Do you have a pattern of dysfunctional and toxic relationships? Don’t despair. If you’re codependent and not personality disordered (e.g., narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, sociopathic or psychopathic) you can break this pattern. It probably won’t be as easy or fast as you’d like, but it can be done. Change, even when it’s desired, is often painful and difficult. That’s why it’s called growing pains.
Basic Relationship Boundaries, Part 1 discusses the importance of reciprocal relationships, personal boundaries and not enabling other people’s abusive behavior. Before you can have a healthy relationship, it’s helpful to understand how and why you’ve gotten yourself into trouble in past and present relationships.
Most people who have unhealthy relationship patterns can trace it back to their childhoods. If your parents didn’t teach you to take care of yourself and have healthy boundaries, which is true of many codependents, then you need to begin with the basics. Again, don’t beat up on yourself. How are you supposed to know how to do something if no one ever taught you? Or, worse yet, taught you to ignore your own needs and well-being in order to take care of them instead? How are you supposed to know what a functional relationship is when your parents modeled toxic and dysfunctional relationships?
If you were expected to take care of your mother’s and father’s emotional and physical needs as a child it was a role reversal. It’s called parentification and is a form of child abuse. Adults are supposed to take care of their kids, not the other way round. If you’re codependent, you basically have to learn how to care for and love yourself as an adult in the ways your parents did not and could not when you were a child.
After you accomplish this, the once irresistible siren song of Crazy (e.g., narcissists, borderlines, histrionics, sociopaths, passive-aggressives, control freaks, bullies, the super clingy and needy, etc.,) will begin to sound like a demonic car alarm going off at 4 ‘o’ clock in the morning. In other words, these individuals will repel and repulse you rather than attract and magnetize you.
Are you ready to start packing for that one-way train out of Crazytown? Okay, great. Let’s explore two more basic relationship boundaries: Accountability and self-care.
Accountability. Oh, what a beautiful world it would be if everyone took personal responsibility for themselves! Alas, society and our media seem determined to cultivate a carnival culture of entitlement, blame and professional victimhood. Who in their right mind would want to be a victim? Lots of disordered, dysfunctional, attention-seeking people, actually. Probably not the actual victimization itself, but what comes after. Professional victims desire the special privileges and and exemptions for their own bad behavior they receive by virtue of being a “victim.”
People who have been truly victimized don’t relish the role of victim. They don’t want to be seen as victims and they’re usually not super duper eager to tell complete strangers, on a first date for example, about their rich and varied history of child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault. This is also a boundary issue. People with boundaries take time to get to know someone and develop trust before sharing such personal information.
Professional victims may or may not have been legitimately victimized. More often than not, the only thing professional victims are victims of are their own bad choices. Upon closer inspection, it’s not unusual to discover that their tales of woe have been fabricated or greatly exaggerated. So why do they portray themselves as victims?
The primary perk of being a professional victim is the abdication of personal accountability and responsibility. “I need your passwords and text harass you at work because my father cheated on my mother. If you don’t respond to my 30 text messages while you’re at the office how do you expect me to trust you’re not a cheat, too?!” “My last wife was demanding and abusive, so you have to deal with my inconsiderate and dismissive behavior. If you hold me accountable, then you’re being just like my ex-wife.”
No matter how wretched and deplorable their behavior, they expect others to look the other way because they’re a “victim.” They believe they’re special cases who are owed. They also believe they should be exempt from laws, social mores and other rules of basic decency by which us non-victims abide. Professional victims, abusers and the personality disordered almost always have an excuse for their rotten behavior. Even if they admit the way they treated you was wr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ong, it was really your fault or someone else’s fault, don’t you know? Just look at what you made them do!
So what does this have to do with you — assuming you’re reading this article because you struggle with codependency and would like to have healthier relationships?
Codependents are often hyper-accountable and hyper-responsible. Parentified children grow up very fast. Are you quick to take the blame and assign responsibility to yourself for things that aren’t your fault or responsibility? Narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths are blame shifters extraordinaire. They also like to have others do their work for them. This is another way that people pleasing, fixer codependents dovetail with the personality disordered. It really is a perfect storm.
Why is your abusive girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse or ex’s atrocious behavior your fault? It isn’t. Why do their wants trump your needs? They don’t. Why does the fact that they (maybe) had a difficult childhood or (maybe) had an abusive first (second, third or fourth) husband or wife mean you have to tolerate their BS, tiptoe around their hair trigger sensitivities and buy into their highly
distorted creative version of reality? It doesn’t.
Many of my clients fall into the trap of making excuses for the way the personality disordered people in their lives behave. So Nancy the Narcissist or Bob the Borderline had abusive parents and suffered childhood trauma, so what? If you’re codependent, odds are you also had a rough childhood with equally dysfunctional parents. Do you use that as a justification to mistreat and trample the rights of others? Do you feel entitled to exploit the hard work, kindness and conscientiousness of others because your ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends were jerks? I’m guessing not.
While this should go without saying, this is the Internet: I’m not minimizing the damage caused by childhood abuse and trauma. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t give anyone carte blanche to abuse and exploit others as an adult. One of my parents probably qualified for a diagnosis of NPD with some BPD features mixed in for that extra-special dash of Cray-Cray. I know firsthand what it is to be a kid in those circumstances. It was hell, but it doesn’t mean I get to asshole my way through life with reckless abandon.
