Change the codependent dynamic in abusive relationships

Many codependents are in abusive relationships with addicts or people with mental illness. Codependency symptoms foster dysfunctional dynamics in these relationships, which in turn worsen codependency symptoms. This makes sense when we consider the definition of codependency and that codependents have a “lost self,” in the sense that their thinking and behavior revolve around another person.

Due to dysfunctional parenting, codependents have lost touch with their ability to respond to their internal cues. They have come to believe that they are inferior and that what they feel, think, need and/or want is not important. This is his hidden shame. As a result, they have the unconscious belief that they don’t really deserve to be loved simply for who they are, but that they have to earn love. This causes basic insecurity and fear of being abandoned.

Codependency originates in childhood, including core symptoms of shame (including low self-esteem, denial, dependency control including nurturing, dysfunctional communication, and dysfunctional boundaries. How do these traits set the stage for Painful Relationships is explained in Conquering Shame and Codependency.

The role of codependency in relationships

Because many codependents have become alienated from their feelings, the drama of an intimate relationship with someone addicted or with a mental disorder can feel energizing or familiar if your childhood was similar. Also, addicts and people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) are often charismatic and romantic. They can be seductive and shower their codependent partner with praise, promises, and gestures of love. Codependents crave love and connection, and being desired makes them feel loved. But their dependency and low self-esteem make them susceptible to seduction, and they mistake romance for true love.

Codependents cope with fears of criticism, rejection, and abandonment by giving, understanding, pleasing, and helping. Your partner defines the relationship, and you go together to get along and maintain it. They admire the boldness, conviction, and perceived strength of a narcissist (qualities they themselves lack) and enjoy being in a supportive role and feeling cared for. With addicts and people with BPD, they often play the role of helper and caretaker. To the codependent, being needed feels like love. It increases their self-esteem and assures them that they will never be abandoned. However, addicts and people with NPD and BPD feel deep shame and project their inner demons onto the very individual who loves them and is trying to help them.

The reactive role of codependents amplifies their focus on their partner, while hiding who they are. They try more and more to control the uncontrollable, they sacrifice and try harder to please and be accepted. Although they were idealized at first, they are now devalued. A person with BPD wavers between idealizing-caring behavior and devaluing-rejection behavior. Instead of acting needy like someone with BPD, people with NPD act needlessly and can be remote and emotionally cold. Some may show sympathy towards their partner, while others are continually critical and dismissive. The more withheld or inconsistent love is, the more codependents try to win it, falling into the trap of giving their self-esteem and sense of well-being to their partner. They never feel good enough, which reinforces their hidden shame.

How Abusive Relationships Make Codependency Worse

This unspoken contract works for a while because codependents provide security and stability to an emotionally insecure addict or partner with BPD and provide the warmth and connection that a partner with NPD lacks. But because of their own insecurities and weak boundaries, codependents absorb blame, blame, and shame from their abusers. They feel powerless to help and satisfy their partner, guilty of the “mistakes” they are accused of, and resentful that their efforts are not appreciated and fail. As the relationship deteriorates, so does the codependent’s sense of identity.

All of the symptoms of codependency contribute to the dysfunctional relationship, which, if left untreated, worsens over time. As codependents move further away from themselves and enter the later stages of their illness. The very traits that made the relationship work become their downfall.

The dynamic in abusive relationships increases codependents’ stress and increases their attempts to appease and help their partner. The reality of the addicted or personality disordered individual begins to infect the codependents’ self-concept and perception of reality as well. Their self-esteem drops and they become more anxious and exhausted trying to defuse a crisis, avoid abuse, and hold the relationship together.

While trying to fit in and control another person to make them feel better, codependents shy away from real solutions. They have the mistaken belief that they are responsible for their partner’s feelings and needs, while ignoring their own. Your behavior reinforces your partner’s false belief that they are to blame and are responsible for your addiction and pain. The longer codependents do this, the worse things get. Both deny their own pain and prevent their partner from taking responsibility for their behavior, needs, and feelings, and from getting help. This is called “enabling”. Codependents’ denial blinds them to the fact that their beliefs and behavior contribute to their unhappiness and that they have options to change.

Changing the dynamic in abusive relationships

The answer is to do the exact opposite of what comes naturally to the codependent. I write from my personal and professional experience. It is difficult, indeed impossible, to change the dynamic in abusive relationships without external support.

The first and most important thing is to see another vision of reality, because couples are isolated and confused by the attacks, threats and biased reality of addicts or people with BPD or NPD. It’s important to learn as much as you can about addiction and these disorders, as well as about codependency. Change doesn’t really begin until the couple is focused on their own recovery, not on changing the other person, over whom they are essentially powerless. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any power or choice, but it is about their own actions and lives.

Learning about addiction, BPD and NPT and accepting these truths on a deep level allows them to separate and not react to what someone else decides to throw at them just because they feel uncomfortable in their own skin. They begin to realize that although their words may hurt, they are not true. Letting go does not require leaving or being distant. It is like having an invisible and protective force field. Instead of reacting, they learn to honor what they need, feel, and want. They seek to meet the needs of people who are safe and supportive. As their self-esteem grows, they learn to be assertive. Their
limits improve, and they ask for what they want and put limits on what they don’t want.

This is not easy, but his courage grows in recovery. They may become strong enough to leave or insist that our partner get treatment. Even if they don’t, they find that their lives are happier, because they have taken charge of their own self-esteem and sense of well-being.

Parenting a child with BPD or NPD

Because codependents lack communication skills and boundaries, parents react to their troubled child in unhelpful ways. Your son has been used to meeting demands and running the show, often without any responsibility. All children need limits with consistent consequences, especially those with NPD and BPD. Sometimes parents explode with frustration, which makes them feel guilty and embarrasses their child. To compensate, they might give in on a limit, which would make things worse. Punishment and consequences should never be administered in anger, but in a practical tone, and should ideally be related to the offence; eg, “If you drop food, you should clean it up (or leave the table).”

Children need support and their feelings reflected, but not indulged. They especially need to be taught empathy and the impact of their behavior on others. It is important to model this and respect their feelings. Let them know that their actions affect other people in positive or negative ways. For example: “How would you feel if your friend stole your toy? Would you be hurt or angry? What happens when your friend shares a toy? When you take the toy away from your friend, he won’t want to play with you.” Children with BPD need to learn self-soothing techniques and be guided to take gradual steps toward independence and self-sufficiency.

Parents underestimate the power and influence they have to insist that their children behave well, get advice, complete chores or look for a job. They are often afraid that their child with BPD will die or commit suicide. Their fears make them easier to manipulate. By not reacting, children will realize that their manipulative tactics are no longer working. However, it takes great courage for parents to stand firm against all odds. It is not easy to stay calm and love a child who constantly disobeys, threatens and says cruel things. External support is essential. If it’s addiction, find an appropriate meeting for family members of substance abusers.

© 2019 Darlene Lancer

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