Are Abuse Victims Codependent?
The term codependent is often used to describe the relationship between victims of abuse and their abusers, whether the description is made by a counselor, therapist, friend, or an author. It is easy to find online articles that link codependency and domestic abuse. For example, one article I found is titled, “DOMESTIC ABUSE: C is for Codependency”
Another article titled, “How Does Codependency Play into Domestic Violence” has this to say,
One can easily see how the abused spouse falls into these destructive patterns [of codependency]. Codependency is also progressive. The longer a person stays in a destructive relationship the more codependent they become. . . Usually a wife subconsciously feeds into the behavior of the abuse due to the desperate needs similar to being addicted to a substance; however, in this case it is an addiction to the unhealthy behavior of her abuser. . .
And finally an article titled, Domestic Violence, Part 2, by a marriage and family therapist says,
There is another concept called ‘codependency’ that is also found in battering relationships. Basically, codependency means: ‘I see what is wrong with you and I know how to fix you. I will make you better, or heal you, or bring out your potential. No one understands you like I do. I know all that you need is a little love, my love, and you will blossom and grow into who you truly are.’ What is amazing about the codependency is that both the batterer and the injured are saying this about each other.
But are women who live with abusive husbands really codependent? I use to think I was codependent. I read books that popularized the concept of codependency — books by authors such as Melody Beattie — and I was almost convinced that I was guilty of being codependent. I say almost because part of me was still uncertain, but I didn’t know why. Then I started learning about the mentality and tactics of abusers.
It is time to take a careful examination of the term codependent and how it is applied to abusive relationships before we either label a victim as codependent or accept such a label. Let’s start with the origin of the word codependent.
Origin of term codependent
The term codependent is a relatively recent term, dating back as recent as the 70s. In his article “Commonly Misused Psychology Terms Part 2″, Dr. George Simon explains,
The term codependence came out of the self-help ‘recovery’ literature (based on the 12-step model of addiction treatment) of the 70s and 80s and was originally meant to describe the phenomenon whereby the life of the non-using spouse, partner, or other family member became just as governed by the substance(s) involved as the life of the active substance user. So, in effect, both the user and the non-user were in some way dependent (i.e. co-dependent) upon the same substance(s), even though one was not technically addicted. The concept of ‘enabling’ also came out of this formulation.
Additionally Greg Dear in his paper “Blaming the Victim: Domestic Violence and the Codependency Model” explains that,
the notion that problem drinkers and their partners develop complementary relationship in which each reinforces the pathological needs of the other . . . was developed from a crude and simplistic adaptation of systems theory incorporating aspects of the disturbed personality model which [some researchers] had discredited more than ten years earlier.
So the concept of codependency was never intend to describe the relationship between a battered woman and her abuser rather it originally was meant to describe the relationship between a person with a chemical addiction and other family members affected by that addiction — yet it is a theory that continues to be used by professional and lay people today in spite of the fact that at the time when this theory emerged it was discredited by some.
Characteristics of Codependency or the Effects of Abuse
Some people argue that the abuse victim that they know has so many of the characteristics of codependency, how could she not be? Although CoDA.org (Co-Dependents Anonymous) doesn’t offer a definition of codependency they do provide as a tool to aid in self-evaluation a lengthy list of patterns and characteristics. Here are a few:
- She has difficulty identifying what she is feeling.
- She has difficulty making decisions.
- She harshly judges everything she thinks, says, or does as never “good enough.”
- She does not perceive herself as a lovable or worthwhile person.
- She puts aside her own interests and hobbies in order to do what others want.
- She compromises her own values and integrity to avoid rejection or others’ anger.
When I first read these characteristics I was thrown back into confusion because I could identify with each and I know that other abuse victims have described similar characteristics in themselves. But are these characteristics of codependency or are they the effects of — or responses to — abuse? In her article “Are women who live with abusive partners codependent?”, Dr. Clare Murphy explains how effects of abuse are often erroneously labeled as codependent characteristics:
Research with women shows that the above six characteristics are an effect of experiencing long-term, ongoing, relentless abuse and control. Many male perpetrators degrade and intimidate women into believing they deserve physical violence, sexual violation, verbal abuse, or the forms of punishment.
