Codependency tells people to focus on themselves and not on others, which sounds great, but in the hands of an abusive and exploitative person it can really go awry.
Melinda, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community
Melinda, a member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery recently coined the phrase “weaponizing codependency language.” At BTR, we immediately knew that this concept would help victims.
Melinda joins Anne on the BTR podcast to empower women to understand how men are weaponizing codependency language and how they can use that knowledge to get to safety. Read the full transcript and listen to the free BTR podcast for more.
How Do Men Learn Codependency Language?
Men who weaponize codependency language have often learned the concept of codependency from sexual addiction therapists, or marriage and family counselors.
When sexual addiction therapists and other professionals label a victim of betrayal and abuse as “codependent” they are essentially blaming the victim. Anne explains:
A lot of the sex addiction therapists claim to know about betrayal trauma, but they do not actually practice it. They envelope codependency narratives into their scripts and therapeutic approach, but represent it as being informed in betrayal trauma and that is very dangerous. The best [professionals] seem to be abuse experts from what we’ve experienced in our years of work with abused women who are wives of sex addicts.
Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
The Codependency Concept Enables Abusers
When professionals use codependency language with abusive men and their partners, abusers (consciously or subconsciously) find the concept helpful in enabling their abusive and unfaithful behaviors.
Why? Because when a therapist labels a victim as codependent, then he is implying that she is at least in part responsible for the abuser’s behavior.
Melinda shares her experience:
My husband had a charming façade and playful façade, and he often would gaslight me as well. What I realized is that the codependency flame was a really great excuse for him to not take responsibility. I think throughout our relationship, we had had problems prior to this and the problems, in my view, were not taking accountability for his behavior. Other kinds of behavior and responsibilities, and when the word codependency or the concept of codependency came into our relationship it just became another tool to gaslight me and deflect and not be accountable. It was really confusing for a while because I am a person who wants to take accountability, but he was using it as a way to not actually address the harm he would cause.”
I became a scapegoat for many, many things and this just allowed even more scapegoating. For example, his decisions to cheat and all the other stuff was part of that scapegoating. I didn’t quite understand why this was happening.
Melinda, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community
Codependency Language Harms Victims of Betrayal and Abuse
Victims of betrayal and abuse are conditioned to blame themselves for their partner’s abusive and unfaithful behaviors. Because of this, when men weaponize codependency language, women may focus on bettering themselves rather than seeking safety.
Women don’t know what to do and confronting it seems so difficult and also the consequences of confronting seem so difficult, like separation or divorce or other things seem like: “I can’t do that” so the “I’ll just focus on myself becomes a way for them to do something, right. They feel like they’re doing something without actually moving towards safety sometimes. But I think there is a lot of compassion in this stage for victims because it’s difficult to know what to do and also both choices are not good. Living with an abuser or divorcing an abuser. They’re both not great choices.
Anne, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
Instead of empowering victims to set and maintain boundaries that separate them from abusive behavior, women are encouraged to stay in abusive relationships and focus on their own faults. This both enables abusers to keep abusing and shames women for choosing to leave an abusive situation.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Victims of Betrayal and Abuse
At BTR, we do not use the codependent model. We use the trauma model: there is a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. We will never advise you to “stay on your side of the street.” We will always empower women to seek safety.
The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group meets daily in every time zone and offers women the safe space they deserve to process trauma, share experiences, and express hard feelings. join today and find a community that will support you as you begin your journey to healing.
Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.
I’m welcoming Melinda on today’s episode, who is like all of us are, she is the wife of a porn user. The reason why I wanted her to come on today is she had commented on one of our articles.
We love when you leave comments on these articles, so please comment down below so that we can get to know you like we got to know Melinda.
So, welcome Melinda.
Melinda: Hi there. Thanks for having me.
Anne: Her comment was so insightful. She coined the phrase “weaponizing codependency language”. So, let’s start with your story Melinda. How did your husband weaponize codependency language?
