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The other day I met a social worker/counsellor at a seminar. When she found out I research domestic violence she immediately told me that women who stay with violent men are codependent. She said such women were just the same as women who live with alcoholics. She was not interested in another view because she was adamant that she was right.

According to Codependents Anonymous World Fellowship, the following are six of a long list of characteristics of codependency:

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

I have difficulty with applying the ‘codependent’ label on a woman surviving in a relationship where her male partner abuses and controls her – for the following reasons …

Victims of intimate partner abuse are not codependent

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 other 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 behaviours – that went against their values – in order to avoid, or stop the abuse. These are not strategies of a codependent person.

It is dangerous to give the ‘codependent’ label to victims of intimate partner abuse

Codependence implies a lack of assertion. Whereas, if a woman asserts her opinions, needs, or rights to a controlling man, he could then engage in more or worse abuse to stamp out her assertiveness. It may, therefore, be dangerous for a psychologist to coach a woman to assertively stand up to her partner. Anyone wishing to help such a woman should respect her reasoning for not asserting herself.

Codependence implies women serve others to the detriment of flourishing to her full potential. Whereas, women who want to, or do, attend tertiary schooling to improve their skills and talents, can actually experience more, or worse, abuse by their partner because he wants to ensure she does not grow. For example, a man interviewed by Eva Lundgren (1995) said, “It makes her reconsider when I lock her up in a cupboard. Then she gets scared. Give her a sense of her total dependency, that’s the only way.” Therefore, it may be dangerous for a psychotherapist to encourage a woman to go against her partner’s demands by attending school. People in the helping professions need to listen to women’s views on how detrimental to her safety such a step might be.

Codependence implies women stay with violent and otherwise abusive men because they are attracted to being abused, like it, and want it. Whereas, in reality, women engage in multiple strategies to stop the abuse, to help the man change, to protect themselves and their children, or to avoid being abused in the first place. It may be dangerous for a counsellor to encourage a woman to leave. Social workers should honour women’s knowledge about what will, and will not, keep her safe, and that might mean staying with the abuser. It definitely means that multiple services are required to support the woman’s safety, such as police, safe housing, and financial support agencies.

Blaming the victim is tantamount to abusing her

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 behaviours that pull the abuse out of the man. Yet, Jeff Hearn’s (1998) in-depth interviews with male perpetrators shows, for example, that some men threaten suicide as a way of ensuring women do not leave them, and other men threaten to harm or kill pets, children, family, friends and/or the woman herself.

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 behaviours – they do not accept abuse as their lot.

The subject of this website is domestic violence which is different to mutual abuse – it is about one person’s campaign to control the other through whatever means they find works. For example, one of the men Cavanagh and her colleagues (2001) interviewed said he “was a bit of a tactician” and that he would “more or less try to intimidate her by going quiet and staring.” This kind of intentional behaviour 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 behaviours does not make a woman codependent.

Power and control over women is a social issue

This is not about a woman being codependent by reinforcing the man’s behaviour. The need that many men have to establish and maintain authority over women is a social issue – an issue of contemporary expectations of masculinity. My research with male perpetrators shows that this is a way for certain men to avoid feeling weak, vulnerable and feminine – as not being a so-called ‘real man’ is considered inferior. Controlling a female partner is a socially sanctioned way for the man to gain social kudos. Men who control their partners know what they’re doing. Many men provoke women to do something that the man then believes will justify hitting her. For instance, a man interviewed by Cavanagh and colleagues (2001) said he’d “do anything to get an excuse” to use violence against his partner.

In sum, any psychological issues female victims experience, that resemble characteristics deemed to be codependent, are a result of incessant abuse and control by their male partners, and are reinforced by social issues that support male authority in the home and male control and possessiveness over humans and animals in the home. Women’s coping strategies should be taken seriously. Blaming women revictimises them, further isolates them and deepens their growing sense of not being good enough.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cara Lopez Lee November 15, 2009 at 11:07 am

Clare,

You have wonderfully captured what I have been instinctively trying to communicate to other women for years! Thank you for sharing this important point of view.

I remember, when I was a reporter in Alaska, my news director once asked me to write a story about “Why women stay with abusive men.” I was furious that he expected me to ask such a stupid question. Everyone in the newsroom tried to give him a few of the more obvious possibilities: economic necessity, love, children, fear of violent reprisals, etc. He wasn’t buying any of it. He just couldn’t understand why a rational person wouldn’t just leave.

I told him that I thought it was disrespectful to abused women to ask the question in that way, and I didn’t want to do the story. He said if I didn’t do it, he’d send me home for the day with a formal reprimand, and have another woman on the staff do it, someone who always followed his orders without question. At the time, I thought, oh, if I leave the story to her, she’ll just roll over and do it the way he wants, and it will even be worse. So I stayed. Today, I would have stood my ground and gone home, and understood that I was not responsible for the consequences – he was.

I’m sure you can see the irony of my boss abusing power and control to get me to do the story.

When I interviewed a couple of people from a local shelter for abused women, and I asked the dreaded question that my news director insisted I should ask, one of them said, and I paraphrase, “It’s a common question, but I think we people need to realize that we’re asking the wrong question. We should not be asking why women stay with abusive men. We should ask why these men are abusing women.” The person who said this was a man, by the way. I included his comment in my story, and luckily my news director saw reason and let me keep it. I hope he learned something.

I’ve never forgotten those words. “We’re asking the wrong question.”

I’ve always been an educated, outspoken, assertive, independent woman with strong self-esteem. I have even done a lot of solo travel in foreign countries. But all this independence did not stop me from becoming a victim of abusive men as an adult woman. In fact, as you know, frequently the more assertive the woman, the worse the abuse. And I think we can’t remind people often enough of this basic statistic: it is when women try to break free and leave their abusers that they are most likely to be killed. Not just abused, but murdered. Luckily, I have never been in a situation quite that out-of-control. But I know women who have, and most of them were educated, assertive women with a strong self-image. None of them believed they deserved what was happening to them. They just wanted to figure out how to make it stop.

I told a woman once that I was worried I might be co-dependent, because I ended up in so many relationships with abusive men. She suggested I not look at it that way, and reminded me that I had never stayed in those relationships for very long. I had walked away. This was not the behavior of a co-dependent person.

I’m now married to a wonderful man, who treats me as an equal partner. We have a peaceful, respectful, loving relationship that is free of fear or humiliation. No codependency here. And I know you’re right: there never was.

Thanks for sharing your wisdom,

Cara

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2 RR February 17, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Clare,

Thank you for this wonderfully articulate and necessary article. As a professional in the field of mental health and as a woman struggling with the recovery and healing process due to being in a psychologically abusive relationship, I fully identify with your argument against labeling women in psychologically abusive relationships as “codependent.” One time, while in therapy with my ex, the therapist suggested that I read the book “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Taking Care of Yourself.” Although, it was interesting, it was basically unhelpful in helping me understand or recover from the aftermath of a psychologically abusive relationship. I have never had difficulty identifying my emotions, as evidenced by millions of statements to my ex, friends, and family, such as “I am so confused; I feel so powerless; I feel insulted and invisible.” No, no problem there. The only thing that I was not able to identify, especially in the beginning stages of the relationship, was why I was feeling the way I was feeling. The abuse was so insidious that I could never put my finger on the illusive and ambient hostility that lurked just beneath the surface of every interaction with my ex.

The only decision that I had difficulty in making was leaving vs. staying, which has many psychological, behavioral, and even neurological explanations; nothing to do with codependency.

Because I do believe I am lovable and worthwhile, I consistently asserted myself in asking for decent treatment, respect, and equality. In fact, my ex once stated while we were in therapy, that one of the things that attracted him to me was that “she doesn’t put up with anyone’s shit.”

“Codependent” seems to be a contagious “go-to” term for women nowadays, as if it is the operational definition of the female’s dysfunction in relationships. Therapists throw the term around way too casually, often losing sight of what other explanations there may be, especially if the client is unaware of the abusive tactics that her partner is using.

Again, thank you for discussing such misinformed and pivotal topic! I hope that the basis of your article is far-reaching enough to make a difference.