Later as an adult, I chose several partners with similar personalities (damn that repetition compulsion!) We’re supposed to have compassion for children who begin life with trainwreck parents, but once we’re adults we are responsible for our choices, words and deeds. Having a personality disorder doesn’t exempt an individual from personal responsibility despite their caterwauling to the contrary.
While you’re not to blame for the abuse you’ve suffered, you’re responsible for your adult relationship choices. You are accountable to yourself. Understanding codependency, parentification and all the other self-help material is important. However, once you recognize what you’ve been experiencing is abuse and believe your spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend is narcissistic, borderline or sociopathic, it’s your responsibility to remove yourself from the abuse. In all likelihood this means removing yourself from the relationship.
Of course, this is more difficult when shared children are involved, but people do it. You cannot 100% protect a child from a personality disordered parent, especially if the disordered parent is the mother, unless you’re able to remove the child from the disordered parent. The best you can do is provide the child with extra support, professional if need be, teach the child how to have healthy boundaries and not to take on their disordered parent’s crap. *I have seen cases where disordered fathers have successfully manipulated family court. It’s less common, but it happens. Manipulators and persuasive blamers know how to manipulate and blame shift, female or male.
Typically, when you hold a narcissist or other pathologically emotionally immature individual accountable, they don’t like it. Well, that’s an understatement. They hate it. HATE, HATE, HATE IT. Holding this kind of person accountable usually results in raging, tantrums, pouting, the silent treatment, accusations of abuse, divorce threats, threats to call 911 and sometimes physical violence. To the narcissist, borderline or psychopath being held accountable is experienced as “abuse;” your healthy boundaries are experienced as attempts to “control them.”
When an adult refuses to hold her- or himself accountable it’s fundamentally an issue of maturity, or the lack thereof. There is also a hypersensitivity to criticism, a lack of self-awareness, inability to self-reflect and gross sense of entitlement at play. Seriously, you cannot have a healthy, mutual, reciprocal adult relationship with this kind of person. You just can’t. So hold yourself accountable and ask yourself why you’ve been doing this?
Your childhood may explain it, but it doesn’t justify continuing to persevere down such a destructive and futile path. Attempting to fix a broken narcissist or borderline, an impossible task, isn’t going to undo the pain of your childhood. None of us have to repeat our parents’ lives if we consciously and purposefully choose not to do so.
I repeat, none of us have to repeat our parents’ lives if we consciously and purposefully choose not to do so.
Self-Care. The concept of self-care is deceptively simple. If you’re truly taking good care of yourself, you won’t accept the abuse of others. Nor will you make excuses for why you’ve been tolerating their abuse and disrespect. Many of the codependents I work with had parents who didn’t teach them how to care for themselves, sometimes right down to basic physical care (e.g., getting enough sleep, a predictable schedule, nutrition, hygiene and physical activity).
As noted previously, many codependents were parentified as children. You’re taught to ignore or deny your own needs and wants in order to service your dysfunctional parent’s needs and wants. Essentially, you’re conditioned to put others first at your own expense. You were probably also made to feel bad and selfish for having your own needs, wants and feelings. It’s time to stop doing that.
Many of my clients, as they begin to practice self-care, notice a peculiar phenomenon. The narcissistic or borderline wife or husband doesn’t like it. They often ridicule my clients’ efforts to lose weight, exercise, learn a new skill, quit smoking, etc. My clients get accused of being selfish or having an affair. A loving partner encourages you to take care of yourself and be healthy. Not a self-absorbed personality disordered partner. She or he frequently experiences your self-care as a threat or an act of betrayal.
Predators of all kinds, including relationship predators, like easy, weakened targets. Their abuse tears you down. It’s easier to control you that way. Until they grow bored with you, then they find a more robust target and begin the idealization/devaluation process anew. Your self-care efforts will build you back up. Combine that with your knowledge of how personality disordered people operate and manipulate, personal accountability and other boundaries and you’ll be well on your way.
If you don’t know where to start, work your way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Eat better. Drink more water. Reduce or abstain from alcohol and other drugs, particularly if you’ve been using them to self-medicate. Get a check-up. Get on a regular sleep schedule, even if it means sleeping in the guest room. Get some exercise. Get a haircut. Spruce up your wardrobe. Resume old hobbies or pastimes. Reach out to old friends who fell by the wayside because of your toxic relationship.
Let your narcissistic or borderline spouse’s disapproval and anger at your self-care serve as your reinforcement to persist. Odds are if they disapprove or get nasty about it, it’s a healthy choice for you.
Be more patient and gentle with yourself. Learning self-care and boundaries as an adult can be difficult, or at least feel uncomfortable and weird initially. It will get easier with time. You’ll also notice how unhealthy your disordered partner is by the contrast. That’s okay. That’s how it’s supposed to work. It may seem daunting or terrifying at the moment, but once you get to the other side you’ll wonder what took you so long.
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Counseling, Consulting and Coaching with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides individual services to help individuals work through their relationship issues via telephone or Skype, particularly men and women who trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Services page for professional inquiries.