Melinda: My husband revealed that he had been having an affair and later on revealed that he has been seeing a sex massage and also abusing porn. We entered into a process of trying to figure out what was going on.
Co-Dependency Language Is Harmful
I understood that it was not my fault and that it was something I felt like we could overcome together. He struggled a lot with all of it and ultimately showed that he couldn’t meet me where I needed to be met so that I could recover from the betrayal. For a period of time, he entered into 12-step, and I also should say that he has been trained as a counselor. He’s not a therapist now, but he was trained as one, and when we entered into therapy after the revelations of his betrayal something kept coming up that was baffling to me and it was reinforced by our therapist.
That somehow there was something in our dynamic that I was responsible for and that’s sort of why he did what he did and was acting out in the way that he was. I was trying to wrap my head around it because I’m a person who takes a lot of responsibility for her own behavior and her own actions but I’m like: “This doesn’t make any sense.” I also have done a lot of work professionally understanding trauma, so I was already under trauma orientation, thinking: “I’m traumatized. Why am I not getting understood here? Why does it keep coming back to something in my psychological makeup that’s creating this dynamic of his acting out behavior?”
Anne: Essentially it was trying to get you to take some form of accountability for the situation.
Melinda: Yes. I think it was only from later on where I kind of understood where this was coming from when I started learning more about 12-step and codependency and what that means. Being like most people I’ve just heard it being tossed around but how therapists and some of the 12-step field think about codependency I realized a lot of that thinking was entering into our process of healing that was damaging to me and neglected that his acting out was really, I’ve heard you use the term abuse, and I don’t know if I want to use that term but it was definitely abusive and a lot of his behavior aside from the sexual acting out was passive-aggressive covert abuse.
Anne: Emotional abuse in the form of lies and manipulation and stuff like that, right?
Co-Dependency Narratives Can Be Abusive
Melinda: Yeah, and a very charming façade and playful façade. A lot of it was very gaslighty as well. What I realized is that the codependency flame was a really great excuse for him to not take responsibility. I think throughout our relationship, we had had problems prior to this and the problems, in my view, were not taking accountability for his behavior. Other kinds of behavior and responsibilities, and when the word codependency or the concept of codependency came into our relationship it just became another tool to gaslight me and deflect and not be accountable.
It was really confusing for a while because I am a person who wants to take accountability, but he was using it as a way to not actually address the harm he’d cause.
Anne: There’s that, and then it goes further than that because he’s not just using it to avoid taking accountability for the harm that’s he caused. He’s also using it to try and pin it on you, and that’s why I call that abuse. Because he is actively trying to harm you.
Melinda: Yes. Yes.
Anne: I mean he doesn’t see it that way. He just thinks he’s trying to get away with it, but that is the end result. The end result is that not only is he not taking accountability but he’s harming you even further by lying about your part.
Melinda: Yeah. I became a scapegoat for many, many things and this just allowed even more scapegoating. You know, his decisions to cheat and all the other stuff was part of that scapegoating. I didn’t quite understand why this was happening. I was reading a lot of books on How to Help Your Partner Heal and What Does Reconciliation Look Like and I was bringing them to him and he kept coming up with: “Why don’t you focus on yourself?” and I’m thinking: “I am. I’m focusing on what I need to allow you back into my life.” Anytime I said: “You know, your defensiveness is really hurting me, and I don’t trust you, you’re not doing trustworthy things and you’re not showing me boundaries that I need etc.” He said: “Well stop focusing on me and focus on yourself.”
Co-Dependency Treatments Are Outdated
It didn’t make sense to me until I started looking into what codependency tells people. It tells them to focus on themselves and not on others, which sounds great, but in the hands of an abusive and exploitive person it can really go awry.
Anne: Well, and also, it’s what they want you to do. They would like you to stop confronting them about their abusive behaviors and because that’s what they want, they want you to “work on yourself” which to them means leave me alone and don’t hold me accountable for my abusive behaviors. So, basically let me do what I want.
