When we hear the term “codependency,” our first reaction might not be to take it so seriously. That’s because, until recently, there wasn’t much awareness around this issue. Codependency wasn’t widely talked about, even among treatment professionals. And even those who did address this often had a somewhat narrow view of what it is. But the truth is, codependency is a severe problem that has dangerous consequences, just like any other addiction or mental health disorder. And at The Sanctuary, we see clients facing the very significant consequences of this all the time.
If you regularly find yourself in codependent relationships, you might even notice a pattern repeating. But even so, you might feel incapable of breaking free of it. This is because codependency is often deeply rooted in trauma.
The causes of your codependency may be so deep that we’re not even consciously aware of them – and that’s normal. Understanding your patterns and what’s causing them is the first step in overcoming them. And The Sanctuary’s empowering holistic codependency treatment program is designed to help you do just that.
In this article, we’ll take a look at:
- What codependency is
- How it might show up in your life
- Why it always creates the same problems in relationships
- Its origins in early childhood trauma
- Why there’s no reason to blame yourself
- How healthy a support network can help
- What we do to empower our clients to heal from codependency and trauma
What is Codependency?
In the classical sense, codependency is often thought of as continually putting others’ needs in front of your own. Examples of this include extreme people-pleasing and martyrdom. And yes, it can look like all of those things. But it’s also so much more than that.
Codependency involves doing things that are harmful to yourself in order to feel loved. This can look like staying in toxic relationships, letting others violate your boundaries or continually looking to others for your self-worth. It often arises from trauma, because being traumatized affects our ability to feel safe. And this prevents us from having the kind of secure relationships that truly nourish us because we receive mixed signals about how love should feel. These imprints from early childhood, therefore, affect how we show up – and what partners we choose – in intimate relationships as we get older.
What Codependency Looks Like
Everyone expresses trauma differently. But codependency is detrimental to the emotional health and wellbeing of everyone who experiences it. If you’re codependent, you may:
- Have a hard time saying “no”
- Lack a healthy sense of boundaries
- Feel unable to advocate for your own needs
- Allow people to treat you poorly
- Suffer from low self-worth
- Have seemingly unrelated depression or anxiety
Being in a codependent relationship takes a huge toll on your energy. You may spend so much time managing the lives of others that you have nothing left for yourself. It’s not uncommon for this to eventually manifest as a physical illness. And when our own life force is constantly being drained, we’re setting the stage for depression, anxiety, addiction, and more. That’s why codependency so commonly co-occurs with addiction and other mental health issues.
Codependency often has to do with a fear of abandonment. The inability of those who struggle with codependency to set and maintain healthy boundaries can enable verbal, emotional, physical abuse. But many people become addicted to their partners and find it impossible to leave, even when abuse is taking place.
Note: If you think you may be in an abusive relationship, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help you identify abuse, make a plan for your safety and get help. You can call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788 to talk with a trained advocate about your situation.
Codependency in Partnerships
People who are living out patterns of codependency are more likely to end up with narcissistic or emotionally unavailable partners. They may often feel intense “connections” with people who seem wounded and in need of their help. And once they’re in these relationships, they may find themselves preoccupied with trying to help their partner overcome their challenges. These can include problems like financial issues, not being able to maintain a steady job or living situation, or mental health problems like depression and addiction.
“In a romantic relationship,” says clinical psychologist and trauma expert Dr. Moreen Rubin, “codependency looks like an addiction to helping your partner improve themselves, whether they seem to want your help or not.”
If you’re in this type of relationship, you may also find yourself chalking everything up to your partner’s childhood trauma, without acknowledging their responsibility for their actions or giving equal consideration to your own needs.
Giving everything of yourself to try to make the relationship work can leave you confused, exhausted, and out of touch with yourself. All of this sets up a dynamic in which you can be more easily manipulated. Some people refer to this dynamic as “relationship addiction,” and it’s based on a phenomenon called trauma bonding.
What is Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding can be defined as, “when one partner misuses feelings of fear, excitement, or sexual attraction to trap another partner in an unhealthy relationship, typically an intimate one.”
Trauma bonding is what allows people to love and trust partners who are, in fact, abusive. This happens because initially, this person may make you feel loved and offer a sense of deep connection. But once this strong attachment is formed, their behavior may become emotionally, psychologically, or physically harmful. And you finally become resentful and attempt to pull away, they use good behavior and false promises to draw you back in. Each time this cycle repeats, and you stay in the relationship despite abusive behavior, the trauma bond is strengthened. And once this strong attachment is formed, you’re more willing to overlook the extent of the abuse.
Trauma bonds explain the addictive aspect of abusive relationships:
“Even though you may no longer feel any affection, trust, love, or attraction to your partner, you still turn to them for care and support. When you do get those things, your brain makes chemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, and others that help strengthen the bond with your partner.”
As we’ll see, this codependent cycle is actually a survival strategy, which first develops in early childhood.
