Am I Codependent? 4 Facts & 4 Questions To Consider
Codependent? According to Whom?
Ten years ago, my husband’s Twelve Step sponsor took it upon himself to label me “codependent.” This man proceeded to explain, in no uncertain terms, that any problems I had with my porn addict husband were exactly that—my problem. If I simply learned to focus on my own issues, he explained, I would soon realize that “[I was] the source of much of the pain for which [I] had blamed others” (S-Anon Twelve Steps, page 39).
In that moment, I felt attacked to my core, silenced into submission by a weapon of emotional mass destruction.
Labeling Someone Codependent Is One Way Abusers Keep Their Victims Silent
Sadly, it took me seven more years before I could “talk back” to that voice from my past, before I learned terms like “gaslighting” and “blame shifting” and “psychological abuse.” As a professional Betrayal Trauma Recovery coach, I’m grateful to help other women reject such abuse tactics in far less time!) But even though it took me awhile to separate some facts from fallacies, it only took me a millisecond to identify a few deeply irrefutable truths.
4 Facts About Codependency
- Codependence is a four-syllable word. However, when used as an instrument of ignorance and abuse, it feels more like a four-letter word.
- When professed by someone in a position of significant relational influence or power, the term codependent feels like a violation of interpersonal boundaries.
- For a woman drowning in the throes of confusion, grief and early betrayal trauma, the concept of codependence tends to hinder her quest toward safety and serenity. It feels like a deeply discouraging (at best) and severely disempowering (at worst) detour, one that fails to address a number of other critical and time-sensitive factors.
- Being told I’m codependent doesn’t automatically mean it’s true — even if the person who makes that statement is educated, successful or experienced within the world of addiction recovery.
Even now, ten years later, as I remember that infamous early conversation, my blood pressure skyrockets. A microscopic piece of me is grateful (gulp), because in certain ways, that man wasn’t entirely wrong. But an enormous piece of me — the part of me that now speaks up when something feels really, really wrong — knows that conversation should NEVER have gone down the way it did. That man had no right to label me anything. He had no invitation, and didn’t have my permission. He knew little more than my first name, and he’d never walked a block in my shoes. He didn’t understand PTSD or complex trauma, and he ultimately did more harm than good in my marriage. From that first word forward, that man projected onto me a clear message of presumptive dysfunction and primary deflection, indicting me for responding (very appropriately, I might add) to the pain of my husband’s active porn addiction.
And I’ll be honest: some days, I still really hate him for that.
I hate him most on days like this one, when I’m writing or speaking or coaching on this topic, as I watch other strong and beautiful and brilliant women struggle with this question, “Am I codependent?”
At the beginning of my journey, I tackled this question by myself and for myself. I grappled my way through it in silence and in isolation. So on days like today, when I get all stirred up? I leverage that anger toward our communal advantage. Instead of leaning into my resentment, I lean into conviction and advocacy and activism, working to strengthen and support our heroic sisterhood. I triumph over my anger by celebrating our willingness to ask even the toughest questions — and by honoring our right to address for ourselves the assumptions that others attempt to dictate for us.
Am I Codependent? Four Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re reading this article, I’m guessing it’s because you want to explore more about codependence. You’ve likely heard the topic debated in various forums, and you may wonder why it’s such a passionate subject for survivors of porn addiction, narcissism, and other forms of relational abuse. Perhaps you believe are codependent. Or maybe, you’ve comfortably concluded that you’re not. Whatever your position, my purpose here is not to convince you in either direction! (As a coach, I don’t attach much value to prepackaged, one-size-fits-all answers. To read more about APSATS training, click here.) Instead, my primary goal is to articulate some questions my clients commonly ask about codependence—along with reality checks, reflection questions and a few further thoughts in response to each one.
1. QUESTION: “I can’t stop obsessing about my husband’s porn addiction. He tells me he’s stopped looking, and I think I believe him. But I’m still worried about it. In fact, I worry about it constantly. Does that mean I’m codependent?”
