How to detach from addicted loved ones
By Michael C. Gordon, MD

Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease in which the afflicted individual has lost control of his or her use of mood-altering substances or behaviors. In most cases of drug or alcohol addiction, recovery is only possible with total and permanent abstinence from all chemical substances. Codependency, on the other hand, is a disorder in which an individual has become preoccupied with the addictive or otherwise dysfunctional behavior of a close friend or loved one. Codependency recovery also requires total abstinence in the form of detachment.

Detachment is the cognitive separation of the addict from the addictive behaviors and selectively responding to the person rather than those behaviors. It acknowledges one’s own lack of control of the other person’s addictive behaviors — an acceptance that if the codependent cannot control the behavior, he or she might as well leave it with the addict. The codependent spouse might worry that the addict will get intoxicated at exactly the most inopportune time. In codependency recovery, he or she learns this worry itself exists only in the mind.

Most people initially find the concept of detachment somewhere between bewildering and absurd. If they don’t worry about the addict, who will? They can’t just ignore the problem and act as though nothing is wrong. What if the addictive behaviors have a direct impact on the codependent (e.g. physical abuse, spending the paycheck on drugs or alcohol)? It takes most people several weeks or months to fully grasp the part they play in their own problem of codependency. Once they recognize their role in the addiction, however, they are on the road to codependency recovery.

Similar to a recovering addict, a recovering codependent requires a great deal of support and help, whether through their own 12-Step program such as Al-Anon, or through professional help, or both. Typically the denial of the codependent is greater than that of the addict because it appears so obvious to the codependent that the problem exists outside of oneself. “I don’t have a problem. He is the one with the problem. I will be fine if he gets himself straightened out.”

Addiction is a disease that affects the entire family and thus, recovery is a family affair. Often those closest to the addict are just as sick (or more so in their own way) as their addicted loved one. An essential ingredient in this situation is denial, an ego defense mechanism that prevents people from consciously acknowledging painful reality. And just as the addict is in denial, so might be the spouse or other close family member.

The addict may experience two stages of denial. The first stage is failure to recognize that alcohol/drugs are the problem. Instead, alcohol/drugs are seen as a necessary resource to utilize in order to cope with life, rather than a problem itself. Once this level of denial is broken, the addict then moves to the second stage: He or she believes that although a substance abuse problem exists, help is unnecessary. This also must be broken, or the addict is doomed to drink or use again.

Family members encounter only one stage of denial: failing to acknowledge that alcohol/drugs have become a problem in their own lives. For example, it is obvious to the husband that his wife has a problem with alcohol. His problem is her drinking and associated behaviors. He thinks that if only his spouse would quit drinking then everything would be all right. So, he devotes all his efforts to problem-solving and attempting to change her behaviors. The spouse may not realize that his wife is struggling with alcoholism and in fact, could become offended if someone suggested such a thing. Drinking may not be recognized as an illness.

In many respects, codependency recovery is more difficult than addiction recovery. Oftentimes, codependent behavior is established during childhood, growing up in a dysfunctional family system. The denial is more deeply entrenched. Furthermore, the goal of codependency recovery is not as clear. The addict is not confused about whether or not he or she is drinking/using — it is objective and measurable. However, the codependent can easily fall into a relapse of worry, resentment, bitterness, self-pity, or other negative emotions before he or she realizes what has happened.

There may be additional gray areas for the codependent. Where, for instance, do legitimate concern end and obsessive worry begin? The challenge is considerable and cannot be managed alone. Fortunately, there is an abundance of helpful literature on the subject, support groups abound, and well-trained, knowledgeable counselors and therapists are available to assist in the codependency recovery process. Clergy members also can serve as a beneficial resource, drawing on their religious training and education in mental health difficulties.

All too often, the codependent is the family member in the most emotional pain. Talking to a professional who understands the disease of addiction and has a passion for helping others find healing is highly recommended. This can be the beginning of recovery not just for the codependent, but for the entire family as well.

Michael C. Gordon, MD has practiced addiction medicine since 1971. His current practice includes patient evaluation, individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and medication management. Dr. Gordon is the founder of The Atlanta Center for Pain and Addiction Management, an evaluation and treatment program for people with both chronic pain and substance abuse disorders, located in Smyrna, Georgia. For more information, call (770) 801-0980 or visit