Research-Backed Advice

What’s the Link Between Codependency and Alcoholism?


  • There’s a strong link between codependency and alcoholism, but not every relationship involving alcoholism involves codependency. 
  • The term “codependency” actually comes from the term “chemical dependency.” 
  • Codependency is a behavior and not a diagnosis.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is more common than you may realize, and it doesn’t just affect the person with the disorder. According to a 2010 large nationally representative survey, 28% of people who responded met the DSM-IV criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse or dependence. 

AUD also affects anybody who is in a relationship — romantic or otherwise — with that person. These relationships can be challenging for several reasons. In some cases, codependency can make things even harder.

If you’re in a relationship with a person with AUD, you may wonder if you’re in a codependent relationship.

Below, we dive into defining codependency and how AUD plays a role in codependency.y 

What is codependency?

There’s no clear-cut definition of codependency or a codependent relationship.

However, there are criteria that experts use to identify codependency. 

The Holyoake Codependency Index (HCI) is a 13-item self-report scale that measures codependent traits and identifies three key behaviors that might fall into the category of codependency:

  1. A pattern of unhealthy self-sacrifice.
  2. A need for external validation.
  3. Reactivity in thought and behavior toward a substance-dependent individual.

While HCI has its limitations, it does provide some guidelines for identifying codependency.

Am I in a codependent relationship?

It’s important to note that codependency is a behavior and not a diagnosis. There may not be straight “yes” or “no” answers to the questions below.

If you’re in a relationship with someone with alcohol use disorder (AUD) and wondering if the relationship is codependent, you can begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I sacrifice my needs for my partner’s needs, and does this have unhealthy consequences for either or both of us?
  2. Do I feel like my worth is validated by being needed, as opposed to believing I have an inherent sense of worth?
  3. Do I often feel overwhelmed by my partner’s problematic behavior?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you’re likely in a codependent relationship.

Alcohol use disorder statistics

Almost one-third of the population meets the criteria for a lifetime diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD). And only about a quarter of people with alcohol dependence ever receive treatment. 

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) doesn’t just affect the person with a drinking problem. Evidence of this lies in the fact that millions of friends and family members seek help from Al-Anon, an organization dedicated to supporting those close to someone with AUD. 

Studies show that 81% of Al-Anon members continue their relationship with the alcoholic, and 41% report that their alcoholic continues to drink. 

the Link between codependency and alcoholism?

There’s a direct link between codependency and alcoholism. The term codependent comes from the term chemically dependent, referring to a person with alcohol use disorder (AUD).

People in codependent relationships with alcoholics need to be externally validated by the partner with alcohol use disorder (AUD). They enable AUD behavior but are also negatively affected by it. Caretakers typically find it challenging to set boundaries and to leave codependent relationships. They may find it tough to leave because they see some benefit to the relationship. 

What are the perceived benefits of staying in a relationship with someone who misuses alcohol?

A 2014 study sought to understand reasons for maintaining “alcoholic relationships” by reviewing research on alcoholic family systems, Al-Anon, and other mutual support groups. 

The study identifies six perceived benefits to staying in a relationship with an alcoholic:

  1. It allows the person to sustain their self-identity.
  2. It allows the person to preserve their desired social identity.
  3. It allows the person to uphold religious and cultural values. For example, maintaining the relationship to keep the family unit intact.
  4. It offers the person perceived security, such as protection against financial insecurity, loneliness, or physical vulnerability. 
  5. The long-term relationship offers stability, and staying in it requires less effort than changing or ending things. 
  6. It offers the person some hope. 

What are the costs of staying in a relationship with someone who misuses alcohol?

The 2014 study also identifies six costs of staying in an alcoholic relationship:

  1. physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, and elevated blood pressure
  2. injury, such as domestic violence and accidents
  3. mental health issues, such as anxiety and mood disorders, sleep disorders, and control or addiction disorders
  4. financial consequences, such as household funds diverted to alcohol, legal bills, and hospital bills
  5. legal consequences, such as liability for damage or injury
  6. relational consequences, such as isolation and neglect of friends and social obligations

According to the study, most people in relationships with alcoholics are highly aware of the cost of the relationship. You might understand the costs, but when weighing them against the perceived benefits of the relationship, it’s easy to end up feeling stuck. 

Overcoming codependency

To overcome codependency, you need to work on yourself. Simply leaving your current relationship likely won’t eliminate codependent behaviors. 

Working on your sense of self so that your identity isn’t wrapped up in your partner is crucial. It can be tough to do this alone, though. Consider talking to someone, like an understanding friend or a therapist, who can help determine the root of your codependency. 

The final word

There’s a strong link between codependency and alcoholism. Not all relationships involving alcoholism are codependent, but if you’re in a relationship with a person with AUD, it’s crucial to assess the costs and benefits of being in the relationship to avoid codependent patterns and cultivate the healthiest relationship possible.

If you or someone you know is dealing with SUD, consider reaching out for help. The National Insitute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s alcohol treatment navigator is a good place to start.

Olivia Kelava
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