For women in betrayal trauma, our heads (thoughts) are intimately connected to our hearts (emotions) and our guts (intuition). We tend to experience obsessive thinking—also referred to as “hypervigilance”—when we’re (a) grieving the past, (b) feeling unsafe in the present, or (c) seeking to protect ourselves from further abuse in the future. As we heal and recover, our heads, hearts and guts are less frequently triggered by our high functioning “early-detection” system. In most cases, our obsessions become less consuming over time, as our heightened awareness becomes more focused and discerning. It eventually picks up only the most important information we need to remain safe, rather than sounding an alarm over things that aren’t significant threats.
Even though I’ve been healing for years from trauma induced by my husband’s porn addiction, I still get hypervigilant at various points in time, to varying degrees, and for unpredictable durations. When that happens, I rely upon others to help me identify why: whether I’m grieving, feeling unsafe or seeking protection for myself and my future. My Twelve Step sponsor and recovery friends help me to surrender what I know I can’t know, and they remind about ways I can ground myself spiritually. My coach helps me to process the triggers I’m experiencing, empowering me to respond authentically and appropriately. We discuss my feelings, fears and known facts, and we explore what, whom or why I may be grieving. We assess which of my boundaries might need reinforcement, and we prioritize my commitment to self-care, self-compassion and self-protection.
Codependence Reality Check: Extreme degrees of hypervigilance are very normal for survivors of addiction and/or abuse, especially during the first one-to-three years after discovery. They’re also increasingly common in the aftermath of a slip or relapse. If you’re feeling hypervigilant, please be compassionate with yourself! Take a moment to remember that, in most cases, we women don’t choose to think about this stuff obsessively. Hypervigilance is something that happens to us, as the result of our betrayal trauma. It does NOT automatically indicate that we’re codependent.
Trauma Reflection Questions: If you’re concerned about the frequency or duration of your obsessive thoughts, consider asking yourself questions like these:
- On a scale from 1-5, how well does my hypervigilance match the severity of what has happened, is happening, and/or what I believe could happen again?
- On a scale from 1-5, how deeply are my responses harming me, interfering with my life, or causing me to speak and act in ways that aren’t aligned with my values?
- On a scale from 1-5, how well am I tolerating these obsessive episodes? Is there something I can do to increase my tolerance or decrease my vulnerability? Are there alternative responses with which I might experiment?
Betrayal trauma can cause unwanted obsessive thoughts – focusing on someone or something else, specifically to the intentional exclusion of focusing on myself and my own self-improvement. If you’re working with an APSATS coach, she will help you safely determine if your obsessive thoughts are a trauma response and give you the tools to heal.
2. QUESTION: “I can’t leave him home alone with internet access, because I’m afraid of what he’ll look at when I’m gone. I’ve also installed internet filters on all of our devices, and I expect him to have an internet accountability partner. Does that mean that I’m codependent?”
For women in betrayal trauma, our FIRST order of business is securing for ourselves some degree of safety and stabilization. And for most of us, sexual betrayal within our own homes (and by our own loved ones) is an extremely destabilizing experience. There are many ways to restore safety to our post-betrayal lives, and these (decreased opportunity, internet protection and accountability) are some of the most common and accessible tools we have to make that happen. Determining how much, how far, and how frequently we utilize these tools is a highly individualized process. (In my own recovery, this is an area where I still lean heavily upon my therapist, coach and sponsor.) These women assist me in weighing the pros and cons for each tool at my disposal, and they protect me from putting too much trust or reliance into resources that aren’t failsafe.
As women healing from betrayal trauma, we deserve to feel safe within our own bodies, our own homes and our own families. This need for safety is NOT codependence. It’s survival. It’s self-care. It’s self-compassion, and it’s self-protection. Not only are these things our rights, they’re also our responsibilities.
Trauma Reflection Questions: If you’re concerned about your need for internet protection and accountability, consider asking yourself questions like these:
- On a scale from 1-5, how much safety do I receive from using these tools within my home and relationship?
- On a scale from 1-5, how costly are these tools? What sacrifices am I making, in exchange for the security I’m receiving—and am I comfortable making these sacrifices?
- On a scale from 1-5, how fully to I trust these external protections? Do I have a backup plan, in case something goes wrong?
