Toxic Coupling: Overcoming Codependency Addiction

Relationships can be worse than drugs and alcohol.


I am a recovered alcoholic.  However, in one of my meetings, I realized that behind my “visible” and easily identifiable addiction — alcohol — lies a more subtle, cunning, and life-threatening addiction — codependency.

Some estimates suggest that over 90 percent of Americans exhibit codependent behaviors and/or tendencies.

What is Codependency?

Codependency can be a severe and toxic dynamic in relationships.  It describes a person who is committed to pleasing other people.  They will go far out of their way to avoid upsetting others.  Codependency is usually a learned attachment style formed during childhood.

Codependency manifests as an addiction to people and is as serious an addiction as any other.

Codependency and Narcissism

The terms “codependency” and “narcissism” get thrown around a lot, even when people don’t understand what they mean.  At their core, these two labels — which dictate our methods of interacting with people — are about as opposite from each other as they can be.  Neither codependency nor narcissism is healthy, and unfortunately, the two personality types can be the “perfect” match for dysfunction in romantic relationships.

What Is Narcissism?

Narcissism is the opposite of codependency.  A narcissist believes the world should revolve around them and their needs.  They have a heightened sense of their abilities and value, and they consider themselves better than everyone else.  Narcissists typically lack empathy, believing that life revolves around them.

Because of their deep-seated – and unconscious – fear of disappointing others, people with codependency gravitate toward their controlling partners.  Unlike narcissists, their denial of their own needs and interests becomes not only second nature but also a law of natural attraction.

Narcissists thrive on attention and praise from others.  Following this law of natural attraction, narcissists lean toward people with codependent issues.  A narcissist seeks someone who will avoid upsetting them and won’t argue with them.

The narcissist may take great offense at innocent mistakes and actions or believe that the codependent isn’t good enough for them.  Conversely, codependents internalize their emotional pain and believe their shortcomings are solely their fault. Eventually, the pressure that the codependent places on him/herself to be perfect will surface and wreak havoc on a relationship.

Once the narcissist has won over the codependent, he/she sees no further need to be charming.  Their love-bombing trap has worked.  They have won over the codependent’s love, sacrifice, and care – confirming the narcissist’s opinion that he/she is entitled to “have” that person who strives to be perfect.

The codependent will always crave the love and attention showered on them by the narcissist in the beginning, and, likely, they will never experience that again.  That absence of love and attention may cause the codependent person to sublimate with substances; leading them to that first fix or an alcoholic drink.  The more the codependent craves attention, the more they will try to save the relationship or replace it with substances.

How to Break Free from Codependency

Breaking free from codependency with a narcissist can be an arduous journey.  Below are a few things you can do:

  • Stop trying to help the narcissist.  No amount of unconditional love, understanding, and empathy can heal them.  Instead, narcissists would need to go to a professional therapist, and the success rate is still very low
  • Focus on yourself.  Ask yourself, “What makes me happy?”
  • Set boundaries.  This is important as narcissists do not respect boundaries, and codependents struggle to assert them.  Honor your values and principles.  You don’t need anyone to validate your feelings.
  • Practice self-love.  Open your big heart to yourself and save some love for yourself instead of always taking care of others.  Start with some easy steps like:
    • Take some quiet time for yourself
    • Practice mindfulness and meditation
    • Practice journaling to express your feelings honestly and privately

Remember that you are not a failure because you could not “win” the love of the narcissist.  Saving the relationship is not your job or your responsibility.  The narcissist will see the codependent as “suitable” only when the codependent continues sacrificing boundaries.  They will continue to manipulate the codependent and give them just enough attention to keep their hope of “love” alive.

Working on issues such as building self-esteem, handling being alone, and learning the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, are skills that the codependent can develop to find the courage to end the relationship.  If you believe that any of this applies to you, do not wait until you are at your breaking point to seek professional help.  Therapeutic support groups such as Codependents Anonymous can be a good start.

Also, therapists who specialize in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) can be an excellent resource.  The goals of cognitive behavioral therapy are:

1) to help identify and change negative thought patterns, and 2) to encourage positive behavioral changes.  DBT teaches people how to cope with and change unhealthy behaviors.

The codependent-narcissist trap is easy to fall into and difficult to escape.  However, codependent people can break free if they ask for help and do the hard work necessary to learn how to love themselves and forgive themselves for their past.

Additional support is available from our partners at the CPTSD Foundation.  Through the Resources page, you can join their Daily Recovery Support Program at a 50% discount off the monthly membership rate.

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