A tactic of abuse entails brainwashing women into believing they think and feel something other than they actually do. Many domestic violence perpetrators control the decision-making. Many make women wrong for making decisions, or denigrate any decisions made by women. Many male perpetrators enslave women, making demands that she be a more than perfect housekeeper, partner, parent or woman. No human can meet those kinds of demands, hence can never be ‘good enough’. Being degraded several times a day, or several times a week, month after month after month leads to feeling unlovable and unworthy.
Changing her values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger are often consciously chosen strategies of self-preservation used by abused and controlled women. Women I have interviewed would confront the man, avoid the man, lie to get some freedom, be completely honest to try to make him stop controlling them, become violent themselves, retaliate verbally, be passive or silent. Yet these women would secretly harbour knowledge of their true selves, whilst attempting a variety of behaviors — that went against their values — in order to avoid, or stop the abuse. These are not strategies of a codependent person.
The Codependent Abuser
By definition if the victim is codependent then necessarily the abuser is also codependent, which is noted in our earlier quote:
There is another concept called ‘codependency’ that is also found in battering relationships. Basically, codependency means: ‘I see what is wrong with you and I know how to fix you. I will make you better, or heal you, or bring out your potential. No one understands you like I do. I know all that you need is a little love, my love, and you will blossom and grow into who you truly are.’ What is amazing about the codependency is that both the batterer and the injured are saying this about each other. (emphasis mine)
According to this author, the abuser is addicted to improving his target. His ‘need’ is simply to fix her, bring out her potential, so she can blossom. The needy abuser is just guilty of wanting to bring about the best for his poor wife. Yes, it is acknowledged that his methods are wrong, but since, as some argue, those methods are just learned behaviors, it is believed that the abuser can be taught proper methods with the right treatment.
Now let’s compare this belief to ACFJ’s definition of abuse which can be found on the side menu bar:
Abuse is fundamentally a mentality. It is a mindset of entitlement. The abuser sees himself as entitled. He is the center of the world, and he demands that his victim make him the center of her world. His goal is power and control over others. For him, power and control are his natural right, and he feels quite justified in using whatever means are necessary to obtain that power and control. The abuser is not hampered in these efforts by the pangs of a healthy conscience and indeed often lacks a conscience.
How can we reconcile the above belief with ACFJ’s definition of abuse? Simple — we can’t. I’ll let Dr. George Simon explain why. In his book, In Sheep’s Clothing [affiliate link*], Simon describes the relationship between Janice and Bill, a typical victim and abuser relationship. Simon says this about Bill.
Bill is an actively-independent personality and a victimizer. Bill’s actively-independent coping style is reflected in just about everything he does. . .[and] although his tactic of playing the needy husband makes it appear he depends on Janice, his desire to keep her is largely pragmatic. He has substantial wealth and property and doesn’t want a fair divorce settlement. He would rather keep Janice in tow and do all of his philandering on the sly. Make no mistake, Bill is a very independent guy.
When [I was] asked if Bill wasn’t at least to some degree co-dependent on Janice because he fought so hard to not lose her, [I replied] that Bill, as an aggressive personality simply hates to lose. Losing means giving up a position of dominance and power. And no matter what relationship he’s in, Bill seeks to be on top and in control. In any abusive relationship, the other person is never the real object of the aggressor’s desire, the position is. Every time Janice feels empowered enough to even think about leaving, the balance of power is upset. That’s when Bill goes to war. He doesn’t fight to keep the woman he loves, wants, or needs. He fights to stay on top.
The Danger in Applying the concept of Codependency to an Abusive Relationship
Let’s continue to use Janice and Bill as our model. If Janice is considered codependent then it is believed that she isn’t assertive in expressing her opinions, needs or rights. Therefore, a counselor applying typical codependency treatment may assume that encouraging Janice to be more assertive in these areas would be good for her. After all one of the characteristics of being codependent is a lack of assertion.
Let’s look again at what Simon said about Bill when Janice felt empowered enough to assert her desire to leave.
“That’s when Bill goes to war.”
Do you see what happens when Janice becomes more assertive? Bill becomes more abusive. And who do you think is going to win that war?
