Why do people stay in co-dependent relationships?
Relationships are complicated! And co-dependent relationships are especially complicated. On the surface it doesn’t make sense for anyone to stay in a dysfunctional, abusive, or unsatisfying relationship and yet many, many people do.
It’s easy to pass judgment. You may be questioning why a friend or family member stays in a toxic relationship. Or you may be judging yourself for staying in a codependent relationship. When you better understand the psychology and emotions behind codependency, you will begin to understand the complex reasons for staying and hopefully have more compassion for others and yourself.
Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic that dates back to childhood. Kids who grow up in dysfunctional families learn that they are bad, unworthy, stupid, incapable, and the cause of the family dysfunction. These beliefs and experiences create the roots for adult codependent relationships.
Here are the nine biggest reasons that codependents stay in dysfunctional relationships.
Reason #1: Love & Concern
Love is a powerful feeling. Even when treated badly, strong feelings of love and concern can persist. When a bond has been formed it is hard to break it even when someone’s been abused or mistreated.
Most codependents learned in childhood that love and abuse go hand in hand. Unfortunately, over time, some codependents come to believe mistreatment is normal in an relationship. They come to expect abuse, manipulation, and being taken advantage of. This kind of treatment is familiar to them.
They also see love as self-sacrificing. They show love by taking care of their partners* and sacrificing their own needs and opinions.
Addicts, abusers, and mentally ill people are often in real peril. Codependents have valid concerns about what will happen if they aren’t there to take care of their partner. They worry that s/he’ll suffer individually or the family will suffer harsh consequences if they don’t keep things on an even path. Codependents may continually rescue or enable out of guilt or anger, but real love and concern also motivate them to stay and help.
Reason #2: Hope for change
Hope is a powerful motivator. Codependents dedicate themselves to trying to fix and heal their partners. When you’ve invested so much, it’s hard to give up! And the truth is that even dysfunctional relationships aren’t bad all of the time. The good times keep hope alive. Codependents stay because because they’re still holding out hope that their partner will change. For codependents, changing, leaving, or setting boundaries feels like giving up.
Reason #3: Guilt
Guilt is another huge motivator for codependents because they’re people-pleasers. They work exceedingly hard to avoid conflict, disagreement or doing anything to displease others. Guilt is a feeling that you’re doing something wrong and this is very uncomfortable for a people-pleaser. This feeling of guilt frequently appears when they try to set boundaries or hold their partners accountable. Guilt makes codependents feel that staying is the “right” thing to do and they’re bad people if they even consider leaving.
When codependents try to leave, they feel guilty and assume misplaced responsibility for breaking up the family. And even when they can see that they aren’t causing the family problems, they may worry that others will blame them. They are judged, scolded, or possibly even cast off by others who think they should have stayed and made it work.
The addict, narcissistic, or ill partner is an expert manipulator. S/he knows what to do and say to manipulate the codependent’s emotions and maximize their feelings of guilt.
Reason #4: Low Self-Esteem
Most codependents grew up in dysfunctional families that got in the way of them developing self-confidence and positive self-esteem. As a result, codependents sometimes believe they deserve this type of treatment and don’t feel empowered to change and become more independent. Codependents tell me that they never had a model for healthy relationships. So, while they are unhappy in a codependent relationship, they wonder if it’s normal or whether a fulfilling, respectful relationship is really possible.
Codependents are natural helpers. They often partner with needy people because they feel good about themselves when they can help others. The role of care-taker or rescuer provides a sense of worth and purpose to a codependent person who is often lacking in self-esteem.
Reason #5: Fear
Fear comes in many forms for codependents. They may fear for their own safety or the safety of their children or family. Narcissistic, abusive, addicted or ill people may overtly or covertly threaten harm, which should be taken seriously.
Codependents have been told repeatedly that they are unworthy, incompetent, bad (and probably much worse). As a result, they fear rejection and being alone. Fear coupled with low self-esteem leads them to think no one else will love or want them. The fear is so strong that codependents may think their dysfunctional relationship is “better” than being alone.
Reason #6: Dependency
Codependents may be dependent on their partners for money or a place to live. Part of the addict or abuser’s hold is that he taps into his partner’s fear and low self-esteem, convincing her that she can’t make it on her own.
Reason #7: Shame
From childhood, codependents learned to keep family secrets, to stuff their feelings inside, to tolerate pain, and to ignore problems. For many, keeping family secrets was a matter of survival. Shame is the feeling we have when we’ve done something wrong. Codependents haven’t done anything wrong, but they are told they have. When one can’t speak honestly about her feelings and experiences, doubt creeps in. There is no one to validate that the family system is dysfunctional, so the codependent comes to believe she is internally flawed. She believes she is the problem. And while this may not make any sense to an outsider, it makes complete sense to the codependent who has been told she is no good for her entire life.
Shame makes asking for help hard. Asking for help means breaking this code of silence. Codependents are afraid to let other people know how badly they are treated or that their partner is an addict or mentally ill. They feel shame as though they did something to cause the addiction or illness.
Reason #8: Manipulation
As I mentioned above, narcissists, abusers, and addicts are skilled manipulators. Many of these folks are charming and charismatic to outsiders, which is the perfect cover for their manipulations. They will get what they want at any cost and make their partners believe it’s their fault. Manipulation is their number one tool for keeping a partner dependent. Manipulation is used to maximize already existing feelings of guilt, shame, and low self-esteem.
Reason #9: Overwhelm
When we are overwhelmed, it’s hard to concentrate, make plans, and see things clearly. A lot of codependents are in a state of high stress and constant overwhelm. This is why it’s so important to seek outside help.
While codependents do have an important part in their dysfunctional relationships, they are not responsible for being mistreated and it’s important not to blame them. Even asking “Why do you stay?” can promote shame and blame. Instead let’s start asking: “How can I help you get unstuck?”
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*For simplicity, I use the term partner and pronoun him/he to refer to the abuser/ill/under-functioning person. Co-dependency can exist in any close relationship (parent-child, intimate partners, siblings, etc.) and people of all genders are both codependent and abusive.
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