Breaking the Codependency Myth: The Power of the Trauma Bond

I want to challenge a common myth about abuse survivors: that they are all codependent. Some survivors find the idea of codependency helpful in better understanding their behaviors in the abuse cycle, and indeed some survivors do resonate with codependency as something that is part of their behavioral patterns. If healing codependency is something that speaks to you and your personal journey, all the more power to you and you should do what you think is most beneficial for you.

I don’t want to dismiss codependency as a valid concept, but rather suggest that there are often other factors at work in an abusive relationship. Sometimes the idea of codependency is touted as the primary reason for a survivor staying in the abusive relationship when in reality, it is what Dr. Patrick Carnes calls trauma bonding (intense bonds formed from emotional experiences) that is responsible.

What one has to understand is that abuse is a power dynamic where the abuser holds much of the power. It includes the perpetrator slowly but surely eroding the victim’s reality, diminishing their strength and independence over time.  No matter how independent or codependent a survivor is in the beginning of the relationship, no one is truly immune to the traumatic effects of abuse.

In some contexts, it may be helpful to pinpoint codependent traits and behaviors, but when the label codependent is used to shame, stigmatize or blame abuse survivors, it becomes very problematic and harmful.

Codependency was a term historically used to describe interactions between addicts and their loved ones, not victims and abusers. Dr. Clare Murphy asserts that abuse victims can actually exhibit codependent traits as a result of trauma, not because they are codependent.

Contrary to popular myth, anyone can be victimized by an abuser – even one with strong boundaries initially, because covert abuse is insidious and unbelievably traumatic, resulting in symptoms of PTSD, Complex PTSD or, if they were abused by a malignant narcissist, what is known as Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome.

Remember that abuse involves a slow erosion of boundaries over time. The abuser first idealizes the victim, then begins to test and push the boundaries of the victim once he or she has already been conned into the sham of a relationship. Meanwhile, the survivor of abuse is like a frog in slowly boiling water, gaslit into believing that it is all their fault, not knowing the danger they’re in until it’s too late.

We need to be able to take into account the idea that emotional and psychological abuse, much like assault or any other form of physical violence, is not our fault. We can own our agency and heal without having to blame ourselves in the process. The fault lies with the perpetrator, not with the victim.

It is not the victim’s fault for ‘choosing’ the abuser either, because victims rarely consciously choose an abuser.  They choose someone who appears rather kind, caring and compassionate at the onset. The victim falls in love and invests in the false mask an abuser portrays, and rarely the true self. It is only when they are invested in the relationship that the mask begins to slip and the terror begins.

Once someone has been traumatized, again and again by someone who claimed to love them, once an abuser has warped the victim’s reality and caused him or to mistrust their perceptions through gaslighting, once a victim has been made to believe he or she is worthless, they are already traumatically bonded to their abusers. It takes a great deal of professional support, validation and resources in order for victims to detach from their abusers and begin to heal.

There is only one person who can “control” the abuse, and that is the abuser alone. There is a great deal of variety within the survivor group and we have to acknowledge that there are many survivors who come into the abusive relationship very independent, strong-willed, and empathic, but their strengths are exploited, manipulated and slowly broken down by the abuser over time.

It doesn’t matter how codependent or how independent we are, because abusers will abuse their victims regardless – that is their nature. In fact, they would probably enjoy the challenge if a victim was independent, as sick as they are.

When it comes to living in a perpetual war zone of intermittent kindness and chronic cruelty, there is no ‘enabling’ of the abuse, merely a need to survive in a hostile environment. There is a clear power imbalance between abuser and victim as the abuser ‘manages down’ the victim’s expectations, threatens, controls, coerces, blameshifts and projects onto the victim his or her own vile attributes. As the victim is verbally abused, psychologically terrorized and emotionally assaulted, he or she has to find ways to minimize, rationalize, deny and ‘bond’ with the abuser in an effort to survive.

As mentioned before, this is a survival mechanism known as ‘trauma bonding,’ and  anyone can be made to ‘act’ or ‘appear’ codependent simply by being traumatized in the first place. Abuse has traumatic effects on the brain, tying us psychologically, biochemically and psychologically with our abusers.

This bond has very little to do with codependency, and everything to do with the traumatic effects of abuse. Even a highly independent victim who is strong-willed at the beginning of the relationship can begin to demonstrate symptoms of the trauma bond, PTSD or Complex PTSD – because it doesn’t have anything to do with the traits of the victim when it comes to trauma. No one is immune to the effects of severe, life-changing trauma and chronic abuse – no one.