According to Albert Roberts, Professor of Criminal Justice at the State University of New Jersey, victims who subscribe to codependency treatments will often experience more abuse. He explains,
The goals of Al-Anon and codependency treatment typically include helping family members of alcoholics to get ‘self-focused’, practice emotional detachment from the substance abusers, and identify and stop their enabling or ‘codependent’ behaviors, and stop protecting their partners from the harmful consequences of the addiction. While these strategies and goals may be useful for women whose partners are not batterers, for battered women, such changes will likely result in an escalation of abuse, including physical violence.
Battered women are often very attuned to their partners’ moods as a way to assess their level of danger. They focus on their partners’ needs and ‘cover up’ for them as part of their survival strategy. Battered women’s behaviors are not symptomatic of some underlying ‘dysfunction’ but are necessary lifesaving skills that protect them and their children from further harm. When battered women are encouraged to stop these behaviors through self-focusing and detachment, they are, in essence, being asked to stop doing the things that may be keeping them and the child most safe.
The ‘Codependent’ Label Blames the Victim
Being labeled codependent implies that the victim is in some way responsible for the abuse she receives and/or is enabling the abuser. While it is quite likely that the victim has some personal issues or maybe even some type of dependency she needs to work through, to imply that she is codependent and therefore at least partially responsible for her abuser’s actions can be not only detrimental to her healing, but in some incidents even abusive. Dr. Murphy explains how labeling a victim as codependent is not only a misuse of the term, but is also abusive.
Anyone who gives the ‘codependent’ label to anyone who is living with a man who engages in a degrading pattern of psychological abuse and control — is blaming the victim and pathologising her. This label implies the victim has behaviors that pull the abuse out of the man.
Many perpetrators of intimate partner abuse consider themselves to be the King of the Castle, the Boss, the Master who must be obeyed at all costs. Such attitudes may creep in slowly over time entrapping and disempowering their female partners. These men may also be charming caring, protective and kind at other times. This is confusing to women. Many women spend years attempting to understand and change the man’s abusive behaviors — they do not accept abuse as their lot.
This kind of intentional behavior aimed at subservience, and at lowering a woman’s sense of self-esteem, worth and personal integrity, is a hallmark of a systematic pattern over time. A pattern that entails the male abuser refusing to take responsibility for his behaviours and entails blaming the woman, confusing her, isolating her, making her wrong and demanding respect for his position as the man. Coping with such behaviors does not make a woman codependent.
Additionally, Dear explains that applying the codependency model to domestic violence not only blames the victim but may undermine her ability to leaving her abusive relationship. He says,
This use of the codependency model in the area of domestic violence is of considerable concern. The notion that all women who have difficulty leaving violent and abusive men have some form of personality disturbance is dangerous because it blames the victim for not being able to prevent, avoid or cope with the violence. . . Moreover, blaming the victim further undermines her ability to take action against the violence. . . As Roxburgh explains, blaming the victim
- reinforces the abused woman’s low self-esteem. . .
- can contradict her interpretation of the violent situation and distort her version of what is happening. . .
- can weaken her resolve to act because she feels responsible for and therefore deserving of the violence
- makes her feel undeserving of other assistance
- diminishes the capacity of the service provided to offer assistance which will be of real benefit to the woman
- and is untrue.
Clearly the misuse of the term codependent when applied to abusive relationship is a common occurrence — too common. Sometimes using a wrong term in a situation is not a big deal because there are no serious ramifications. But in the case of misapplying the term codependency to abusive victims, it is important to get it right because there are serious ramifications: the victim is possibly advised to follow a treatment plan that could actually cause her harm or at the least prolong her abuse, she is blamed for actions which are beyond her control, and all the while the abuser’s actions are minimized.
I am now fully convinced that applying the concept of codependency to abuse victims is not only a misuse of the term but can also be misleading and even harmful for the victim.
For Further Reading
Interview with Catherine DeLoach Lewis (Part 2) — a Christian counselor explains why she doesn’t use the term codependent to describe victims of domestic abuse.
The Myth of “Stockholm Syndrome” and other labels which are used to discredit and pathologize victims of abuse — this post explains how the term ‘codependency’ is one of many terms that have been used to pathologize and discredit victims of abuse and oppression.