I went out to dinner with my neighbor recently and the topic of conversation always seems to gravitate to Narcissism and Codependency. I’ve known her for quite some time, she is a lovely person – thoughtful, cheery, considerate and we have great conversations, which to me, is pure gold. A few months back she asked me my opinion of her relationship. It was a typical Narcissistic/Codependent relationship. This was their 4th trip on the merry-go-round.  Each time he would end up leaving her for someone else. I told her, “End it, he’s only going to do the same thing again. Be done with this.  He uses you, and then tosses you aside, just as soon as someone else walks by. Cut him loose.”

She explained to me that she was so over him emotionally and that she just had such a great connection with him and enjoyed his company so much that she wanted to stay in contact and be friends. “You can’t have a casual relationship with something you’re addicted to,” I told her. She argued her point and I let it go. If you’re not ready for the truth – then you aren’t ready.

She didn’t heed my warning and every time I saw his vehicle parked in front of her house I cringed. He eventually did exactly what we all knew he would and she was devastated afterward, but a little less each time.

Her upbringing and her romantic relationships mirrored my own, so we have a lot in common. The biggest difference between us though, is where we are on our paths. When we got around to the topic of Codependency at dinner, she said, “I have some of that, but I don’t think I’m one.” I kind of looked at her like she had three heads. I learned long ago that this particular individual could be very argumentative and on most other topics I could point out indisputable proof and she would continue to argue her point, so I let it go.  You can lead a codependent to water, but you can’t make them drink.

“I’m not a doormat,” she said. “I fight back.”

What is Codependency Really?

If that was her definition of a codependent then I wasn’t one either. I contemplated all of the differences in my clients. I’ve had several with PhD’s, a couple of lawyers, accountants, a millionaire, some that own their own successful businesses, some are stay at home moms, some have retail jobs, public service jobs and some are on assistance. Some are aggressive, some are passive and some have a multitude of issues. Most of these individuals are smart, funny, optimistic and amazing people. Not all of them are passive zombies that walk around saying yes to everything.

The thing that all codependents have in common is that, in their romantic relationships, they give a lot more love, care, respect kindness, understanding and attention than they receive. They’ve become conditioned to expect less and not to ask for more. They stay way too long when they shouldn’t and they tend to lose themselves in the relationship.

Aside from that, codependents come in all shapes and sizes. They have different personalities, different occupations, different temperaments, different socio-economic statuses, some are only affected in a romantic relationship, others suffer from their codependency in all aspects of their lives and in all of their relationships – romantic, familiar, business and social.

Dr. Ross Rosenberg, whose work on Narcissism and Codependency I greatly admire, classifies codependency in two subtypes: Passive and Active.

Passive Codependents are the martyrs. They are submissive and stoic. Doormat-like. They put up little resistance and have given up hope of controlling the Narcissist.

Active Codependents fight back. They’re willful and manipulative. They try to catch, trap and change the Narcissist. They can be mistaken for a Narcissist.

I tend to think these definitions of Rosenberg are a little black and white. While my neighbor might fight back, I don’t find her to be manipulative and I’ve never mistaken her for a Narcissist and conversely while I may have been passive to some degree, I never gave up control, or hope that I could change my Narcissist.

Rosenberg believes that Codependency is a symptom of Attachment Trauma. He claims that it is an early childhood adaptive response to a Narcissistic caretaker, a defense mechanism that allows the child to cope with the abuse, neglect and deprivation.

Children born into this environment must learn how to please their Narcissistic caregiver. If they figure it out they get rewarded by either attention and praise, or by not being abused.  Rosenberg states that a Narcissistic Parent will neglect or abuse a child that does not meet their needs. Children learn to adapt by becoming invisible. They learn to hide in the shadows and suppress their emotions. They learn how to pretend that everything is ok and most outsiders have no idea what’s really going on.

He also states that these abused or neglected children develop a premature maturity. They become the caretakers of their Narcissistic parent or of themselves and siblings. Many are described as being, ‘old souls.’ They are stoic. They mute their feelings and sacrifice their childhood to make their abuser happy.

Codependent children were never taught that just being themselves was all they had to be, that they were good enough just the way they are. They weren’t taught to appreciate their own individuality. They were taught to be perfect little children, who were the perfect extension of their imperfect parent. Their sole purpose for being was to make their abuser feel good or look good. If they couldn’t then they got the brunt of their abusive parent’s abuse, while better coping siblings got the majority of praise and attention. Codependent children were never loved unconditionally and thus believe that love in romantic relationships always comes with conditions. They feel comfortable with cruel and selfish partners and believe that they have to give more and accept less.

Codependents aren’t all doormats. They look different, they behave differently. Some are really successful outside of their personal relationships and some are constantly the recipient of bullying at home or in the work place. There are a lot of variables, but generally the origins are quite similar.

Try as I might, I can’t make my abusive mother a Narcissist. She just doesn’t meet the DSM criteria. Did she emotionally abuse me? Yes. Did she neglect me? Absolutely, but it doesn’t make her a Narcissist. Trying to fit everything into a one size fits all box is foolhardy and unnecessary. The only question that matters to your healing is: Do you give more love, care, respect, understanding and compassion than you receive from your romantic partner? And do you stay when the relationship is long since over?  If your answer is yes then you have codependency issues that need to be addressed. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but you always have a choice – you can choose to remain in denial, or you can choose to do something about it.

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