Trauma can cause women in these situations to second guess their intuition, and feel panicked about controlling their situation. Working with an APSATS coach can help you determine your emotional and physical safety, help you set healthy boundaries to keep you safe, and give you tools to work toward healthy, post-traumatic growth.
3. QUESTION: “What if I’m not strong enough to set boundaries? I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’ve given in, and then he’s walked all over me. Does that mean I’m codependent?”
For women in betrayal trauma, setting boundaries is perhaps the most important, most pivotal, most game-changing step we take in recovery. For most of us, it’s also the most intimidating, overwhelming and terrifying task we undertake. Sexual betrayal wreaks havoc with our perceptions of reality, priority and self-perception, which means it takes a heavy toll on our convictions, our confidence and our identities as Women Who Can Conquer Anything. Very few of us set boundaries with ease, clarity and unshakeable success. In my personal and professional experience, it’s nearly impossible to navigate healthy boundaries without the support of a therapist or APSATS coach.
There are dozens of reasons why setting boundaries can so difficult—including the very high incidence of “pushback” from the addicted and/or abusive men in our lives. Our attempts to set boundaries are often thwarted by guys like my husband’s sponsor, the one who told me to “stay on my side of the street.” By attempting to convince us that (a) we don’t need boundaries, (b) our boundaries are too controlling (that’s a whole other article, by the way) or (c) our consequences for boundary violations are too punitive, men often intimidate us into changing our minds about our boundaries, no matter how necessary and legitimate they are.
They tell us we’re the bad guys, the mommies, the police officers. They label us with words like “codependent.” And then, when we struggle to hold onto ourselves (independence), lean upon others for support (interdependence) or act upon spiritual guidance (God-dependence), we wonder if they might actually be right. After all, wouldn’t a more independent, interdependent and God-dependent woman have a stronger backbone?
When I’m struggling with boundaries, I stick like glue to my circles of support. My Twelve Step sponsor and recovery friends remind to consider what I can and cannot change, and they help me refocus upon the spiritual principles of my recovery program. My coach highlights specific areas where my boundaries are doing their job (or not), and we explore a variety of solutions until I find the one that fits best. These women reflect back to me everything I know but tend to forget, and they’re my greatest source of accountability and comfort, especially at times when I’m tempted to buckle (or actually do) under my the strain of my husband’s complaints.
Boundary setting is hard, and there WILL be pushback. But boundary setting isn’t impossible, and all women can succeed at setting healthy boundaries. Few of us ever set boundaries perfectly. But we don’t let that stop us from learning and growing and improving over time. Not sure you believe me? Let me put it this way: NONE of this whole journey has been easy, has it? And yet, nothing “hard” has discouraged us to the point of giving up on ourselves. The truth is, WE CAN set boundaries. Let’s repeat it until we believe it: “We can set boundaries—because we are worth it.”
And boundaries, dear women? Boundaries are our superpower.
Trauma Reflection Questions: If you’re concerned about your ability to envision, establish and enforce personal boundaries, consider asking yourself questions like these:
- On a scale from 1-5, how often can I successfully do other “extremely hard” things? What support resources help me do what I couldn’t do otherwise?
- On a scale from 1-5, what is the quality of my life with boundaries? What is the quality of my life without boundaries?
- On a scale from 1-5, how hard have I fought to protect the wellbeing of my closest loved ones? Have I fought equally hard to protect my own wellbeing?
In some situations, the trauma is so intense, you can’t figure out how to make it stop – and boundaries may seem confusing. If you’re working with a trained APSATS coach, they can help you understand how to remove yourself from the trauma cycle, and get to safety.
4. QUESTION: “We spend all of our money on support groups, classes, therapy and addiction treatment for him. In the process, I’ve sacrificed time, energy and money for myself and the kids. Does that mean I’m codependent?”
For women in betrayal trauma, it’s normal and natural for us to pour ALL available resources into the source of our present crisis: “His issues got us here, so let’s do whatever it takes to fix his issues.” As an adrenaline-fueled, intervention-oriented, post-traumatic stress response, that approach makes perfect sense: it’s a short-term, emergency-focused, survival-driven strategy, designed to rescue ourselves by putting an end to his addiction and/or abuse.
