Bill was very nervous. He was walking very carefully, taking each step with care, making sure his foot was planted securely before taking the next. Great thought was put into how to proceed. He could be described as extremely circumspect.
At this point, you may begin to form an image in your mind about the remainder of his life. It is easy to draw conclusions about Bill. We can picture him overthinking every decision, developing self doubt, living an overly cautious life. If he is this circumspect about walking, how difficult is it for him to make decisions, lead a normal life or manage at all?
I think that there may be a parallel between how we feel about Bill and the relationship between narcissists and co-dependency. Let me explain. According to Wikipedia the “commonly cited symptoms of codependency are:
• intense and unstable interpersonal relationships,
• inability to tolerate being alone, accompanied by frantic efforts to avoid being alone,
• chronic feelings of boredom and emptiness,
• subordinating one’s own needs to those of the person with whom one is involved,
• overwhelming desire for acceptance and affection,
• external referencing,
• dishonesty and denial, and
• low self-worth.”
In terms that sound more familiar, a co-dependent person is someone who is in a bad relationship. They are unwilling or unable to leave because they fear being alone. Generally they are unhappy and look to others to others for love and affection, often putting the needs of their partner above their own.
I think that Bill would agree that he is nervous and overly careful. Now, if I told you that Bill was walking along a narrow ledge several stories up the side of a mountain, would you jump to the same conclusions about how the rest of his life might be?
When dealing with issues surrounding narcissism, the concept of co-dependency comes up over and over again. Co-dependency is a label that is used to describe someone in a bad relationship. Any relationship with a narcissist is a bad relationship. The same behaviours are not criticized if you are in a good relationship. This is where it all falls apart for me.
Your lover gets a huge promotion, but has to move to New York to accept the job. If you decide to go with them even when moving means that you have to leave your family and your job, it could be said that you are “subordinating your own needs to those of the person with whom you are involved.” None the less, this is not considered a pathologic decision because as long as the relationship is “good” then it is not considered co-depedency.
Putting another’s needs above your own is so ingrained in our society air planes remind people to put their own oxygen mask on first. This trait is certainly not restricted to people who are co-dependent.
I can’t say for sure if Bill has low self worth, but anyone that would risk being on a ledge this far from the ground could be considered reckless and at the very least a thrill seeker. What can be stated explicitly is that he is much less likely to walk this slow and carefully when he is no longer on a ledge. I suspect the same can be said for many people who leave “co-dependent” relationships.
Certainly, there are individuals that float from one bad relationship to another, with an “overwhelming desire for acceptance and affection.” But we need to be careful here. Most people have a need for affection and love. Being ostracized from society has been a form of social punishment for a very long time. It only works because people need to be with other people. It is only “pathologic” if you are not capable of choosing good people to be around.
The inability to tolerate being alone is almost universal, especially when it means alone all of the time. Solitary confinement is considered an extreme form of punishment and is associated with self-injury and attempted suicide. So, for all intents and purposes we all have this “symptom” of co-dependency to some degree.
“External referencing” means always checking outside of oneself before making a decision. Bill certainly is checking outside of himself and being very careful and we know why. A fall could cause serious harm if not death. The same could be said for being in a relationship with a narcissist that will attack if they feel they are losing control. A verbal assault is every little bit as important as a physical assault. Being insulted, demeaned, yelled at, shamed and belittled can be seriously painful.
Trying to avoid this pain does not mean that there is something wrong with you. Also, there is no way to know if you would continue to put other’s needs ahead of your own if you were not trying to protect yourself from an attack.
If a spouse went out and bought a car without first checking with the other person it would be seen as inappropriate. This form of “external referencing” is seen as normal and expected. Why would anyone risk having their partner explode when it is easier to ask before making a decision?
The inability to end a bad relationship is not restricted to people who are co-dependent. Everyone I know can site multiple examples of people that are in bad relationships they are reluctant or unable to end. Does that mean that most of us are co-dependent?
Couldn’t many peoples’ experience with on-line dating be characterized as an “inability to tolerate being alone, accompanied by frantic efforts to avoid being alone?” How else would you describe checking on-line frequently to see if anyone has viewed your profile? How about a willingness to meet someone, you don’t know, for coffee?
Another problem I have with the term is that it “blames the victim”. Learning how to minimize the trauma and drama of a relationship does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong with you. Many of the items on the list can be coping mechanisms that gradually develop over the relationship. This does not mean that you are broken, it means that you have learned how to deal with a relationship that you are in that is not good for you.
Repeatedly finding yourself in bad relationships can be explained in an entirely different way. You may have never experienced a good relationship and you do not know how to tell the difference because you’ve never seen it. Again, this does not necessarily mean that you have “low self esteem” it may just mean that to you, this is what a relationship looks like. That perception can be changed.
Each of the examples that “define” co-dependency have the potential to disappear or become acceptable once the bad relationship has ended. Especially, “intense and unstable interpersonal relationships!”
I’m not suggesting there are no people out there who fit the mold of co-dependency. I’m sure some exist. But like Bill, they may have adapted to their surroundings. If Bill makes it safely off of the cliff he will be a hero. If he falls to his death he will be seen as a fool. If you are showing the signs of co-dependency you may need to remove yourself from the relationship until you learn what a healthy relationship looks like. Then, and only then, can it be determined if in fact you are co-dependent.