If you have benefited from the term “codependency” and the literature on it that exists and feel it does a proper job explaining your situation and helping you move past the relationship with the narcissist, this article is not meant to deter you from using it or to downplay the assistance you have received. Rather, I’m speaking out for my own confusion and frustration about how the term is used, as well as for what I’ve heard from others about how it can also have negative consequences if the term isn’t carefully used (e.g., when it is used as a sweeping generalization of all victims of abuse, etc.). I recognize that, just as the term itself can’t speak for everyone for all the reasons I will describe, the ideas in my article, as with many of the theoretical articles I write, may not apply in all situations. I encourage you to read it with an open mind and, as always, I’m open to your thoughts as well. Thank you for reading!
I have a confession to make.
I have a problem with the term codependent and its application to those who are survivors of relationships with narcissists and psychopaths.
I know that some people find the term beneficial, but my problem with the term comes from its use as a blanket term to apply to all victims of relationships with narcissists. I believe that the term is not only largely misused and irrelevant when it comes to survivors of narcissistic abuse, but, worse, can be a particularly damaging word for the survivors.
It’s not unusual to find the term “codependency” used as an explanation for why survivors of domestic violence entered relationships with abusers or stayed with their partners, but narcissistic abuse is a special type of psychological abuse that has unique characteristics that can be obscured by the application of the term codependency. This can make the term not only inaccurate when applied by outsiders to survivors of narcissistic abuse, but also dangerous.
I will write this article in two parts. In Part I, I will break down what my issues are with the term and its application to narcissistic abuse. In Part II, I will describe why it can be so damaging when it is used and propose an alternative and compromise.
The Definition of Codependency is Ambiguous
First, let’s talk briefly about the definition of codependency.
If I asked ten different people what “codependency” is, I’d likely get ten different answers. It’s one of those words that everyone seems to feel as if they have a vague idea what it means because they “know it when they see it,” but it is often used loosely by outsiders to describe people other than themselves.
For the sake of demonstrating my point, here are a few examples of definitions:
- relationship dependency or addiction
- excessive reliance on another person for emotional support, approval or sense of identity
- the enabling of an alcoholic, addict, ill or abusive partner
- taking care of another at the expense of one’s own needs
- getting one’s needs met by solving someone else’s problems
- replication of broken parent-child relationship patterns in adulthood
Some of these things barely seem to even fit together, and, for crying out loud, what do some of them even mean? Do people with codependency enable addicts or are they addicts themselves? Are they self-sacrificing to the point of being a doormat or are they actually just selfishly caretaking out of their own need to be needed? Must they have faulty upbringings, or can people without them be codependent? If codependent people are so deficient that they are reliant on others for approval then why try to get it from someone who can’t provide it very well (e.g., abusers, etc.)?
I do understand that somewhere buried in most of this is an underlying current of unhealthy relationship patterns, however, the vagueness is itself the problem that I have with all this. The “definition” has become so broad that many of these applications can mean anything for an outsider who wishes to shape them into a label and judge someone for being in a relationship with someone who has a real problem.
Ann Smith, who has written two books about codependency, agrees the term is overused and misapplied. “The term became commonplace and evolved into a caricature of a passive victim, compulsive caretaker, controller, or enabler often blamed for causing the problem.” She also writes, ” The truth is that what had been labeled in the past as codependency is actually human beings doing what comes naturally—loving.”
It’s important to remember that codependency is not technically a disorder, nor it is even an agreed-upon psychological term. It was a casual observation included in a book written by a mental health professional in the 1960s and then picked up by the Alcoholics Anonymous literature in the 1970s that found its way into popular culture. It was proposed as a disorder in the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders, but ultimately rejected.
One reason why that might be is because of something that Ariana Jeret describes: it’s a dynamic, something that does not exist except in the presence of a relationship, and diagnoses are not applied to couples or other relationship types– they are applied to individuals.
Why does all this matter?
1. Using the Term “Codependent” to Describe Survivors Ignores the Fact That Narcissists Deliberately Con Victims.
Narcissists operate in the shadows and thrive on ambiguity.
The primary distinguishing feature of narcissistic abuse is that they manipulate their partners into the relationships by creating a false persona, or “mask,” based on the needs and desires of the targeted person.