Even if you feel you have codependent traits or were ‘primed’ by childhood abuse, the abuse you’ve experienced in any stage of your life is still not your fault.  You are not an “enabler” of the abuser. You are a victim who has been traumatically bonded to an abuser as an effort to survive. Understand the trauma bond, and you will understand how it is different from your actual feelings of disgust, anger and pain towards your abuser.

Your authentic feelings about your abuser are buried beneath the apparently inextricable bond. In order to extricate yourself, you must develop a separation between the bond and your actual reality of the abuse. Write about the abuse when you feel safe to do so; consult a trauma-informed, validating mental health professional; speak with other survivors to validate the manipulation and mistreatment you’ve endured.

Holding onto the reality of the abuse, as well as your true feelings about it, is one of the most important things you can do in order to resist the gaslighting effect, release self-blame and begin to break the chains of the trauma bond. The bond may keep you attached to your abuser, but it is possible to sever it and regain your power.


Copyright © 2016 by Shahida Arabi. 

All rights reserved. No part of this entry may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author. This includes adaptations in all forms of media.

Interested in learning more about narcissistic abuse? Order my #1 Amazon bestselling book on narcissistic abuse, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself

About the Author

Shahida Arabi is a graduate of Columbia University graduate school where she studied the effects of bullying across the life-course trajectory. She is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care and  Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue, and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself, featured as a #1 Amazon Bestseller in three categories and in personality disorders for six consecutive months after its release. She studied Psychology and English Literature as an undergraduate at NYU, where she graduated summa cum laude. Her interests include psychology, sociology, education, gender studies and mental health advocacy. Her writing has been featured on The Huffington Post, MOGUL, Thought Catalog, and Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Monica O’Neal’s website. Her blog, Self-Care Haven, has had millions of views from all over the world and her work has been shared by numerous mental health professionals, award-winning bloggers and bestselling authors.

2 thoughts on “Breaking the Codependency Myth: The Power of the Trauma Bond

  1. Mind boggling how accurate this and exactly what I went through. I had boundaries and I didn’t think what was happening was ok and no desire to stick around and “fix it”. Was very kind in my departure and agreed to be his friend and offering to maybe revisit a relationship in the future depending where we were in our lives. THAT was the ultimate challenge to this ego maniac NPD who no one leaves. What followed was the most psychologically tormenting manipulation imaginable. My life unraveled into a hell Inexplicable to anyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of abuse. I have your books and thank you so much.

