Primary VS Secondary Codependency

“At its heart, Codependency is a set of behaviors developed to manage the anxiety that comes when our primary attachments are formed with people who are inconsistent or unavailable in their response to us.”

~Mary Crocker Cook, Awakening Hope: a Developmental, Behavioral, Biological Approach to Codependency Treatment

One of the consequences of addiction is codependent loved ones —typically, long-suffering spouses and partners.

In their desperate efforts to “rescue” or “fix” their addict or alcoholic, the frantic family member will often begin to lose their own identity. They neglect their own needs and responsibilities. Their focus on the other person becomes THEIR addiction,  to the point that they are just as sick as the substance abuser.

Or even sicker.

Two Types of Codependency

In The Selfish Brain: Learning from Addiction, the author defined two different types of codependency:

  • Primary Codependency – This is the codependency that develops when a child is exposed to frequent substance abuse by a family member. A pattern of traumatic experiences as a child creates an entirely separate disorder, with symptoms that often continue well into adulthood.
  • Secondary Codependency – This kind of codependency develops during adulthood, after exposure to a loved one with an addictive disorder. Symptoms of secondary codependency manifest after a chronic pattern of exposure.

What Are the Differences between the Two Types of Codependency?

Research suggests that up to 45% of Americans have been exposed to alcoholism within their family. This includes nearly 27 million children.

Primary codependents face numerous challenges –

  • As adults, children of substance abusers are much more likely to also struggle with addiction.
  • Additionally, they are also more likely to marry an addict or alcoholic.
  • They have a learned tendency of submissiveness and emotional suppression.
  • They find it difficult to trust or be intimate with others.
  • They have control issues.
  • Typically have another co-occurring psychological disorder, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

Secondary codependents after adult exposure suffer from the same issues someone exposed as a child, with one critical difference.

Adult exposure results in psychological and emotional difficulties that are learned responses that are easier to correct than the maladaptive behaviors ingrained during childhood.

Signs of Codependency

“Our anxiety-based responses to life can include over-reactivity, image management, unrealistic beliefs about our limits, and attempts to control the reality of others to the point where we lose our boundaries, self-esteem, and even our own reality.”

~Mary Crocker Cook, Awakening Hope: a Developmental, Behavioral, Biological Approach to Codependency Treatment

Like other emotional/psychological problems, codependency manifests in different ways, depending upon the individual. Although they may not suffer every one of these symptoms, anyone exhibiting several may need professional help.

  • Hiding feelings
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Submissiveness
  • Overly-compliant
  • Fearful of negative reactions
  • Practicing emotional blackmail
  • Avoidance of physical intimacy
  • Extreme emotional reaction to the other person’s behaviors – excessive anger, guilt, shame, depression, etc.
  • Determining self-worth by their relationship
  • Constantly seeking the approval of others
  • Spending so much their time, energy and resources to “rescue” or “fix” the ddict that they neglect their own needs
  • Making excuses or covering up for the addict
  • Taking the blame as the cause for the addiction
  • Avoiding confrontation

Healing from Codependency

Getting well is not about blaming someone else for one’s problems; it is about living honest lives filled with loving connections to other people…”

~ Betty Ford

As with addiction, codependence is not a problem that can be addressed on one’s own. Professional and specialized professional care is the best way to regain your good mental health.

For some people, counseling for past emotional trauma is the right solution. For others, behavioral therapy to learn better, more positive responses is the right choice.

Many codependent people also find support in 12-Step fellowship groups like Al-Anon or Narc-Anon. Discovering that they are not alone in their pain helps immensely.

Since 1978, Chapman House Treatment Centers has helped individuals and families in crisis due to substance abuse or mental health issues. By using a evidence-based treatment strategy that focuses on the unique needs of your family, Chapman House is there to guide your family as your loved ones regain their sobriety and you all regain your emotional balance.





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