Abused Women Are Not Codependent and Here's Why
To hold the woman responsible for her partner's abuse is outrageous.
Posted September 11, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Having been in the intimate partner abuse field for over two decades, I continue to be shocked that there’s still confusion about identifying abused women as codependent among the professionals committed to helping them. To see an abused woman as codependent is tantamount to blaming her for the abuse she receives. Such a judgment by a professional she turns to for support leaves her feeling alone, misunderstood, and without the right help for her to make a positive change in her life.
Codependent vs. Abused
Codependency is characterized as someone who cannot function independently using her own sense of self to guide her; it’s believed that her thinking and behavior are arranged around another person. In an intimate relationship, the codependent individual feels overly responsible for her partner while ignoring her own needs.
In an intimate relationship with a partner who controls and abuses, the abused woman will develop psychological issues in response to the abuse that diminishes her spirit and sense of self—who she is. The abused woman finds it unsafe to express her needs—needs that are legitimate in her own mind.
In a domestic violence training conference over 20 years ago, I received a useful handout titled, “Codependent or Abused” (Ford-McComb & Hubacher, Family Crisis Shelter). The authors identify a number of characteristics of a codependent individual and compare them with those of a woman abused by her intimate partner. I have adapted descriptions of the abused woman in order to highlight the important differences. Each position below is described accordingly:
Codependent: Feeling overly responsible, I assume responsibility for the feelings and behavior of others.
Abused: My abuser holds me responsible for his feelings and behavior. For my own safety, I must stay aware of my abuser’s feelings and behavior.
In reaction to her partner’s abuse, you see the abused person has learned over time to read his moods in order to anticipate his hurtful behavior. Unfortunately, his behavior can be unpredictable. It’s not uncommon for abused women, in time, to develop hypervigilance, a trauma reaction, making them all the more on guard and watchful of their partner. This entrapment is the painful effect of a partner’s abuse.
Codependent: I have difficulty expressing feelings (constant need to be validated by the other).
Abused: If I express my feelings, I jeopardize my safety.
The abused woman learns from her partner’s behavior that her feelings (including positive feelings) are not respectfully recognized or valued. When she shares her feelings, she risks being humiliated, degraded and made to feel ashamed.
Codependent: I am afraid of being hurt and/or rejected and seek validation from my partner.
Abused: Having been hurt and rejected, I am scared of being injured again.
The abused woman has been hurt in real-time. From her partner’s abuse, she lives with fear and psychic pain that profoundly restricts her choices and ultimately her life. Even if she leaves the relationship, the threat of abuse and fear of being hurt continues.
Codependent: I tend to judge everything I do, think, or say harshly, by someone else’s standards. Nothing I do, say, or think is “good enough.”
Abused: My abuser judges harshly everything I do, think or say. Nothing I do is ever “good enough” for him.
An intimate partner’s psychological abuse including gaslighting, manipulations, and intimidation creates self-doubt in the abused woman. She loses herself or parts of herself and in the end, no longer feels like herself or “good enough.” This is the traumatic consequence of her partner’s abuse.
Codependent: I question or ignore my own values to connect with significant others. I value others’ opinions more than my own.
Abused: My values and opinions are either incessantly criticized or ignored by my abuser. For my safety, I need to accept my abuser’s opinions more than my own.
Abused women learn that speaking up, sharing opinions, or disagreeing is met with anger, putdowns, and intimidation. Eventually, seeing there’s no safe place with her partner to express herself, she keeps her own thoughts, desires, and perspective to herself.
Codependent: My self-esteem is bolstered by outer/other influences.
Abused: My abuser’s tactics systematically destroy my self-esteem.
One abused woman asked the question, “If I felt better about myself, would I then not be abused?” It’s important to know that low self-esteem is not the cause for a boyfriend or husband to be abusive—rather it is one of the painful results of being abused. A partner is abusive, not because of his partner, but because of his own need to be in control in the relationship.
Abused Women Deserve Better
Let’s not label abused women as codependents who are unable to assert themselves or feel they deserve to be abused. Every abused woman I’ve worked with—now well over a thousand—has asserted herself behind the scenes to avoid, prevent, or minimize the abuse for herself and her children and made attempts to get her partner to change.
To truly help an abused woman, we must recognize her partner’s abuse and her psychological entrapment; understand that her perspective comes from a place of self-protection; and help her to ultimately hold her partner responsible for his abuse. As she grows in emotional strength, she’ll be in the best position to be assertive and in a way that’s safe to address her partner and his abuse.