Melinda: And a lot of this is about thinking that you’re controlling. My orientation, philosophical and spiritual frame, I have a Christian background but have more alignment with Buddhist mindfulness practices, as well as I’ve become more of a feminist and think about feminist psychology a lot more. I look at it in that frame and I see a lot of women being held responsible for men’s behavior in the culture. I think that was just a natural extension of the women is making me do this.
He even intimated that the affair partner was the aggressor in this situation and that somehow, she was this temptress.
Anne: “What could I do? She kissed me. I couldn’t do anything about it,” right?
Co-Dependency Models Are Dangerous With Abuse
Melinda: So, I’m always aware of that dynamic, of the gender dynamic, and our therapist played along with it. She was a new therapist and so that was the double trauma of facing the reality of his infidelity and all of that and then a therapist taking that frame and reflecting it back in our supposedly safe setting.
Anne: It sounds like that through the therapist it sort of became an extension of the abuse. So, let’s go back to where you’re being “supportive” of his recovery. Did you ever attend 12-step or COSA, which is Co-Sex Addicts Anonymous? Did you ever attend either of those groups?
Melinda: I did and I’m in a city with a lot of progressive thinking. I felt COSA was a safe space. I guess it wasn’t a strong presence of feeling like I had to align with being codependent. There were certainly women there who said they were and felt supportive in the city that I’m in, but I think what was striking to me, one of the few times that I went, for instance, there was one woman who was agonizing over her partner who was holed up in the basement with the computer looking at porn and he wouldn’t leave the house and I hear her describing his story and instead of her saying how angry and being indigent about how wrong that was and how inappropriate that was, she went back to the “I’m just going to focus on myself, take care of myself.”
I’m like: “Are you allowing abuse in your home because it’s easier and you don’t know how to set the boundary or even draw a line?” I just felt like she just caved into feeling like she’s beholden to the situation and must allow it to continue.
Co-Dependency Models Are Not Ok With Abusive Situations
Anne: I think that happens a lot. Women don’t know what to do and confronting it seems so difficult and also the consequences of confronting seem so difficult, like separation or divorce or other things seem like: “I can’t do that” so the “I’ll just focus on myself becomes a way for them to do something, right. They feel like they’re doing something without actually moving towards safety sometimes. But I think there is a lot of compassion in this stage for victims because it’s difficult to know what to do and also both choices are not good. Living with an abuser or divorcing an abuser. They’re both not great choices.
The best choice is if you could have him not be abusive anymore, which you have no control over. So, I think that it’s a way that victims try to empower themselves sometimes without facing difficult consequences. I think that all of us kind of go through a stage like that. We can hold a space of compassion for ourselves when we were in that stage and others in that stage as they work through exactly what they need to feel safe because it takes time.
Melinda: Yeah, I mean I absolutely and certainly hold a lot of compassion for the different struggles along this process. I think the steps are valuable. Like they say: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” I certainly recognize that whatever I was doing in the situation was harming me and I had to accept where he was in his path and that it was not aligned with where I wanted to be. So, that definitely took time and certainly thinking about what the steps were and what the steps recommended. What you reflected on worked super helpful. What I found really helpful to reframe the codependency framework, for me, was: “What am I doing in this situation that is harming me?”
Just really allowing myself to feel how terrible the situation was and that allowed me to move forward and put my boundaries up. So, that’s what I think I learned most from COSA, is just thinking about boundaries and really processing what that means and realizing that I was not the kind of person who was going to say: “Well, I’m going to focus on making myself happy and let him have his life and our home and our relationship.”
Co-Dependency Narratives Can Be Manipulated
That wasn’t going to work for me. I could not abide by being in a relationship with a person who was really taking advantage of the situation, taking advantage of my compassion, my understanding, and really not supporting me in being a fair partner. So, I think the steps can be worthwhile. It needs to be balanced with some other frames and so that’s why I bring up thinking about gender and our theme of being encouraged to look the other way and allowing men’s bad behavior and take responsibility for that. Just the message that we have to even help take care of them, and I think that can easily become exploited.