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3 Barbara April 1, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Thank you Thank you!!! Codependence does NOT happen in abusive relationships…

http://www.lisaescott.com/forum/2009/03/23/my-little-rant-co-dependence-and-co-narcissism-0

I am linking to you!

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4 Clare April 14, 2010 at 12:19 am

Check out the blog I wrote that discusses the difference between using language to describe the effects and impact of psychological abuse and control versus the language to describe women’s multiple strategies of resisting abuse and control. Check the blog post titled “Language women should use in the Family Court”. . . This post further addresses the fact that women who live with a man who psychologically controls them are not codependent. . . Clare

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5 elsa May 14, 2010 at 10:12 am

Your article is a god send. I’ve always thought that the co-dependence thing had something wrong with it. In fact I recently escaped from my extremely abusive husband (I’m convinced he is a psychopath). And now I live with a fear for my life. He is trying to reconnect says he is sorry, but I don’t buy it especially because before I left he threatened to kill me (in fact several times). Through the marriage, I always fought back aagainst the abuse making use of the many tactics you mention in your article. The abuse always escalated after that. Indeed as you mention, the extreme escalation of abuse is a means to prevent any more ‘rebelions’ from occurring. In fact I started to play passive when I knew I couldnt live like this anymore and I had emotionally detached my self from him and started to plan the escape.

Thank you for this article. Abused women fighting for their survival and sanity are not doormats, in fact we are heroes.

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6 Kooki March 15, 2011 at 8:01 am

Hello, I really appreciate all of you pointing out the wrong terms of language that actually disempower abused women instead of empower them. “Co-dependents”, doormats”, etc. are words that essentially devalue the abused woman and place her as weak and inadequate.

Having just left a highly abusive relationship where the psychological abuse was horrendous but extremely covert and insidious (now I know what “gaslighting” is…), it’s very unhelpful for all of us to hear institutional words that somehow belittle us as women who are not capable of taking care of ourselves and/or who are weak and ineffectual.

Abuse can be so insidious that many psychologically and emotionally abused women have no idea what is going on and they need help to recognize those patterns. Sometimes, it takes time on the part of the woman to “see” what is going on.

I know one of the ways that my partner would abuse me is that he would do things and say things and then immediately say that he was “joking” in order to deflect attention from the abusive behavior. Once though, the “joking” behavior was actually physically choking me.

I know for myself that I will never go back to my abusive partner, because it took me one year to realize that going back to him means destruction for me.

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7 Sarah October 27, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Thank you for posting this wonderful article. I am in an abusive relationship and a counselor labeled me co-dependent but I can identify with everything in your article. Sick and tired of people judging me telling me everything is my fault . . . If you don’t get out it’s your fault . . . If you don’t get a job it’s your fault . . . etc., etc.

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8 Kris June 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Seems to me that professionals who don’t understand domestic abuse conclude (wrongly) that there must be something wrong in the victim to enable such behavior. If someone holds a gun to your head, you can do nothing but comply to survive. They can’t believe that a person can be so cruel to put a gun to your head and there’s nothing you can do about it, because it makes this world a very unsafe one and they can’t cope with how powerless that makes you feel, so in order to avert that thought, they theorize that the victim must have some pathological issues. This fallacy is also known as the Just World Fallacy.

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9 H June 26, 2012 at 11:57 pm

This is real watershed moment for me! Your article and website are amazing. I, too, was told by our joint therapist (after my husband had violently assaulted me) that we were both co-dependent. She, too, told me to read Co-dependent No More. I read it and identified with the ‘addict’ as my husband had a severe cocaine addiction, but I couldn’t work out why I was co-dependent. Oh how I love developing myself because so many articles I’ve read on this website resonate so deeply with me. I have recently been feeling like a fake – because even after a year’s separation – I have his voice in my head telling me that ‘you’re not a victim of abuse or violence, I only slapped you, not punched you, don’t cook it that way, where have you been, you’re 10 mins late, no I won’t look after the kids, you can’t even hack up phlegm properly with your coughing, etc.’ The list is endless. I am a strong, independent woman who could not understand what was happening to me. Why couldn’t we have a normal conversation about money, kids and us. Constantly feeling like I was butting up against a brick wall, I would argue, I would keep the peace, I would lie to just get 10 mins freedom! I’m not co-dependent, I’ve been abused mentally for years and now – here I am – still learning, still growing and scared stiff that I’ll end up like this again! This article is amazing, as are the others. I will get there – I know I will, and I know I can too!