Codependency and Early Childhood Trauma
When we incur abuse at a young age, we learn that love is not nurturing or supportive. We get the wrong message about what love and relationships are, and we become energetically disoriented. This skews our sense of boundaries: what is okay for us, what we need, and what we deserve.
Codependency can develop as a result of unmet childhood needs. “When your needs are unmet in childhood you are likely to think there is something wrong with you,” says clinical social worker and therapist Michelle Halle. As a result, “[You] may seek relief from these thoughts and feelings by doing things for others so that [you] will receive praise, recognition, or affection… You look for ways to help others, and they reward you with praise in return. In this way, you come to depend on others for your sense of self-worth.”
In a sense, codependency can be seen as an attempt to heal from growing up with a lack of emotional support. It’s not uncommon for adults to look for relationships to fulfill this deep-seated need for security and connection. And while there’s nothing wrong with wanting this, it becomes dangerous when you pay for it with your emotional safety and wellbeing.
With a narcissistic or otherwise unavailable parent, children don’t feel loved and nurtured all the time – only as a reward for good behavior. They get the message that they don’t deserve love just for being, but for doing something pleasing. This compromises their intrinsic sense of self-worth. And when that happens, it makes room for toxicity in adult relationships, because we don’t have a clear sense of what we deserve, what’s safe, and what’s okay.
It’s Not Your Fault
It can be hard to face the realities of codependency. But it’s important to remember that just because we play an active role in our relationship doesn’t mean that abuse is our fault. Codependency is a response to early traumatic experiences, and there was a time in your life when these behaviors worked for you. As marriage and family therapist and codependency expert Darlene Lancer says:
“Codependency is more than a relationship problem. Wounds of codependency affect our psyche and individual development. Make no mistake. It’s to no fault of our own. Codependency is adaptive and helped us survive growing up in a dysfunctional family system. But that change cost us our individuality, authenticity, and our future quality of life.”
But the truth is, you are not a child anymore, you’re an adult with a lifetime of experience. And you were made for so much more than surviving – you deserve to thrive. Ultimately, those who heal from codependency find that realizing how much choice and agency they have empowers them to take back control of their lives.
Why it’s Important to Build Healthy Support Networks
While codependency leads to damaging relationships, safe, secure relationships can actually help us build resilience and recover from trauma. Humans are social creatures. We thrive in community. And when we have a reliable support network, that support reminds us we’re not alone as we do the challenging work of moving past our trauma.
This is especially important if you’re leaving an addictive relationship. That’s because the nature of trauma bonding means your partner will continually use their tools of manipulation to bring you back under their control. In this crucial moment, your support network is key in helping you remember who you are and stick with your decision to break free. This can include people like your therapist, family members (biological or choice), and trusted friends.
At The Sanctuary, making sure you have a strong support network in place is one of the ways we make sure you’re ready for life after treatment.
Healing From Trauma and Codependency at The Sanctuary
Working through trauma can feel very hard. That’s because the nature of trauma itself can make us feel hopeless. And when we can’t picture ourselves ever getting better, we lose our motivation to do the work that healing entails. That’s why, at The Sanctuary, we employ a holistic treatment program that’s designed to identify and treat trauma on all levels of your being.
We take codependency seriously. Our comprehensive program looks at your patterns: where they came from, how your body has adapted to them and where trauma lives in your emotional and physical self. We use powerful techniques to clear the energetic imprints of trauma. And, we give you practical tools for managing your emotional health, setting good boundaries, and recognizing and meeting your own needs. We teach our clients the skills and practices they need to find their voice and step into their personal power.
We’re not your typical rehab. And we don’t treat you as sick or focus on your weaknesses. Instead, our in-depth healing journey helps you develop a stronger sense of self, bring forth your unique gifts and strengths, and reclaim your power.
Our goal for you is that after completing treatment with us, you’ll be able to go back out into the world and be in a relationship with yourself, first and foremost. And once that’s in place, you’ll be better able to have the kind of truly fulfilling intimacy and relationships that you want.
Come discover why one program graduate calls The Sanctuary:
“A place to heal and be recovered. A place where you are affirmed and validated.”
And another calls it:
“A peaceful place to reboot yourself if you’re down on life.”
Contact us today.
Kelley Alexander JD. is the co-director of The Sanctuary at Sedona and has worked over the last decade to develop its innovative Integrative Addiction Recovery Program that has helped hundreds of clients to be recovered from addiction and co-occurring disorders. Through her pioneering work, Kelley and her team at The Sanctuary also work with clients to overcome issues related to codependency, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. A JD and former practicing attorney, Kelley holds a BA in World Religions and has done graduate work in psychology. She is an ordained minister, certified shamanic breathwork facilitator, and a graduate of the Four Winds Healing The Light Body School, the premier energy medicine program founded by Alberto Villoldo. Kelley has also been a student of Dr. Joe Dispenza since 2009. She is a member of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology and the Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies. She is a frequent lecturer at seminars and conferences throughout the United States.