I doubt you will find the term “masochistic codependency” anywhere. It has, though, come to the fore in my mind many times when treating full-blown codependency. By full- blown, I mean six on a scale of one to five, five being the highest level. These are people who are so codependent that they have lost all connection with their true selves and identify totally with their life as a codependent and all that means. Usually stuck (often by choice) in relationships and situations that they cannot extract themselves from, they revel in the idea of being the perpetual victim who is downtrodden and being taken advantage of by lovers, friends, employers and society in general. They hang onto relationships especially, usually with the wrong people and the toxic nature of these relationships plays into their victimhood.

A definition of masochism can be found in any dictionary: Collins, for example,

1. Masochistic behaviour involves a person getting pleasure from their own pain or suffering.

2. If you describe someone’s behaviour as masochistic, you mean that they seem to be trying to get into a situation which causes them suffering or great difficulty.


In my work with codependents, I have often seen an element of masochism in the make-up of a true codependent. If we can apply the term “sadism” to narcissism (that is one who enjoys inflicting pain on others for their own pleasure), then you might rightly suggest that this is a major element of the narcissist-codependent dance. I have often been frustrated in my efforts to bring awareness to codependents who are so far along this continuum that they cannot “see the wood from the trees”. Often, they identify with the relationship they are in so much (mostly always toxic), that they resist all efforts to extract themselves, even when they know that it is in their best interests.

They are victims. Victims of a dysfunctional childhood that ill-prepared them for adulthood and adult relationships. They will often describe cold, abusive relationships with caregivers who neglected their needs and made them work hard for validation and security. Being constantly judged, berated,  abused and neglected, they took on an attitude of shame, guilt and “I am to blame because I am not good enough”. To the other extreme, they were expected to be “good” and fulfil their parents expectations and sometimes to “parent” their addicted parents. Children brought up in these circumstances will cling to anything that provides them with comfort and perceived security, even if it doesn’t. In this continual quest as an adult, they are always likely to be taken advantage of by anyone with narcissist tendencies who will enjoy their “giving, sacrificing” nature.

It is hard to believe that anyone would willingly put themselves in this situation but we can understand this by looking at a typical narcissist-codependent relationship. In the first stage, adulation, the narcissist is wearing a mask and his true character is not on display. He/she is a gift sent from heaven (in this stage) and a true codependent especially will fall deeply, looking for the security they crave. By the time, stage two (criticism) and stage three (discard) appear, they are hooked and will do everything they can to stay in the relationship, totally absorbing themselves and enmeshing themselves with the wishes of the narcissist. It is like holding a tiger by the tail. One day it will turn and bite.

While the above scenario sounds rightly hideous for the codependent, it plays into their need to be the victim. In therapy, they will complain constantly about their lot in life, their partner who abuses them and cheats on them, they promise to do the work, want to do the work but never do. They appear need this “victimhood” as an identity of who they are because being something else is scary and unattainable for them. They deserve what they get and they get what they deserve. Even worse, they will also enable and validate the very behaviour they complain about.

We can call this concept the “victimhood security blanket”. All the while this attitude is shown, there is not the need to change. Change is something that codependents find difficult, especially when they have to make the change. All the while they are the victim, they can convince themselves that change is not possible or that change will mean nothing substantial for them; “Who would want me?”, I have often heard. Victimhood in this case is a protection measure that protects them from new, more functional experiences. Experiences that on one hand could be all they dream of but on the other means fear and effort.

Identifying constantly as a victim usually means high levels of anxiety, depression and low levels of motivation, hope and self-esteem. Masochistic codependents are constantly hyper-vigilant  of their environment and the people in it, looking for any changes that they have to adapt to. They are often very rigid in their thinking and behaviour and will refuse any attempts to bring them out of their comfort zone of victimhood. Treating them is a long and arduous task with the anticipation that their whole cognitive “being” needs to be reconstructed. They need to find an identity, connect with themselves and protect this identity with healthy thinking and boundaries. In effect, they need to stop seeing the advantages of being the perpetual victim.

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