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10 Anon July 7, 2012 at 12:57 am

It’s empowering that someone finally removed the label I never felt truly applied to me. I accept some of those codependent behaviors, but certainly not all, and the coping mechanisms I’ve used to survive almost 30 years in my abusive marriage have included becoming a flight attendant and studying martial arts, for both the escapes and self-protection. I know my worth, I am lovable, I never put aside my interests and hobbies, and he’s the only one in this relationship who believes I’ll never be ‘good enough’. He, however, has engaged in every single one of the listed abuser behaviors. Because I don’t fit the classic victim mold, my partner knows just how far he can go and no more, but I still forget sometimes because he can go a year without abusing, and then take me by surprise when my guard is down. But I’ve not only survived, I’ve thrived, I’ve done and seen everything I ever wanted to see or do in spite of him, and continue to do so. He will never change, so I need constant reminders to continue my detachment, and of what he truly is during those lengthy periods when things are ‘good’, and he’s really just ensuring his outward behavior is ‘good’ for just long enough in between episodes of abuse for me not to leave him. Thank you for spelling it all out.

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11 msk August 2, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I can’t express my gratitude enough for this article. I have been in an abusive relationship for nine years and I have made my plan for escape, but there was always something that nagged me: That I stayed for so long believing it was ultimately my fault and that made me codependent. I was never that way before. I did not enter the relationship that way. I was extremely independent, intelligent, and strong. He was a stealth abuser, which grew more obvious as the years went on. He took all the money and put it in an account I had no access to and when I tried to leave he threatened to take my son and use my illness, the fibromyalgia I ended up with as a result of the abuse, as a weapon to prove I couldn’t be a good mother. I have now been diagnosed with PTSD. He never once hit me except for the time he was so drunk he couldn’t connect. But he did rape me, which i excused as one of his bad moods in attempt to survive the situation. I was petrified to try and leave again. I’d like to add that he is not the type of man people typically associate with abusers. He is college educated, charming, and owns a successful business. He is someone no one would ever expect. My situation can happen to anyone. You don’t have to be constitutionally weak to endure that behavior and it’s much more complicated than just “leaving”.

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12 Anonymous November 23, 2013 at 5:02 am

Mine was like this too, covert and very successful and educated. I also ended up being diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. I’ve also never been ill as much in my life either. Then they turn it around like these are all your problems and try to convince others you’re an unfit mother. Let me guess, “you’re unfit” yet I bet he seldom took care of the children. Hope things have gotten better for you and your children.

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13 Monica August 25, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Revictimization stinks. Thank you so much for the article and your site. I whole-heartedly agree.

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14 KB November 11, 2012 at 7:43 pm

I appreciate all this information from women who know what psychological abuse is really all about. I believe that I am in an abusive relationship and am just now starting to recognize his methods of abuse. And you are all right, it happens slowly and gets worse. And there can be long period of times where the abusive behavior remains dormant. I read Anon’s response and appreciate her letting us all know that men can go as long as a year without abusing. This fact alone makes me want to warn all of my girlfriends to date their men much longer than one year before getting married. One year still is not long enough to really know what someone is like. I believed that my abusive boyfriend was “the nicest guy I’ve ever dated” for about the first six months of our new relationship. Now, two years later, I am a “c**t”, a “slut”, and am at fault for his abusive behavior. My parents and friends desperately want me to leave. I wish I could say that I am ready. But I am not :(. However, I can honestly say that because of what I read and learn about the cycle of abuse, I am preparing myself for ultimate freedom. Thanks to all you strong women writing.