Anne: Absolutely. With this concept of codependency in your experience with sex addiction therapists. How did codependency cause therapy-induced trauma? Let’s talk about that for a bit.
Melinda: Yeah, we have not actually been to a sex addiction therapist. We had worked with mostly traditional therapists, marriage and family therapists.
Anne: A lot of the sex addiction therapists, they claim to know about Betrayal Trauma, but they don’t actually practice it. They just under the table do codependency and call it Betrayal Trauma and that is very dangerous. Sex addiction therapists don’t really seem to understand it either. The best people seem to be abuse experts from what we’ve experienced.
Melinda: I’m carefully looking for therapists. The experience of having a therapist, the therapist we’d been with a long time handling the situation left me with a lot of trauma and my hesitation to even find a new therapist. I have a lot of hesitation. I think it’s this framework and I think it’s a framework that’s part of a lot of therapy training and then with the codependency woven into it, is that it’s a dance, that you have a relationship dance and you each have a part with all of your stuff and his stuff.
Co-Dependency Language Can Be Abusive
On one level, yeah that’s there, but what our therapist failed to recognize, and like you said abuse. Abuse and trauma. They failed to understand what abuse looks like, what covert abuse looks like, what emotional abuse looks like. That abuser can come into an office and look like the calmest, sweetest, most cooperative people while you’re the partner tearing her hair out and looking like a crazy woman in the office and being very, very angry. Then you look like the one who’s unhinged and angry. Our therapist did say: “You know, if it wasn’t for your dynamic, he wouldn’t have cheated.”
I, later on, realized: No, he has a terrible family background and I understand it has nothing to do with me. I had to realize that it was part of his retaliation for me even having boundaries and expectations in our relationship of cooperation and accountability, and instead of being cooperative and accountable he thought: “Well, she’s no good and she’s giving me a hard time. Here this more compliant woman might be better for me. Women on PornHub.
Anne: Right, which is what abusers want. I think that’s really interesting. They would like to manipulate, and I won’t say beat down physically, but to the point where you comply, right. That’s the point of the abuse, and for a therapist not to notice it. I think it’s also really interesting in the progressive communities, for example, and I tend to live in that world. So, I’m not opposed to it, but because they’re so “let’s forgive and let’s be helpful and also let’s protect victims” that they can’t quite separate out who the perpetrator and the victim is a lot of the times.
So, in an effort to be politically correct or progressive or whatever, they end up throwing victims under the bus unknowingly. So, you’d think that they would understand abuse, but I have found that neither side understands it. Conservatives and liberals. Neither one of those groups really truly understand abuse.
Melinda: Yes. I don’t think therapists actually understand trauma and how to be trauma-informed around betrayal. She was trained to be even-handed, you don’t take sides. I’ve started to find more prominent therapists saying: “actually you can take sides” and thankfully I’ve found the work of Terry Real, who is becoming more and more known for talking about exactly what I think the dynamic is with men and women in these situations and he does take sides and he does talk about the exploited ends that men can go because they’re so angry at women for holding them accountable.
Yes, you take a side because there is a gender dynamic, there is a male/female dynamic going on.
Abusers Will Take Advantage Of Co-Dependency Language
Anne: Neutrality only serves the perpetrator because neutrality is that both stories are of equal truth, right. There are 2 sides to the story, and it serves the perpetrator because if they can say: “Oh, well I did this, but she did this” then that’s so much better to them. There are 2 options for them. The one option is well we have this toxic dance, it’s a toxic relationship. Rather than saying: “I’m the abuser” or some go as far to say as: “I didn’t do anything wrong and she is the abuser.”
So many victims are being accused of abuse themselves which is also super scary.
