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Changing Codependent Dynamics in Abusive Relationships

Many codependents are in abusive relationships with addicts or people with mental illness. The symptoms of codependency encourage the dysfunctional dynamics in these relationships, which in turn worsens codependent symptoms. This makes sense when we consider the definition of codependency and that codependents have a “lost self,” in that their thinking and behavior revolve around someone else.

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Due to dysfunctional parenting, codependents have lost touch with their ability to respond to their internal cues. They’ve come to believe that they’re inferior and that what they feel, think, need, and/or want, is unimportant. This is their hidden shame. As a result, they hold an unconscious belief that they don’t truly deserve to be loved simply for who they are, but that they have to earn love. This causes basic insecurity and fear of being abandoned.

Codependency originates in childhood, including core symptoms of shame (including low self-esteem), denial, dependency control (including “caretaking”), dysfunctional communication, and dysfunctional boundaries. How these traits set the stage for painful relationships is explained in Conquering Shame and Codependency.


The Role Codependency in Relationships

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Because many codependents have become alienated from their feelings, the drama of an intimate relationship with someone addicted or mentally disordered can feel energizing or familiar if their childhood was similar.

Additionally, addicts and people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) are often charismatic and romantic. They can be seductive and shower their codependent partner with compliments, promises, and gestures of love.

Codependents yearn for love and connection, and being desired makes them feel lovable. But their dependency and low self-esteem make them susceptible to seduction, and they confuse romance with real love.

Watch this video to know how good boundaries free you :

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Read on to know… Codependency in Toxic Relationships: Symptoms, Signs and How To Recover


Codependents cope with fears of criticism, rejection, and abandonment by giving, understanding, pleasing, and being helpful. Their partner defines the relationship, and they go along to get along and maintain it. They admire a narcissist’s boldness, conviction, and perceived strength (qualities they themselves lack) and enjoy a supportive role and feeling taken care of. With addicts and persons with BPD, they’re often in the role of helper and nurturer. To the codependent, being needed feels like love. It boosts their self-esteem and assures them that they won’t ever be abandoned.  However, addicts and people with NPD and BPD have deep shame, and they project their inner demons onto the very individual who loves and is trying to help them.

Codependents’ reactive role amplifies their focus on their partner, while they hide who they are. They increasingly try to control the uncontrollable, sacrifice themselves, and try harder to please and be accepted. Although at first, they were idealized, now they’re devalued. A person with BPD vacillates between idealizing-caring behavior and devaluing-rejecting behavior. Instead of acting needy as someone with BPD, people with NPD act needless and can be remote and emotionally cold. Some may show friendliness toward their partner, while others are continually critical and contemptuous. The more that love is withheld or inconsistent, the more codependents try to win it, falling into the trap of turning over their self-esteem and sense of well-being to their partner. They never feel good enough, reinforcing their hidden shame.

Related: Are You Losing Yourself In Your Relationship? Stages of Codependency and what you can do about it


How Abusive Relationships Worsen Codependency

This unspoken contract works for a while because codependents provide safety and stability to an emotional, insecure addict or partner with BPD and provide missing warmth and connection to a partner with NPD. But due to their own insecurity and weak boundaries, codependents absorb the blame, guilt, and shame dished out by abusers. They feel powerless to help and satisfy their partner, guilty for “mistakes” they’re accused of and resentful that their efforts are unappreciated and fail. As the relationship deteriorates, so does the codependent’s sense of self.

All the symptoms of codependency contribute to the dysfunctional relationship, which if untreated, worsen over time. As codependents become further alienated from themselves and enter into the later stages of their illness. The very traits that made the relationship work become its undoing

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Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and an expert author on relationships and codependency. She's counseled individuals and couples for 30 years and coaches internationally. Her books and other online booksellers and her website
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