Why Was I Abused? Part One: Am I Co-dependent? Did I Choose an Abuser?
Have you ever wondered “Why did I attract / choose an abuser?”
Have you wondered if you’re co-dependent?
Have you been reading articles that encourage you to do deep soul-searching to find your part in being abused?
Take a deep breath and read on because I want to set you free from that guilt and self-blame. You’ve had enough of it from your abuser (and probably from your church).
Co-dependency didn’t cause your abuse
Co-dependency is a term that was created to explain the dynamic between an addict and an enabler. An enabler knows the addict is an addict, covers for him, and tries to help him over and over while their lives are flushing down the toilet as a result of his addiction. The co-dependent enables an addict to make poor choices and avoid facing the consequences of his behavior.
The co-dependency model is not transferable to the abuse world.
Those who apply the co-dependency model to an abusive relationship don’t understand that:
~ abuse is not an “unhealthy” relationship dynamic between two people ~ there’s a power differential between the abuser and the victim
~ victims are not helping an abuser avoid consequences– an abuser manipulates and worms his way out of the consequences over and over no matter what she does
~ victims are brainwashed by the abuser, causing them to slowly and subtly lose their self, their sense of reality, and their autonomous control over their lives
~ far from enabling abuse, a covert abuse victim is not even aware that the abuser is abusing them
~ abused women do not enable the abuse and they are not responsible for any part of it
Removing responsibility from the abuser and blaming the victim is a deeply engrained part of our sexist culture and language. (see sidebar)
Part of our healing as victims is to see and resist these lies.
How our cultural language blames the victim
It’s very illuminating to see how language around abuse morphs into blaming the victim and removing all responsibility from the abuser.
Here’s the fact: John abused Mary
But here’s what gets said:
Mary was abused by John, or even worse, Mary is an abused woman
Mary is now the active, responsible party in the abuse and John isn’t even involved.
We see this victim-blaming language every day. Headlines read “Women Suffer Domestic Abuse” rather than “Husbands Abuse Wives.”
Applying the co-dependency model to abuse and asking women what their “part in the abuse” was, is part of the same problem of blaming the victim and removing responsibility from the abuser.
Do traits of codependency feel familiar to you?
Some of the symptoms of co-dependency are:
~ having no boundaries
~ being out of touch with your feelings
~ low self-esteem
~ taking care of others
~ dependence on your partner
~ feeling responsible for the feelings and actions of your partner
~ loving “too much”
Have you read these symptoms in the past, decided you must be co-dependent, and thought that’s why you were abused?
It’s crucial to realize that you can have traits in common with co-dependency without being “co-dependent,” and certainly without enabling or causing abuse.
Although some abuse victims are co-dependent, many are not.
Some victims have traits in common with co-dependency before the abusive relationship without being “co-dependent,” but most women who have these traits gained them over time as their personhood was destroyed by the abuser.
Victims take on these traits as coping and survival skills in an impossible situation.
Abuse changes us so deeply that we’re not who we once were. That’s not our fault.
We have these traits because of the abuse, not because we are co-dependent.
Let’s look at how abuse affects the victim:
~ You learn that setting boundaries is ineffective or causes subtle retaliation
~ Your self-esteem plummets
~ Your abuser is creating dependence on him through isolation, erosion of your self-worth, and trauma-bonding (see below)
~ He’s convinced you that the problems in the marriage are your fault and you feel guilty and continually try to solve the marriage “problems”
~ You’ve learned to hide your feelings to not upset him and to keep him from using them against you
~ You’re afraid to speak your mind because he’ll gaslight you
~ You give up saying no because the consequences aren’t worth it
~ Your needs, thoughts, and feelings are being erased by the abuser
~ He tells you that you are responsible for how he feels
~ You try to please him and take care of him in hopes that this will give you peace
~ You develop anxiety and depression, hyper-reactivity, difficulty making decisions, and defensiveness because these are normal responses to abuse
~ Your trust in him has been used against you to destroy you
~ You’ve lost trust in yourself and your sanity
~ You’re confused about your feelings because you’re living in a crazy-making world
Those who don’t understand emotional and psychological abuse, including therapists, will confuse symptoms of abuse with co-dependency, not understanding that these behaviors are caused by abuse, not the reason we were abused.