Melinda: Yes, and in fact, in our therapy sessions and even in my conversations with my spouse I said: “He betrayed me” I said this to our therapist: “He betrayed me” and she said: “Well, I think you’ve both betrayed each other.” I thought: “What are you talking about?” I did not and I’ve only had loyalty and allegiance to our marriage and our family life together. So, that was just red meat for him to kind of feed his victimhood.
Anne: Well, I’m guessing the abuse got worse.
Melinda: It just continued. The pattern of blaming me, being covertly abusive, gaslighting, and love bombing, and then wondering why I was withdrawn and then blowing up at me for being withdrawn. I just kept continuing and as I saw this pattern over and over again of “I’m holding my boundary and saying very clearly what I need, what I expect.” He couldn’t get past that in my boundary. He tried love bombing with “I love you, I love you, I love you.” He tried all kinds of things.
He wanted me to let go of what I knew in my heart was needed for us to have a healthy relationship. For me to let go of expectations of him and by declaring his undying love and very grandiose gestures and I wasn’t going to accept it. I knew in my heart I needed something authentic.
Abusers Will Abuse Using Co-Dependency Scripts
Anne: Well, I find it really interesting how one woman she said: “Okay, I’m going to file for divorce” she filed and he came back and said: “I’ll do anything, I’ll do anything” and she said: “Okay, these are the things that you need to do” and he didn’t do those things but he would say the right things, right. So, you can see very clearly from their actions. When their actions are not matching their words, that’s manipulation. That’s grooming. Its love bombing. It’s not recovery, which is a totally different thing.
Melinda: At first when I said its love bombing he said: “ How do you judge me, you’re judging me” and so I thought: “I’m not going to get anywhere because I’m trying to call out and name the things that are not right in the situation, that is not working, with the desire to see things work not to punish. That was another accusation that I constantly face, that I was trying to punish and control and avoid my own problems by naming what was happening.
Anne: Well, the weird thing is, one of your own problems was that you were being abused. So, you were clearly stating one of your own problems.
Melinda: Women are using their voice and speaking up and men have to listen. A lot of our rage and our anger in these situations is that we’re tired of being exploited or abused or taken advantage of. We’re written off, we’re told we’re crazy or we want to control everything.
I think that we have to recognize male entitlement in a lot of situations. I think that gets missed when we’re just thinking about the women is punishing because she can’t look at her own stuff or she’s controlling these situations because of her own trauma. I think so many women out there are already self-reflective and pretty thoughtful. Women have been working on their own sort of self-healing for many, many years. Let’s celebrate that and acknowledge that women have evolved a lot of good self-care and empowerment and abusive men need to have a lot more work around how to come along with us.
I do think that the codependency model is kind of holding women responsible for their partner’s alcoholism. That’s just from another time and I think women are doing their own healing. They’ve been doing it for a long time. I think we need to work on abusive men and their entitlement.
Co-Dependency Therapy Is Not Ok With Abuse
Anne: Well, and I love feminist theory. I’m a happy and unabashed and unapologetic feminist and I think that radical feminism really is the only way to beat this. By saying “My opinions are just as important as yours. What I want in a marriage is just as important and if what you want is someone who will just be quiet and look the other way, this marriage is not going to work for me.” I as a woman have the right to say that and I have a right to set boundaries around it, and it’s okay with me if that’s not what you want, and if it’s not, then have a nice life.
So, when I first got married, I really apposed (and I know a lot of listeners aren’t so I do not want to offend anyone right now) but I am extremely opposed to guns and motorcycles, and when I was dating my ex-husband now, I said to him: “If you like guns and motorcycles that is super cool for you. Like, I am so happy for you, that’s great. I will not date you. So, you just do your thing and shine on and live your life.” He told me: “No, I don’t ride motorcycles. I have before but I won’t, and I don’t like guns. I’m not a gun person.”