    1. Thank you for this. Firstly, I am sorry this is so, so very long, but I wanted to share my fairly recent and very traumatic experience of what this misguided & reactionary psychiatric codependency business did to me during one of the most vulnerable times in my life and also just to for once share how I feel about the whole thing. So here goes: Starting 2yrs ago, I saw 2 therapists & 1 nurse practioner who told me I was codependent. The first, with regards to my long-term live-in boyfriend of 13yrs told me that “I didnt love him, bc I didnt accept him” and that “he couldn’t be that bad bc he had a job”?!? I suffered full-on PTSD after seeing that guy, who wasn’t even a therapist, but rather a nurse practioner I was seeing for health issues, who apparently had experience working with addictions at one of those ADS Methadone Clinics in Greensboro, NC (where I live). I looked him up and he was all over the web regarding Addiction Advocacy (I presume his real passion). So I think he naturally saw codependency everywhere. Ironically, the other 2 also had addiction specialties in their past and my take has become the next person I see will be a psychologist, who specializes in npd and abuse, and has never worked in addiction counseling, lol. In an attempt to hold him accountable, I tried to talk to an attorney about negligence with the first guy (both for the further trauma I experienced under his care-I couldnt even go to a doctor after that without having anxiety and also reliving our “sessions”, operating outside his scope of practice, and prescribing contraindicated meds with knowledge of my heart condition) as he eventually concluded that all my health issues were from psychiatric issues and attempted to put me on antipsychotics, even though i have a ventricular arrythmia and am not supposed to take a mile-long list of meds including 2 that he attempted to give me. He refused to do any tests and kept insisting I was psychotic. When I once tried to explain my boyfriend was a narcissist, he told me that my boyfriend didnt need me to be his therapist, he needed a wife?!?. His notes made it to where I got further dismissed by doctors bc of the emphasis on my relationship and an unknown psychiatric condition to which he prescribed the meds. However, every attorney told me I didnt have a case bc essentially he didnt cut off a leg. So I accepted it, tried to deal best I could and move forward, though I still relive that nightmare from time to time, mostly whenever I get anywhere near the medical or psychiatric community or when my health issues flare up. The second, an LPC who was more professional (cause who wouldnt be when compared to the first guy), but also traditional and highly clinical (i.e. impersonal & detached) told me to just focus on myself and at one point after he got on meds, he made some “intermittent efforts” and she told me he was probably becoming better bc I was more consistent now that I had been doing the codependency work (which I struggled the whole year to see & again made me worse). The third, an MSW spent the entire time talking about herself, I’d got stuck in there for 3hrs trying to leave and she just kept going on about her career and how she was African American and had worked her way to a good job. On the second session, she told me she couldnt help me with my abuse, bc I wasnt bringing her anything she could work with. And despite the fact that I’d been suffering severe health problems for 2yrs and was left unable to work I was dismissed repeatedly by both her and by 1st doc with emphasis on essentially I WAS CHOOSING to isolate myself and NEEDED to go to work despite my attempts to explain I would love to regain my independency more than anything (bc as Shadida states, yes I was a very strong & independent woman & all these years he couldn’t break me down and I think, in fact, I know he loved the challenge, I have all the traits he wishes to posess, when he’d idealize me he would express this, bc secretly it is this security and strength of character that I think many dysfunctional people envy & wish they had), however was really struggling with my health. This is actually originally when my boyfriend escalated to the point of getting physical on 2 different occassions as I was dependent and he knew it, which is when I decided I wanted to leave but was unsure how to do it and devastated that Id lose my home, which we put in his name to save our 1st time home buyers credit for our next more expensive home since this was our starter home, my car again in his name bc I wasnt working and thus wasnt on the loan, and no access to our money bc we arent married for various financial reasons over the years like college-how convenient I’d end up with nothing which he’d remind of occassionally, nowhere to go bc he ran my friends off early on & made it impossible to make new ones. And of course, I dont have any supportive family as I had limited contact with my parents at age 21 (except Xmas for now, which I do bc it means the world to my 90yr old great-grandmother who just moved here, she is the reason for all that is good in me) bc they are toxic, severely pasive-aggressive and scapegoated me up until I decided to fully cut them out of my life 4yrs ago. I had already made great strides in my life and in healing from cPTSD and in rebuilding my damaged self-worth & self-esteem from an array psychoeducational resources such as this site. This new dependency and escalation is when I sought therapy and as someone who got a BA in Psychology (eventually plan to pursue a PsyD when/if I get my health back) I was flabbergasted by my experience and even in knowing it was wrong it still did damage (or maybe more bc of that awareness). I went bc as Shahida states I had a 13yr investment in our relationship, not to mention little options for leaving and processing starting over again. The gaslighting had caused me to occassionally ponder if it was me, if I was crazy and to have a diagnosis that basically reaffirmed such negative thoughts, threw me so far off track that I am just now getting back to where I was mentally before all this started. That is what a victim-blaming diagnosis like codependency does. Therapy should never have you coming home in tears feeling like your worthless and deserving of abuse, trying to figure out what is so wrong with you that you cause all of this or worse are pathetic in your attempts to stop it, why your assertiveness isnt as good as hers, why you keep failing to lay healthy boundaries and if you just try harder… It feels like they’re saying that it would never happen to them bc they’re different. That’s the kind of blame-shifting & shaming the abuser does, you shouldn’t be gaslit twice. As if you dont give yourself enough grief for trying to figure out where you went wrong, how you were so blind, and how you wasted a good portion of your life with this person. For me this was ages 21-34, Ive never been married or had kids, I was robbed of all my good years, and now I have health issues. Being an only child no dad raised by my mom & gma, all I ever wanted was a real nuclear family. Dont get me wrong there’s still some time IF my health rebounds but… I wanted the wedding pics on my mantel, etc. I struggle with the regret everyday and try to stay positive and reorganize my cognition around what is, not getting hung up on what could/should have been. But I did everything right, tried to make better choices than my family did. So being told it’s my fault, that I let this happen!?! And that it will happen again, if I dont change. No, all of my healing came by placing the responsibility where it belonged which serves to restore my self-esteem by explaining why this occurs and that you deserved NONE OF IT-NOBODY DESERVES ABUSE, working on grief and accepting it and then going and living your life authentically, having your feelings respected, your vulnerability not turned to ammo. Engaging in real proactive mature love vs a reactive & self-centered, immature narcissist. Because everyone deserves to be loved and NOBODY ASKS FOR THIS! DESPITE [YOUR] NAIVE AND UNEMPATHETIC BLAME, I DID NOT SIGN UP FOR THIS!

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