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15 Jenny August 18, 2013 at 6:57 am

Hello,

I’m leaving my relationship today as a result of a fight we had last night. I had reached a boiling point with the constant degrading comments, control, nothing I did was ever good enough and to top it off he had major trust, insecurity and privacy issues. I stood up for myself over something I had kindly spoken to him about two days prior that was really bothering me and holding us in a dark hole. Well, at least holding me there. He was always accusing me of going through his ipad, computer or phone. Had passwords on all of it, so even if I wanted to, it would be impossible.
He would control me by threats, saying if I didn’t comply with something, I had to move out because I’m so stupid, a wh***, a b****, Im going to be single and divorced like my mother. He would throw all of my stuff at the door, cut up my credit card and say I needed to be out that moment. As soon as I would say I’m leaving he would threaten me. I ended up opening up to his mother, she would help me through the situation but at the end of the day, she would only make excuses for him and was a pro at preventing the behavior. To me, it was impossible to prevent. He would blow up out of nowhere and explode. There’s been a few times where he has pushed me to the floor, grabbed my face, thrown me and last night was one of those after we just lost our beloved dog of 10yrs to cancer a week ago and we have been closer and more loving than ever. He is extremely charming, caring, thoughtful and all of the above which makes these moments so hard for me and just entraps me in a deep emotional confusion. Like, wait what happened? I know I’m lovable and a strong person but since this just happens so instantly, I’m distraught. I decided to fly to my home in a different state where my mom lives for 2 weeks before I remove all of my stuff from our condo. (He travels a lot and I can easily predict when we will be out of town). The hardest part for me is being so in love with the good person he is. The loving, caring, charming person, even though I know everything he has done wrong. It’s been the most in love I’ve ever been, it’s hard for me to accept this failure. I always believed he would get better or change. Just hours before he was being sweet, caring of my feelings and comforting. Then he heartlessly provokes me, knowing he’d hurt me, when I got upset and questioned what he meant, he ignored me, then just started to laugh. Later on, he told me nasty things, which just breaks my heart because I know he says it out of anger but I’m so tired of the disrespect. I want to feel happy and not miss him. I need a good therapist who understands everything that has been written in this site previous to mine. We had tried a therapist before but it didn’t work out, he lied to the therapist and wouldn’t admit to anything he had done. Manipulated the whole situation to control the conversation. That’s also why he is so sucessful in his business. He controls it all which is why he thinks he deserves “the boss” title which he has actually told me before and that’s how I should worship him, because any girl would die to be in my position. Anyway, I’ve made the stride to heal myself and start the process of moving on. Re-building my life, career and friends. I need someone in the Miami area who can understand how to help me cope with this and come out of this type of relationship. Any suggestions would be so helpful. Even an online therapist would be great. Thank you all.

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16 Anonymous November 23, 2013 at 4:52 am

This has given me a real boost of confidence today. Thank you for this article! I too have been told by my therapist that I was in a sense using my spouse to satisfy some needs and that I have some codependency issues for being in a relationship like mine. Almost sounded as if I’m attracted to this mess. These abusers are very much different when you first meet them. They have the ability to fool a lot of people into thinking they’re a nice guy. If they were horrible from the start they couldn’t lure us in. Things didn’t get really bad until I was pregnant. I quit my job to stay home to care for our child. This was also at his request, as I would have been fine either way. To me, it sounds like normal give and take in a marriage. I don’t control his time or money, or need his attention/praise. He seldom does anything to help me other than pay the bills but then I’m lectured on how grateful I should be. I’m still thinking of ways I could have “used” him. Baloney! I was told by an attorney that because I have no proof of his behavior, he would be granted shared custody. No way I’m leaving my child alone in his or his family’s care. I think these counselors fail to realize that some of us stay because we’ve weighed our consequences and are doing our best to protect our children. Not because we feel we can’t live without a man. I’d be so happy if it’s just me and my kids and he left us alone! It’s almost like they’re accusing us of the abuser’s behavior. Sad that we are lucky enough to have trained professional “help”, yet we must go to the Internet for answers and to be understood.
PS to the previous poster: marriage counseling is for couples with an equal sense of power. I’ve been there, abusers will always lie and the counselors will tell you what you need to work on. Not helpful. Seek a domestic violence counselor.

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17 Lisa tucker January 22, 2014 at 4:23 am

I can’t believe it, finally some validation.

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