I was like: “Cool”, well I found out later that was a complete and total lie and manipulation. So, I tried to say upfront, I was very obvious about it, what I wanted, and he thought that he could kind of gaslight me around it rather than saying: “Oh, you know what, I love guns and motorcycles. We’re probably not a good fit.” Do you know what I mean? So, it’s the same thing with pornography. I don’t want someone who will cheat and look at porn and lie and manipulate me. So, if that’s who you are then shine on, right. You live your life, just far away from me.
I think women are becoming empowered to the point where they can start saying that. The hard thing is when the man looks like that person. When he manipulates you. Now, I’m not dating, but if I go on a date, I would actually probably keep my opinions to myself because I don’t want him to know what I think. I just want to know what he thinks. So, I’d maybe say: “How do you feel about guns?” without telling him what I thought so that I could hear what he thought just without knowing what I think. Does that make sense? So that I can’t be manipulated.
So, I think my dating strategy will be a lot more cautious and take it a lot slower and also not put everything out there while I’m getting to know the person because I don’t want them to use it against me or to use it to manipulate me. I’m afraid of being groomed again, let’s put it that way.
Melinda: Yeah, I think men in this world have to understand what we’ve been through and why we may come off as guarded or protective or suspicious in spite of our best intentions to be trusting and open-hearted. There’s a lot that some of us have been through that makes that very difficult.
Abusive Men Will Use Co-Dependency Words To Abuse
Anne: Well, and I think we’ve learned to look for what a trustworthy person looks like and it takes time. You cannot determine that from a 5-minute conversation or a 10-minute conversation. You can’t determine it from one 2-hour date. It takes years to figure out whether or not someone is a trustworthy person and experience. So, taking our time is important and had we done that before we might not have even hit the nail on the head because we might not have known what we were looking for, but we know better now, which is awesome.
Melinda: That’s a great point. I think that’s where I’ve arrived to really know clearly what I’m about and when I see something that’s disconnected or when I meet someone who’s disconnected from that and isn’t compatible, I can see it more clearly and that helps, I think. Just to know yourself better and can recognize somebody else that might be unhealthy for you. To your point of having the boundaries and being willing to say: “You know, this isn’t for me. This relationship isn’t for me because you’re doing you and it’s not working for me.”
That I know, not all women can do that, I know so many women are in these situations where they’re trapped and for whatever reason leaving may feel worse than staying. If they held their boundary, but for me, I found as I struggled and we have 2 children so leaving took a while, but once I was able to make the steps and just started talking about it, and then eventually found the logistical possibilities to make it happen.
That’s when things really changed. He couldn’t hide and manipulate me anymore because he wasn’t around. I could stand more firmly and then he really had to reckon with himself. So, he is reckoning with himself now. I’m still not sure if that will bring us back together.
Anne: Hopefully, it will, right. The best-case scenario is that he’ll recognize his abusive behaviors and take accountability and make the changes that he needs to. That is the best-case scenario and that’s why I hope for, for all victims is restorative justice where the relationship can be restored in a healthy way because that’s best for you, it’s best for him, it’s best for your children. But that remains to be seen, right, whether or not he’ll make those choices.
Co-Dependency Therapeutic Work Can Harm A Relationship
Well, thank you so much, Melinda, for coming on today’s podcast. I appreciate you sharing your story and I just love the word weaponizing and so I want everybody to consider: In what ways do certain language, therapy language, shame is one of them, shame is being weaponized really bad right now by addicts and therapists. So, other types of situations where words are being used to further harm victims.
So, consider that. If you think of some please comment below, just like Melinda did. We really appreciated her doing that. Thank you so much for coming on to today’s episode.
Melinda: Thank you for having me.
Anne: Thank you to those of you who support the podcast. It enables me to teach women all over the world. As women find out it’s making sense to them and it’s making a huge difference. It’s really helping women get to safety and it’s also helping men change. Really, it’s the only way out, there’s no other way forward.
Every single one of your ratings on iTunes or your other podcast apps helps isolated women find us. So, if you haven’t yet, and you’re so inclined, please rate the Betrayal Trauma Recovery podcast today, and until next week, stay safe out there.