally focused on everyone’s needs but their own, which keeps them from knowing themselves and what they need and want. Self-care is a foreign language. They work very hard and then feel hurt, resentful, and used.

People with codependency constantly question their own judgment. Some may check frequently with others. In therapy, they tend to ask me often if certain behaviors are normal. This lack of confidence in their judgment comes from the hideous scenes that happened in their family: where a parent was drunk, had a manic episode, or some similar incident, and the next day the family behaved as though it never happened.

People with codependency can struggle with self-esteem and feel chronically inadequate. They set impossible goals for themselves and then refuse help, which they see as weak or shameful. They often feel overwhelmed but keep it a secret so that nobody knows they’re suffering until they burst at the seams. Often, this is the crisis that first gets them to a therapist. They may be trying to juggle a ridiculously impossible schedule: they may work full time, go to school full time, have several children, and a dysfunctional partner to take care of. Often, they don’t realize how hectic their own life is, because they never think about it. They are too preoccupied with other people’s lives.

© Copyright 2010 by Joyce Henley, MSW, LCSW, CEAP, SAP. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sam

    September 24th, 2010 at 3:16 PM

    How does it affect us as adults? It screws us up that is what it does. Think baout grwoing up in this as a kid and how hellish that would make your life.

  • irene

    September 25th, 2010 at 12:06 PM

    My father was a horrible drinker, an alcoholic so I had a very hard time growing up and even as an adult of learning that people can drink and have a few without getting violent. I just always asumed that everyone was going to be like him.

  • Stacy t

    September 25th, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    Problems experienced in family life during the childhood can be very serious because what we see and experience in our family in our childhood actually sets the tone for the rest of our lives. We will start to think that it is the way every family needs to behave and will end up following the wrong path.

  • tabitha M

    September 26th, 2010 at 4:55 AM

    You are right,irene. These kind of experiences can often give us prejudices that are hard to get rid of.
    It makes us believe that things are not going to improve and even when they do we look at it with suspicion and also at the people involved.

  • Cecil

    September 26th, 2010 at 6:32 AM

    You make such a good point Stacy t because so much of what we learn about interacting with others is taught from us at a very early age by our own family members. This is how we pick up on our cues about how to behave, the way that we talk, and the ways that we then turn around and treat other people. Adults with any sense know this and try to set a good example for their kids but alcoholics drink any little bit of sense that they had away and do not think about what they are soing to others, only how the next drink is going to make them feel and where they are going to get it from.

  • MIA

    September 26th, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    How can someone who suffered as a child in his family possibly have a normal family life as an adult?

    How can someone be a good and ideal mother or father after having seen his or her own mother or father behave in a very different manner?

    How does one learn to deal with their kids if their own parents were either too restrictive or did not bother about them at all?

  • Joyce McLeod Henley

    September 27th, 2010 at 12:31 PM

    Mia, you don’t have to suffer alone anymore. This is such a common issue that there is alot of help out there. You can do to Al-Anon if have or had a relationship with anyone who has or had a pproblem with alcohol. If your company has an EAP you can go there. You can see a therapist through your insurance if you prefer. I love working with co-dependents. So many have made spectacular recoveries. You can also get a book. Claudia Black, Melodie Beatty and Sharon Wegscheider are some of the authors. Good luck and write back.

  • Lydia

    July 19th, 2013 at 9:17 AM

    My father and aunt were abused by their alcoholic father. I often wondered how that affected me, my siblings, and my cousins and how we have relationships. Even though he was not abusive, he didn’t show emotions, never said he loved us, cold. He was not loving towards any one, often sarcastic.

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