By Gina Marchando, DMFT, LMFT, CHT, CIT The link between early childhood trauma and later…
Trauma and Co-Dependency
Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic in which one person’s needs are secondary to another’s. Typically, codependency occurs when true intimacy does not. It is commonly developed in relationships with an addicted individual, but also develops in other relationships with people who are somehow emotionally unavailable. Relationships in which there is some type of traumatic bond, such as those involving physical, sexual or emotional abuse, can also create codependency in the victim.
The characteristics of codependency are behaviors that govern interactions, feelings about oneself and others and beliefs about oneself and others. Codependents are typically passive and submissive rather than active or assertive in their interactions. They seek others’ approval, try to appease others and care for others in an attempt to avoid conflict, rejection and abandonment. Consequently, these relationship ‘goals’ involve poor interpersonal boundaries and putting one’s own needs, desires and feelings aside. Relationships are governed by the needs and desires of others who are often believed to be more important or more competent.
Feelings of Codependency and Related Behaviors
Individuals who use codependent behaviors have many chronic negative feelings. These include feelings of insecurity, incompetency, anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, helplessness, hopelessness and emptiness. Additionally, there is often a sense of impending doom and the need to ward it off by engaging in compulsive behavior. Although codependents typically feel compelled to take some sort of action to ‘fix’ problems, compulsive behaviors tend to create other problems for them since their efforts to help others can be misguided and ineffective. Often codependents will attempt to solve problems for others that can only be solved by others taking personal responsibility. This is particularly true when codependents attempt, for example, to control another’s substance use or similar behavior.
Many codependents are active to the point of chronic fatigue and exhaustion. Compelled by a need to care for others and manage their own anxiety and emotions, they are routinely overly responsible. Consequently, they do not attend to their own basic needs for rest, relaxation and stress management. Feelings of incompetency, helplessness and hopelessness can become pervasive and interfere with the pursuit of appropriate life goals.
Codependency as Trauma
Codependency takes its toll in all areas of one’s life. A prolonged period of poor self-care and focusing upon the needs of others creates emotional, behavioral and psychological problems in all relationships. Codependency in the family can affect occupational and social functioning outside the home as the interpersonal boundaries of codependents manifest there as well. Additionally, many physical problems can result from codependent relationships and behaviors since poor self-care involves inadequate stress management and ineffective management of one’s emotional health. It is not unusual, for example, that codependents develop substance disorders, eating disorders and other compulsive behaviors that cause significant problems in all relationships and all realms of daily life. Consequently, codependents may incur significant losses and missed opportunities. Normal social, emotional and psychological development can be interrupted making the successful completion of personal goals unattainable.
Codependency makes one vulnerable to forming relationships of abuse and staying in them after abuse develops. Self-neglect, poor boundaries and poor self-esteem can create a tolerance for maltreatment and an acceptance of the inappropriate behavior of others. Passivity, self-doubt and the tendency to internalize blame can cause codependents to feel responsible for their own victimization. Many codependents rationalize their abusers’ behavior by assuming responsibility for it. They then attempt to ‘control’ the abuse by changing themselves. Consequently, the abusers’ own dysfunction is minimized, justified and denied.
Codependency and Self-sabotage
People with codependent behaviors can be significantly at risk for sabotaging their own life goals. They may engage in self-defeating or self-harming behaviors to manage the anxiety, depression, emptiness and other such feelings that result from codependency. Substance use, eating disorders, sexual acting out and intentional self-injury are some of the high risk behaviors that may be used to combat the negative inner experience of codependency. Self-hatred and depression, both the possible results of chronic codependency, can result in depression and even suicidality.
Similarly, codependency may lead some to have a series of dysfunctional relationships throughout their lives in which their unhealthy behaviors cause chronic difficulties in functioning that derail ambitions, hopes, dreams and achievements. Participating in unhealthy relationships naturally results in dissatisfying life experiences, however some become involved with controlling, manipulative or abusive individuals that cause emotional, psychological and physical harm to themselves and other family members.