I talk to a lot of Lovefraud readers. Many times, they’ve told me that they were stuck in relationships with sociopaths because of their own codependent personalities. Really? I’m not so sure that the presumption of codependency in sociopathic relationships is true.
First of all, what is codependency? Psychology Today explains, “Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person assumes the role of ‘the giver,’ sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other, ‘the taker.’” The website quickly notes, however, that “Codependency is not a clinical diagnosis or a personality disorder and has sparked much debate and controversy among psychology experts.”
Codependency is not, and has never been, an officially accepted diagnosis. It is not listed in the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association). In fact, when codependency was proposed for inclusion in the DSM, it was rejected. Hold that thought.
Codependency in sociopathic relationships
Many Lovefraud readers have sought therapy due their involvement with sociopaths and were told by counselors that they were codependent. A few years ago, Dr. Liane Leedom, Mary Ann Glynn, LSCW, and I documented this in a scientific paper published in the Journal of Counseling and Development.
The paper was called Counseling intimate partner abuse survivors: effective and ineffective interventions. It was based on a survey of 578 people who sought counseling in the context of abusive relationships. Multiple survey respondents reported that counselors told them they chose to be abused or were codependent. The respondents felt blamed, misunderstood and invalidated. Needless to say, in these cases, the therapy was not helpful.
Symptoms of codependent personalities
PsychCentral describes codependency as “a way of behaving in relationships where you persistently prioritize someone else over you, and you assess your mood based on how they behave.” The website acknowledges that codependency is not considered to be a mental health condition and there are no specific, agreed-upon diagnostic criteria. Still, the article lists 13 common signs of codependency.
13 common signs of codependency
- a deep-seated need for approval from others
- self-worth that depends on what others think about you
- a habit of taking on more work than you can realistically handle, both to earn praise or lighten a loved one’s burden
- a tendency to apologize or take on blame in order to keep the peace
- a pattern of avoiding conflict
- a tendency to minimize or ignore your own desires
- excessive concern about a loved one’s habits or behaviors
- a habit of making decisions for others or trying to “manage” loved ones
- a mood that reflects how others feel, rather than your own emotions
- guilt or anxiety when doing something for yourself
- doing things you don’t really want to do, simply to make others happy
- idealizing partners or other loved ones, often to the point of maintaining relationships that leave you unfulfilled
- overwhelming fears of rejection or abandonment
Are codependency symptoms reactions to gaslighting?
As I look at the list, I have to wonder — do these symptoms cause you to get involved with sociopaths — or are they caused by your involvement with sociopaths? Let’s examine how each of the symptoms could be a reaction to stress, manipulation and gaslighting by an abuser:
- A deep-seated need for approval from others
Well, yes — if sociopath was a parent or partner, you’ve probably been fed a steady diet of disapproval, and you just want to feel valued as a human being.
- Self-worth that depends on what others think about you
A sociopath’s campaign of criticism can easily make you doubt yourself.
- A habit of taking on more work than you can realistically handle, both to earn praise or lighten a loved one’s burden
Perhaps you’re taking on the burden because the sociopath is pressuring you to do it — or leaves you no choice but to clean up the mess.
- A tendency to apologize or take on blame in order to keep the peace
If you’re dealing with a raging sociopath, this is often the safest approach
- A pattern of avoiding conflict.
Again, if you’ve experienced a sociopath’s rage, yeah, avoiding conflict is a good idea.
- A tendency to minimize or ignore your own desires
This could be necessary to survive an involvement with a sociopath, who believes that only his or her desires matter.
- Excessive concern about a loved one’s habits or behaviors
The sociopath’s habits or behaviors are destructive, so you definitely need to be concerned about them.
- A habit of making decisions for others or trying to “manage” loved ones
Trying to manage the sociopath is a matter of self-defense.
- A mood that reflects how others feel, rather than your own emotions.
If you let yourself feel your own emotions, you’d probably collapse.
- Guilt or anxiety when doing something for yourself
Perfectly understandable — if the sociopath finds out what you did for yourself, there could be hell to pay.
- Doing things you don’t really want to do, simply to make others happy
When you’re dealing with a sociopath, that’s the best way to keep the peace.
- Idealizing partners or other loved ones, often to the point of maintaining relationships that leave you unfulfilled
This could be a symptom of cognitive dissonance — given everything you’ve sacrificed for the sociopath, you need to believe in him or her or you’ll fall apart.
- Overwhelming fears of rejection or abandonment
The sociopath has probably drained you of all your resources, so if you’re abandoned you’ll have less than nothing. Yes, you’re scared.
Codependent relationships are one-sided, where one person is the caregiver, and the other is the taker. The giver supports, protects and cleans up after the other person. That sounds like almost every involvement with a sociopath.
Not codependent — traumatized
So does this mean all of us who got caught up in these webs were codependent?
That’s exactly the question my Lovefraud colleagues and I address in our scientific paper, and our answer is no. We hypothesize that much of the behavior that looked like codependency could actually be the result of trauma.
Why is this important? If you were betrayed by a sociopath, you may have blamed yourself for getting involved with this person, or not getting out soon enough.
But no one intentionally gets involved with a lying, manipulative sociopath. Either you had no choice — like if your parents were disordered — or you were deceived. By the time you figured out that there was something wrong with the “taker” in your relationship, much psychological damage was done. Damage that made you look like you’re codependent.
I explain the myth of codependency in sociopathic relationships in much more detail in my new webinar, Maybe you’re not codependent — you’re traumatized. I invite you to join me on November 10, 2022, at 8 pm ET for this psychoeducation event. If you believe that you were codependent, I hope the information will change your perspective and help in your healing.