One hallmark of co-dependency is being rigid and controlling. I rarely see these traits in the abused woman I work with. What I see over and over is that when a woman gets free from abuse, she discovers that she’s a loving, kind, patient, forgiving woman who always wanted the best for her husband and the marriage, and was fooled by her husband into believing he was someone he wasn’t.
But here’s the tricky part- her husband is accusing her of being controlling when she sets reasonable boundaries and tries to take care of herself. As long as she views herself through the accusations and lies of her abuser, she will be confused about who she really is.
Are some women who are in abusive relationships co-dependent? Sure.
Are all? No.
Are there many co-dependent women who are not in abusive relationships? Yes.
Is co-dependency the reason why women get into relationship with a covert abuser? Not at all.
If you read about co-dependency and see yourself in the description, take a good look at whether these traits were part of you before you got involved with the abuser, or if you developed them during the abuse.
But also take a good look at whether these are actually positive traits that were used against you (more on this in Part Two: Targeted by an Abuser).
Knowing who you really are, at your core, is a vital part of healing. In Part Two: Targeted by an Abuser, you’ll have a chance to take a good look at who you really are. If you do have some of these co-dependent traits, you can heal and find your true self.
Many women who leave abusers go through a period of feeling like they won’t survive without the relationship and think this is from co-dependency. In fact, this is usually from what’s called a trauma or betrayal bond. This bond is formed intentionally by the abuser to keep a woman hooked to him through need.
In the process of abuse, the abuser often acts with kindness and love, even though this isn’t who he is or how he feels. But it’s a powerful experience for the victim to be treated lovingly after being ignored and scorned, of being shown respect after being criticized and blamed, of feeling sane after feeling crazy. The abuser’s intention in acting this way is to re-groom the woman, getting her to trust him again so he can further abuse her.
This leaves the victim feeling like she needs to have the “loving and safe” time again, or she’ll lose her mind and not survive the pain.
The abuser has learned to control her thoughts, emotions and environment to such a degree that she is dependent on him for her ability to feel safe and sane.
He’s giving her intermittent reinforcement and that causes the most intense kind of bonding- she’s always holding out hope for it being intensely good and perfectly sweet again.
The abuser often convinces the victim that they’re in this “relationship problem” together, and are fighting it together. During the “good” times he convinces her that they are overcoming the “problem” together. This creates the same bond that anyone feels when fighting a common enemy. But for the women, she can’t see that the enemy is actually her husband because his abuse is so covert and subtle.
All of this brainwashing can create a trauma bond with the abuser and this is not co-dependency. She lives with deep cognitive dissonance – psychological stress caused by living with conflicting realities.
Thankfully women can recover from trauma bonds and cognitive dissonance. Counseling or coaching can be very instrumental in healing.
Did I stay because of co-dependency?
You stayed because you wanted the marriage to work with all your heart
because you thought a loving wife would never leave
because he promised to change
because you have kids together
because you aren’t financially independent
because you were confused and loving and hopeful
because you hadn’t yet realized that he was deceiving you
because your church told you divorce wasn’t an option.
But most of all you stayed because of what he was doing to your mind and to your sense of self and power.
You stayed because he warped your perspective of reality and took over your thinking. He had you convinced that you were the problem and that if you worked harder the marriage would work.
You didn’t stay because of co-dependence, you stayed because that is what abusers do to their victims.
Did I choose an abuser?
Woman are abused because they are targeted and manipulated by an abuser– a skilled con man. Covert psychological abuse victims are conned into a relationship by an expert deceiver who presents a false persona to fool her into trusting him.
Covert abuse victims do not even know that abuse is happening and certainly don’t choose it.
We don’t keep “choosing abusive men.” There are simply enough of them to go around.
Our culture (and many ill-informed therapists and pastors) encourage women to ask themselves “Why did I choose an abuser?” This puts the blame on the victim right out of the gate.
That’s no surprise since our entire culture still blames the victim for being abused.
And after many years of being trained by the abuser to blame themselves for problems in the marriage, the victim blames herself too.
When this question is asked by a trusted counselor or friend, an abused women will naturally look for her part in the abuse. And that can led to a dark hole of self-hatred and self-blame. That’s the exact opposite of what a woman needs to do to heal.
A better question to ask is “Why did an abuser choose me?” I answer that in Why Was I Abused? Part Two: Targeted by an Abuser, and the answer may surprise you.