When we face difficulties and hardship in life, we try to find meaning in the experience. This is certainly the case with all of us who have tangled with sociopaths. We ask, how did this happen? More importantly, why did this happen? Many people have answered the questions by explaining dysfunctional relationships as codependency.
In fact, for some people, explaining dysfunctional relationships as codependency is comforting.
This is the point of a study entitled, The lived experience of codependency: an interpretative phenomenological analysis, by Ingrid Bacon and colleagues. The research was based on in-depth interviews with eight people who identified themselves as codependent and coped by joining support groups for codependents. The researchers wanted to answer the question, what is the lived experience of people who believe they are codependent?
At first, I thought the entire premise of the research was flawed — the participants identified themselves as being codependent; there was no formal diagnosis. Were they actually codependent, or were there other explanations for their difficulties? After all, Lovefraud’s research, published in our paper, Counseling intimate partner abuse survivors: effective and ineffective interventions, showed that the symptoms of codependency and the symptoms of trauma are virtually identical.
The Bacon paper pointed out all of the confusion around the idea of codependency, but found that the concept was still helpful for people who identified themselves as codependent. For them, codependency helped them to make meaning of their lived experience.
Research on codependency
Bacon and colleagues did an extensive review of all the scientific literature on codependency. They described three distinct versions of the theory.
- Disease model — the viewpoint is clinical intervention, diagnosis and treatment.
- Personality model — personality and constitutional factors predispose individuals toward developing codependency.
- Interactionist model —both interpersonal and intrapersonal factors are involved in the development and maintenance of codependency.
There are no universally used definitions or diagnostic criteria for codependency, and it lacks a clear theoretical basis. These are reasons why codependency is not recognized as a disorder in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, the bible of the mental health field).
Still, Bacon and colleagues identified four symptoms of codependency that are repeatedly mentioned in the scientific literature:
- External focusing
- Interpersonal conflict and control
- Emotional constraint
Codependency in their own words
In their research, Bacon and colleagues conducted two to three lengthy interviews with the eight participants — five women and three men. The participants were asked to describe what codependency meant to them, and how they felt about being codependent. After analyzing the discussions, the researchers identified four themes:
Codependency felt real and tangible
The participants struggled to understand their social and emotional difficulties until they discovered the concept of codependency. They found in codependency a simple, singular and all-encompassing explanation for a range of life difficulties and problems.
Struggles with a clear sense of self
Multiple participants described themselves as “chameleons,” changing themselves to fit into their social situations to the point where they had no self-concept. Bacon and colleagues wrote:
All participants expressed feeling locked in to subservient and passive roles within close relationships. These relational difficulties had various negative consequences; for example, participants expressed feeling overruled, staying in the relationship in spite of its detrimental and often destructive effects, and choosing partners who had problematic psychological issues. They described the experience of becoming imprisoned in their relationships and finding themselves locked into these situations, feeling powerless, and unable to break free.
Lack of balance in life
Participants described feeling out of control, going from one extreme to another in a range of situations: They worked too much, went from self-care to self-deprivation, or binged on excessive drinking, drugs or sex. They said they didn’t cope well with a quiet, routine or empty life.
Linking codependency to childhood experiences
The participants attributed their problems to experiences in their family of origin. The researchers wrote:
Participants shared a negative perception of being raised in home environments where they experienced various forms of excessive control, criticism, and perfectionism. Most recalled a rather paradoxical interpersonal family dynamic described as excessive parental rigidity and control combined with lack of support.
A closer investigation of their accounts revealed a further interesting aspect: reference to a parental figure who was perceived as physically and/or emotionally absent by most of the participants. This absence of a safe parental figure, typically the father, was portrayed by five participants and associated with their later experience of codependency.
Codependency explained their chaos
Many people, myself included, view the term “codependent” as stigmatizing — especially when it comes to involvements with sociopaths. In fact, that’s what our research showed — when clinicians told clients that they couldn’t get out of relationships with sociopaths because they were codependent, the clients felt blamed.
But in the Bacon et al. paper, participants were relieved to view themselves as codependent. The authors wrote, “They understood codependence as a socially recognized form of addiction, which explained and offered meaning to their painful and hitherto puzzling lived experiences.”
Maybe so. But as I read how the participants in the Bacon et al. research described their lives, it seemed to me that explaining their dysfunctional relationships as codependency might miss the mark.
Trauma in the descriptions
Maybe the research participants were traumatized. In the quote above, under Struggles with a clear sense of self, they described staying in relationships despite the detrimental and even destructive effects. This is a clear sign of a trauma bond. And then, growing up with both rigid parental control and a lack of support — well, that’s the classic dynamic of narcissistic abuse within families.
Perhaps, if someone described the effects of trauma to these research participants, they might see it as an equally good, or maybe even better, interpretation of the turmoil in their lives.
If you’d like to know more, I explain the similarities between codependency and trauma in detail in my new webinar. I also discuss the signs of PTSD and C-PTSD, and the importance of listening to your body for recovery.