By Sherry Gaba, LCSW
One definition of a codependent is someone who feels responsible for other people’s feelings, problems, and behaviors to the exclusion of themselves. While this isn’t the only definition, codependents are, in general, willing to sacrifice their own emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing (and even safety) in order to sustain their relationships and take care of their partners and family members.
Of course, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. It definitely takes two to be in a relationship. And, this type of pleaser/fixer personality is the unfortunate compliment for someone who prefers the role of taker/controller.
While I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the role codependency plays for those of us who are, or have been, in relationships with addicts, people with addictions are not the only ones who “latch on” to codependents or for whom codependents sacrifice themselves.
Codependents often find themselves in relationships with people who exhibit narcissism.
Narcissism often defined in terms of being the opposite of codependency. A narcissist is said to be someone who is excessively involved with his or her self, who feels entitled and places his or her own feelings, needs, and desires above those of anyone else in a relationship, and who lacks compassion and empathy.
Interestingly, while narcissists and codependents are often seen and defined in these opposing terms, they may exhibit similar behaviors, including denial, shame, dysfunctional boundaries, a need to control others and dependency on others for validation. In other words, most narcissists can also be classified as codependents, though the opposite is not true (most codependents do not share the characteristics of narcissists). In fact, about the only things separating narcissists from codependents are narcissists’ lack of empathy and sense of entitlement.
Given all of this, it becomes much easier to see why codependents and narcissists often become involved in relationships with one another.
A Match Made in Misery
Both narcissists and codependents can appear extremely warm, charming, and caring at the outset of a relationship—the narcissist in order to gain appreciation and favor, the codependent to lavish attention.
While the codependent can easily “fall” for the narcissist’s attention and charms, the narcissist can quickly become enamored with what the codependent offers, namely complete control of the relationship.
The codependent willingly sacrifices boundaries, personal desires, goals, and even personal happiness in order to pursue and please the narcissist, who loves the attention and the feeling of being everything and all things to the codependent.
Unfortunately, this initial fairy tale is actually a trap that is doomed to end in misery…
Once the narcissist has “won” the codependent—although it can be just as “fair” to say, “once the codependent has ‘won’ the narcissist”—the narcissist no longer feels his or her initial charm is necessary. Having gotten the codependent’s love, affection, sacrifice, and care, the narcissist now feels entitled to them.
Of course, the codependent now finds himself or herself in an all-too-familiar situation…
While the codependent desperately craves the love and attention the narcissist initially showered upon him or her, he or she will likely never experience it again. The narcissist has already moved on to his or her next conquest. And, the more the codependent tries to save or win back or recreate the relationship that he or she has always wanted, the more attention the narcissist receives from the codependent without having to give anything in return.
Escaping the Trap
Codependents don’t typically see ending the relationship as an option, if only because they’d see doing so as a failure, and a personal failure at that. Remember, saving the relationship is the codependent’s “job.” The codependent sees it as his or her responsibility. The narcissist, finding it valuable to keep someone around who’s willing to sacrifice his or her boundaries and self to please the narcissist, will continue to string the codependent along and give them just enough attention to keep the codependent’s hope alive.
Since the narcissist lacks empathy and sees nothing wrong with his or her own behavior, the narcissist has little reason to change.
This means it’s typically up to the codependent to end the relationship. But, due to codependents’ lack of self-esteem, the thought of being alone is often worse than the thought of remaining in an unhealthy, one-sided, loveless relationship. There’s the trap.
It’s often not until the codependent reaches some sort of breaking point that he or she becomes willing to even consider ending the relationship, let alone seek professional help. But some sort of professional counseling or psychotherapy—as well as the support of a group such as Codependents Anonymous or that provided here at Wake Up Recovery—is almost always necessary for codependents to learn how to set healthy boundaries and understand that the only way they’ll ever find or create the relationship they know deep down inside is possible is by doing the healing work necessary to love themselves enough not to get involved in another dysfunctional relationship.
The codependent-narcissist trap is not an easy trap to get out of, but us codependents can break free… As long as we’re willing to ask for help and do the work necessary to learn how to love ourselves!
Have you found yourself in dysfunctional relationships with takers/controllers? Are you still in one? If so, what’s keeping you in that relationship? And, if you’ve escaped the trap, what did it take for you to do so? Be sure to share your thoughts and questions using the comment section below so we can all learn from and help each other.
First published here.