At the beginning of the relationship, the narcissist will intentionally lie about his or her past, mirror the partner’s likes and dislikes, and make grandiose promises to fast-track the relationship. The narcissist also puts the partner on a pedestal, intentionally “love-bombing” him or her with excessive praise and flattery. All of this customized attention and affection is deliberately designed to elicit trust, vulnerability and intense emotional bonding.
Then once in the relationships, narcissists have a tendency to engage in tactics that intentionally tear down the self-worth of their partners, erode their boundaries, condition them to behave in ways that go against their own best interests, elicit feelings of paranoia and anxiety, and force them to lose their own internal compass for knowing when to trust themselves.
In other words, they become traumatized.
When we begin to use an ambiguous term like “codependency” to describe the victims of people who have taken advantage of others by gaining their confidence only to abuse it, we allow those people to hide their manipulation behind that term by focusing on the victim and shaping their behavior into this amorphos definition, rather than calling out the abuser. It obviously doesn’t matter what traits the victim had, since the definition itself is so vague. We are doing the “devil’s work.”
Using the term codependency to describe all victims overshadows the specific nature of how they were abused and traumatized through intentional deception and manipulation.
2. Codependency Criteria Can Be Confused with Positive Personality Traits that Narcissists Target.
An examination of the criteria that comprise “codependency” pulls up an array of characteristics, some of which appear benign or even positive. Two of the typical criteria offered are people-pleasing and caretaking.
When done at the expense of the self, it is possible to see how either can demonstrate a lack of poor boundaries. Yet, these are often provided without any qualification. What’s wrong with taking care of others or being willing to acquiesce? The implication is that these are negative if done to excess, however, the criteria do not necessarily always specify. What these actually are are personality traits. For example “people-pleasers” may score high on “agreeableness” on personality tests.
This is particularly problematic for victims of narcissistic abuse, because being a “people-pleaser” or “caretaker” is likely to make someone highly desirable to a narcissist. “People-pleasing” can be a euphemism for diplomatic and easygoing. “Caretaking” is a highly laudable trait that can include generosity and willingness to self-sacrifice. These are positive traits that a narcissistic, predatory individual with low empathy would desire in a partner and could find highly exploitable.
The fact that they are exploitable does not make the partner at fault, nor are the traits synonymous with codependency. Yet having them sets up anyone who comes out of a relationship with a narcissist to be labeled as codependent if their basic personality was agreeable, easygoing, or nurturing going in, which it likely was if the narcissist stayed with them for any length of time.
3. The Effects of a Narcissistic Relationship on the Survivor Are Used as Proof of a Codependent Personality.
What is often lost is that someone can be healthy before they enter a relationship and unhealthy after they enter a relationship with a toxic person. If, due to the trauma they endure, they begin to exhibit signs of some of the identified traits of codependency (as shown by these criteria), they can be labeled codependent as if they were codependent all along and that’s what attracted and caused the abuse.
There is no research to support the idea that everyone who enters a toxic relationship does so because they were unhealthy beforehand. Shahidi Arabi writes, “Codependency was a term historically used to describe interactions between addicts and their loved ones, not victims and abusers.
“Dr. Clare Murphy asserts that abuse victims can actually exhibit codependent traits as a result of trauma, not because they are, in fact, codependent. Contrary to popular myth, anyone can be victimized by an abuser – even one with strong boundaries initially, because covert abuse is insidious and unbelievably traumatic…”
In addition, codependency can also be mistaken for trauma bonding. Trauma bonding occurs when someone’s identity has been broken down and their boundaries have been eroded through traumatic experiences that were highly inequitable and resulted in a power imbalance.
To label someone codependent because they were in a relationship with a narcissist is like making the pronouncement that someone was wet after they took a bath. It might be true, but it’s not news. Relationships with narcissists are inevitably toxic and will cause trauma and destructive patterns in anyone.
If you’d like to make the claim that they were wet before they ever stepped into the tub, however, the burden of proof is on you. As previously noted, it isn’t doing anyone any favors for outsiders to claim that victims of narcissistic abuse are codependent as an inherent or ingrained part of their personalities.
In my next article, I’ll describe why and what could be done instead that might be more helpful.