It’s something I’ve heard many times and even written about on this site on occasion. That is, the expression “I understand it logically, but not emotionally”. My response to this question is always the same. The logical voice is maybe the most important adult “in the moment” advice that genuinely has to be listened to in most given situations. On the emotional side of the debate, we might think of it as our “wounded self” speaking up and attempting to protect and avoid us from what it perceives to be impending trouble.

What is it about codependents that prevents them from accessing a mode of thought that is generally accurate in terms of the road forward? It is a question to which I hope to provide an answer in this piece.

The thinking that keeps us from going ahead is a type of defense. Our brains are like enormous processors, and they will typically tune into our thinking and language, providing evidence from our experiences and anxieties to back up anything we want to process. We are only as good as our last thought in this case! While it may seem like our minds dominate us at times, we can always trace it back to a thought or fear that we had that triggered the process. While it is completely acceptable to defend ourselves from genuine risks, the majority of what we (particularly codependents) spend our time doing is thinking through predicted occurrences based on fear.

Here’s an illustration. Several years ago, a woman with whom I worked came to session every week to complain about how her spouse treated her. As time went on, there was clear evidence of severe emotional and verbal abuse, financial control, and sexual coercion, all of which became worse as time went on. She admitted that she was in a very traumatic state and that she did not know what to do. She said that she loved her husband (which is often used as a reason not to change without any real evidence of love) and could not imagine her life without him, despite his abuse. One day, she said that he had pinned her against the wall by her throat and threatened to take away her bank card during an argument over money. This had to do with her spending more money on food than he believed was reasonable. She contacted me in tears immediately after the event and expressed her frustration at not knowing what to do. When I told her she needed to go to a secure place until things could be processed, she went to stay with her sister. I promised her that I would call her the next day. When I did, she had already returned to her husband after he had contacted her and assured her that it would never happen again, and as a result, she did not need any more therapy, which she duly and dutifully cancelled.

This state of affairs persisted for two weeks, until her husband physically assaulted her, prompting her to finally leave him after twenty years of domestic violence and she filed a police report. She returned to therapy and stated that she was very aware all along that she needed to leave him early in the relationship but was unable to do so for a variety of reasons. When I inquired as to why, she replied that the option of starting again on her own was too daunting, and she had convinced herself that she would fail. At the very least, her spouse had provided her with structure and “leadership”. She said that being mistreated in the manner in which she was (which she frequently downplayed) was a result of her being unable to make a decision, thus blaming herself.

It is not the first time I have encountered a situation in which codependents choose to remain with the most despicable of people out of dread of being alone and making the fresh start that could be exactly what they need with a more suitable new partner in the future. There are women (and the great majority of them are women but it can happen to men too) that I’ve worked with who have put up with the worst of circumstances and treatment in order to remain with abusive spouses. This frequently entails agreeing to controlling behaviour, coercion, restrictions on liberties, and even rape in certain cases (this happens more than one might imagine).

All of them have described the intense anxiety they feel when they believe their partner is about to leave them. Several people have spoken of a panic-like condition and escalating terror that triggers a “fight or flight” reaction in the body. The types of individuals with whom they are associated are generally well-versed in how to take advantage of this. Due to the fact that the majority of the women engaged blame themselves for staying and, ultimately, for the abuse, it is difficult for them to find a route out of the situation. The cycle can sustain itself over a long period of time, but it is almost always destined to come to an end sooner or later as the relationship implodes.

Where does this overwhelming anxiety originate, and why does it trump common sense and logic? When children grow up in a dysfunctional environment where they are subjected to neglect or abuse, they will do everything to survive their insecure, anxious connection to caregivers. They frequently compensate for this by being the “nice child” or excelling academically, leading many to go on and have high-flying careers. They may seek to become caregivers for their parents or to exert control over the narrative around their connection with them by drawing attention in any manner possible. These techniques are the only way they believe they can survive, and they eventually become their adult default template. This is mirrored in the fact that many codependents find emotionally unavailable individuals appealing and struggle to connect with those who may wish to interact with them. This reflects their early connections and is the only method they are familiar with.This perpetual search for the ideal connection frequently leads codependents into several abusive, controlling relationships. There is usually the inevitable outcome, as the codependent attempts to assert control over the relationship as well. Take a look at this article on The Drama Triangle for more details on codependent control.

So, what is the solution? It is never easy to transcend early conditioning and the sentiments that accompany it. It was a strong message that parents communicated, but that blueprint needs to be updated for the adult world. Many adults in relationships are “adult children” who behave the same way they did when they were youngsters. “Growing up”  means understanding your origins and developing an adult sense of self. This article covers what may be considered a first step toward understanding and advancement. Recovery From Codependency

The first critical step is to seek assistance in identifying toxic and abusive relationships that are a result of the dysregulated connection requirement. A professional will assist in educating about setting boundaries and providing assistance for identifying and exiting abusive and controlling relationships. Further deeper work will examine the concerns that frequently keep people trapped in circumstances they intellectually know should not exist.

If you are aware that you are in an abusive, controlling, or toxic relationship, ask yourself why you are tolerating it, address your fears, and never accept abuse in exchange for apparent security

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