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Trauma Is Not Codependency: Learning the Difference

When a partner gets into recovery from an addictive disorder all sorts of emotions tend to come to the surface. These emotions may at times feel in opposition. Hope hovers over fear. Relief becomes riddled with anger. Confidence morphs into uncertainty. If you have experienced these swings then you know how overwhelming it is when emotions rapidly change from one feeling to another.

It is normal to feel confused about emotions in early recovery and beyond

Reactions to Triggers are Involuntary

Triggers can seemingly come out of nowhere. You may think that something is wrong with you, perhaps feeling like you are crazy. It may very well be that your partner is experiencing the same emotional roller coaster. At times you feel gratitude for recovery. Other times those feelings blend into struggling with all the newness and uncertainty of early recovery.

  • “How am I am going to get through this?”
  • “What happens next?”
  • “How do I manage all these emotions in recovery?”
  • “My relationship? I can’t even go there!”
The emotional twists & turns of early recovery

As partners experience these swings with the ups and downs, twists and turns in their emotional life, an awareness can creep in with increasing anxiety.

“Does this mean I am dysfunctional and sick?” People in early recovery have asked me, “Do you think I am bipolar?” “What’s wrong with me?” “I should be grateful and relieved and sometimes I am. Other times I feel sad, angry and fearful”.

Emotional Relapse?

Sometimes these feelings are explained as an “emotional relapse”, that is to say regression into an unhealthy emotional state. The risk for self-destructive behavior or relapse in addictive behaviors is high and can undermine recovery and self-esteem. This state can very well trigger old negative patterns.

For the non-addicted partner emotional relapse may be found emotions associated codependency. Old patterns may indeed emerge, for example, increased efforts to exert control. Perhaps enabling or perfectionism once again become a central focus. Low self-esteem coupled with putting one’s own needs last will give rise to increasing anger and frustration.

Consequently, it is important to figure out what emotions are being experienced and whether there is a risk of these emotions leading to relapse. Managing emotions in sobriety is different and challenging.

Self-care for both partners may be a new mind-set. Recognizing one’s own needs and the importance of caring for self means asking for support and help. This is not always easy. Start with giving yourself permission to reach out.

Not All Strong Emotions Are Unhealthy

However, not all strong negative emotions related to addiction and recovery are signs of unhealthy emotions. These feelings may have nothing to do with an emotional relapse, or with codependency. Sometimes these feelings are related to re-experiencing traumatic feelings triggered by emotional memories of the addiction. This is as true for the person with the addictive disorder as it is for the partner.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has long been associated with members of the military returning from the battlefield, or victims of natural disasters or physical or sexual violence. However, chronic trauma that is often experienced with severe addiction, can leave a person vulnerable to the symptoms of PTSD. (For more information on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (visit The National Institute of Mental Health )

The trauma of recovery is an emerging concept that accounts for the stresses of change and uncertainty of a new way of life. Unfortunately, recovery is often overlooked as a source of trauma for individuals and couples.

Identifying Symptoms from Trauma

Understanding Triggers – Internal & External

  1. Re-experiencing symptoms:

    flashbacks, memories, reliving the trauma, physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating, experiencing bad dreams and frightening thoughts. Triggers can happen suddenly and in full force.

  2. Avoidance symptoms:

    feeling emotionally numb, strong guilt, depression, or worry. Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. Avoidance may be reflected in isolation, or immersing oneself in various activities like binge Netflix episodes, work, or social media to distract from and avoid feelings.

  3. Hyperarousal symptoms:

    feeling on edge and being alert , feeling stressed, angry outbursts. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating. Being on alert may be fairly constant and/or are triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event.

It’s normal and understandable to have some of these symptoms after dangerous or traumatic events. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks (Acute Stress Disorder). When the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they might reflect PTSD. Or similarly, reflect trauma symptoms that fall on the continuum somewhere before that level of severity. Some people with PTSD may not show any symptoms for weeks or months.

Sorting Emotions

Distinguishing between codependency and PTSD helps us to put the feelings in the right box. It helps to understand what is happening with emotions. Don’t assume that feeling triggered, vigilant, or avoidant reflects a codependent relapse. Consider another possibility. Perhaps these feelings and behaviors are related to addiction-related trauma.

In the last 15-20 years addiction science has provided tremendous gains in understanding addiction as a brain disease. Therefore, as a result, beliefs and attitudes about addiction are finally shifting away from the “moral weakness” model of addiction.

Similarly, a better understanding of PTSD challenges the automatic label of codependency often assigned partners. Negative self-labels that otherwise might follow a codependent identity, now can be challenged with normalizing feelings and behaviors. As a result of identifying trauma, new behaviors and strategies can emerge to better integrate recovery.

Steps to Consider

Individual support for trauma can help

If you think you may be experiencing trauma reactions consider contacting a therapist familiar with addiction treatment and recovery. Effective help starts with assessment. Early-life trauma can get activated during addiction and during recovery. A mental health professional for individual or relationship therapy could help with the sorting out process.

There is a complicated relationship between trauma and substance use disorders. It can be a chicken or the egg dilemma. Sometimes people use substances to deal with trauma in their life. Eventually this leads to addiction. Addiction creates more trauma, which reinforces using. It becomes very circular.

Other times people that do not have a trauma history develop an addiction and the impact from the trauma of addiction and recovery needs to be attended to.

In addition to professional help, there are many groups and communities available for support. Peers who can relate because of their own related experience form these communities. As a result, there are safe places to give and receive support. (Consider finding support in mutual aid groups). In conclusion, you are not alone.

Any thoughts? Please leave your comments and reactions below.

Watch for future articles: Trauma and Addiction Recovery. Second-hand Addiction: Re-thinking Codependency

Dr. Robert Navarra

Robert Navarra, PsyD, LMFT, MAC, is a Master Certified Gottman Therapist, Trainer, and Speaker, and an author. He is is certified as Master Addiction Counselor and specializes in treating and researching couples in recovery from addictive disorders. Dr. Navarra created "Roadmap for the Journey: A Workshop for Couples Embracing Recovery" and "Couples and Addiction Recovery: A Gottman Approach for Therapists, Counselors, and Addiction Professionals".

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