At the same time, recovery from betrayal trauma isn’t a fast-and-furious sprint, it’s more of a slow-and-steady marathon. Very few families heal to the point of wholeness when treatment for the addict and/or abuser’s consumes the entirety of our time, money and energy.
Within their practice of addiction and abuse, our guys are used to being the center of their own secret world. I’ve never met a man who reverses that trend overnight in recovery, so it typically falls upon US to prioritize resources for own healing. Like other meaningful areas of betrayal trauma, making this choice isn’t easy or obvious. And like other areas of recovery, our best chance at success comes through having support.
If you’re conflicted about dedicating resources to your own healing, consider asking yourself questions like these:
- On a scale from 1-5, how guilty do I feel about diverting time, money and energy away from my husband for my own healing? How does this number differ from how I want to feel, or how I believe I should feel?
- On a scale from 1-5, Are there other women in my life who spend a portion of their resources to healing themselves? Do I know women who do the opposite? What do I think and feel about these women? And what does that suggest about me?
- On a scale from 1-5, how significantly might my life improve if I started paying for APSATS coaching? If I hired a babysitter? Enrolled in an art class? Registered for a women’s retreat? Redecorated my bedroom? Purchased new pajamas?
In most situations, women can mistakenly assume that dedicating all available resources to our partners will stop the traumatizing behaviors. Schedule a free consultation with a Betrayal Trauma APSATS coach to see if boundaries and other ways of healing your trauma would create safety in your life.
Am I Codependent? Yes? No? Maybe? How Important Is It?
In reality, labeling yourself codependent may not help you heal the trauma you’re experiencing. After reading this:
- Are you processing your experience differently?
- Are you asking a new question, perhaps one that hasn’t occurred to you previously—and maybe that new question feels like a fresh start?
- Are you answering an old question with a different response—and maybe that response feels like a victory?
- Are you feeling more peace about who you are and how you feel?
- Are you feeling more questions about what is going on inside you?
CONCLUSION: When all is said and done, it isn’t important to me whether you are (or are not) codependent. Ultimately, it’s for you to decide if the question even warrants another moment of your time. On behalf of the entire team here at BTR, let me close by stating how deeply WE BELIEVE IN YOU! We believe in your ability to discern what’s important for you, as passionately as we believe in your ability to heal and recover from ALL of this — from the abusive behaviors related to your loved ones pornography / sex addiction, and from the trauma you’ve experienced as the result.
In Service and Support,
PS: I have a VERY long list of FAQs about codependence! If I didn’t address your burning question above, please don’t let that stop you from seeking your answers. I encourage you to be brave. Consider writing about the question, to explore what you think and feel in response. Ask your therapist, APSATS coach, sponsor and support group for input. Check out some of these other frequently asked questions, and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know which ones most interest YOU. Stay tuned. I’ll address them in a followup post or podcast:
- When I tell my husband he’s abusive, he tells me I’m playing the victim. Something about that doesn’t feel right. I do feel like a victim, but that makes me sound like I’m being a martyr. Does that mean I’m codependent?
- My husband believes that I’ll never leave him, even if he goes back to using porn regularly. Deep in my heart, I’m afraid that he’s right. Does that mean I’m codependent?
- I have sex with my husband so he won’t look at porn. Does that mean I’m codependent?
- After my husband’s betrayals, I’m far too traumatized to let him touch me. I’d rather have him look at porn than pressure me for sex. Does that mean I’m codependent?
- I do what my husband wants, to keep the peace in our family. Most of the time, what I want isn’t a big deal to me, or it’s not worth the fight it would trigger between us. Does that mean I’m codependent?
- I’m very passive in my relationships. I often let others make all the big decisions, primarily because I don’t trust my own ideas or opinions. I know this makes me vulnerable to abuse within my marriage, but I continue to do it. Does that mean I’m codependent?
- I am a stay-at-home mom. I make zero money. I can’t survive without financial support from my husband, and he makes all of our financial decisions. Does that mean I’m codependent?