By David Thomas, PhD
Codependents are individuals who become dependent upon narcissists, (or alcoholics or drug addicts.) The concept of Codependence is derived from the ‘co-alcoholic’ behavior of spouses and children in chemically dependent family systems. Counselors observed that family members often took on the psychological defenses and survival behaviors of the alcoholic, thereby extending the disease from the individual to the entire family.
In the same way, codependents take on the psychological defenses and survival behaviors of the narcissist, thereby extending the narcissism from the individual to the entire household or workplace.
The following definitions of codependence describe how the codependent feels and what he feels he must try to achieve:
“A pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity.“
The condition wherein one person tries to control another and to be responsible for the consequences of the behavior of that other person.
This definition of codependence goes some way to explaining what causes codependency:
A pattern of coping which develops because of prolonged exposure to and practice of dysfunctional family rules that make difficult the open expression of thought.”
Codependency is a condition that affects a large percentage of the adult population in varying degrees. Other terms often used for codependent behavior in relation to narcissism are ‘enabler’, ‘follower’, ‘covert narcissist’, ‘inverted narcissist’ and and ‘co-narcissist’.
Codependents seek security both at work and at home, so they are drawn to individuals who are, or appear to be, confident, positive and self-assured. Narcissists display these very qualities, displaying an air of superiority, grandiosity and self-importance. Codependents admire these qualities, and narcissists crave admiration.
Narcissists don’t want their superiority challenged, so they engage in relationships with individuals who are prepared to remain subservient to them. Codependents, who have been brought up in an environment that ensures they will avoid confrontation if at all possible, are therefore ideal partners. Codependents also find it difficult to make decisions, always checking with others before making choices. The narcissist’s constant need for attention fits ideally with this characteristic of the codependent, who ends up checking with the narcissist before making decisions.
However, by subordinating his needs to the narcissist, the codependent puts himself into a position whereby he feels the need to defend the behavior of his narcissistic partner, boss or friend. He takes on the psychological defenses and survival behaviours of the narcissist. This ultimately results in codependent behavior characterized by dishonesty and denial.
Codependency, Don’t Dance!
When a codependent and narcissist come together in their relationship, their dance unfolds flawlessly: The narcissistic partner maintains the lead and the codependent follows. Their roles seem natural to them because they have actually been practicing them their whole lives; the codependent reflexively gives up their power and since the narcissist thrives on control and power, the dance is perfectly coordinated. No one gets their toes stepped on.
Typically, codependents give of themselves much more than their partners give back to them. As “generous” but bitter dance partners, they seem to be stuck on the dance floor, always waiting for the “next song,” at which time they naively hope that their narcissistic partner will finally understand their needs. Codependents confuse caretaking and sacrifice with loyalty and love. Although they are proud of their unwavering dedication to the person they love, they end up feeling unappreciated and used. Codependents yearn to be loved, but because of their choice of dance partner, find their dreams unrealized. With the heartbreak of unfulfilled dreams, codependents silently and bitterly swallow their unhappiness.
Codependents are essentially stuck in a pattern of giving and sacrificing, without the possibility of ever receiving the same from their partner. They pretend to enjoy the dance, but really harbor feelings of anger, bitterness, and sadness for not taking an active role in their dance experience. They are convinced that they will never find a dance partner who will love them for who they are, as opposed to what they can do for them. Their low self-esteem and pessimism manifests itself into a form of learned helplessness that ultimately keeps them on the dance floor with their narcissistic partner.
The narcissist dancer, like the codependent, is attracted to a partner who feels perfect to them: Someone who lets them lead the dance while making them feel powerful, competent and appreciated. In other words, the narcissist feels most comfortable with a dancing companion who matches up with their self-absorbed and boldly selfish dance style. Narcissist dancers are able to maintain the direction of the dance because they always find partners who lack self-worth, confidence and who have low self-esteem — codependents. With such a well-matched companion, they are able to control both the dancer and the dance.
Although all codependent dancers desire harmony and balance, they consistently sabotage themselves by choosing a partner who they are initially attracted to, but will ultimately resent. When given a chance to stop dancing with their narcissistic partner and comfortably sit the dance out until someone healthy comes along, they typically choose to continue their dysfunctional dance. They dare not leave their narcissistic dance partner because their lack of self-esteem and self-respect makes them feel like they can do no better. Being alone is the equivalent of feeling lonely, and loneliness is too painful to bear.
Although codependents dream of dancing with an unconditionally loving and affirming partner, they submit to their dysfunctional destiny. Until they decide to heal the psychological wounds that ultimately compel them to dance with their narcissistic dance partners, they will be destined to maintain the steady beat and rhythm of their dysfunctional dance.
Through psychotherapy, and perhaps, a 12-step recovery program, the codependent can begin to recognize that their dream to dance the grand dance of love, reciprocity and mutuality is indeed possible. Through therapy and a change of lifestyle, codependents can build (repair) their tattered self-esteem. The journey of healing and transformation will bring them feelings of personal power and efficacy that will foster a desire to finally dance with someone who is willing and capable of sharing the lead, communicating their movements, and pursuing a mutual loving rhythmic dance.
In conclusion, it is my belief that all codependents, if motivated and committed to a healing and engaging psychotherapy process, are able to stop their insanity-inducing dance with narcissists. Through a non-wavering belief in one’s self-worth and commitment to the ideal of healthy and resilient love, we all can finally experience personal and relational joy.
The quote that best captures my philosophy of the codependency recovery process comes from George Eliot: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Or, as I might say it, “It is never too late to dance with the partner of your dreams.”
By Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC