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Monday, July 24, 2017

The Connection Between Abandonment Issues and Codependency

I've written about fear of abandonment and codependency in prior articles.

In this article, I'm focusing on the connection between abandonment and codependency.

The Connection Between Abandonment Issues and Codependency

Fear of being abandoned usually starts at a young age.  When I refer to being "abandoned," I'm not just referring to being physically abandoned--I'm also referring to the more common experience of being emotionally abandoned, which might be less obvious than physical abandonment.

One common outcome of being emotionally abandoned as a child is that that child grows up to be an adult with codependency issues, which includes going from one relationship to the next, choosing unhealthy relationships or isolating out of fear of being abandoned.

A Fictionalized Vignette
The following fictionalized vignette illustrates how being emotionally abandoned at an early age can lead to codependent relationships:

Ann was raised by her mother and maternal grandmother because Ann's mother was only 15 when she gave birth to her.  She never knew her father.

Ann remembered her mother being very resentful towards her because her mother felt she missed out on a lot adolescent activities because she had to take care of Ann as a child.

When her mother was especially resentful towards Ann, she would tell Ann that Ann was ugly and no boy would ever be interested in her because of her ugliness.

When Ann was older, she understood that her mother was very young, immature and irresponsible and she was acting out by rejecting Ann.  But even though throughout her life people told her that she was an attractive and kind person, Ann believed her mother's words, which Ann had internalized at a deep level at a young age (see my article:  Dynamics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families).

Ann married the first young man who was interested in her, and she believed that she was lucky to find a man who cared about her, despite her being "ugly" in her own eyes.

At 18, Ann had no idea what marriage was about.  She just knew that she was glad that she had someone and that she didn't become "an old maid" like her mother told her that she would be.

Ann didn't know her husband, Tom, very well when she married him.  But within a few months of their getting married, she found out that he was an alcoholic and he got angry and loud when he was drunk.  He also became emotionally abusive calling her names and telling her that she was useless.

The Connection Between Abandonment Issues and Codependency

Since Ann grew up with a mother who was verbally abusive with her and she already had low self esteem, she believed Tom.  She thought it must, somehow, be her fault that he was drinking too much, and he did everything he could to blame her.

She believed that if she tried hard enough, she could help Tom to stop drinking.  She wanted to help him to get sober.  But she was also afraid that if she didn't help him, he would leave her and she was very afraid of being abandoned (see my article: Overcoming the Need to Be Everyone's Caretaker).

She did everything that she could think of to help Tom to stop drinking, but it was futile because he didn't want to stop and he kept blaming her (see my article: How to Stop Being the "Rescuer" With Your Loved Ones and Relationships: Why Emotional Abuse Might Seem "Normal" to You).

When she confided in her best friend, Carla, she told Ann that she wasn't to blame for Tom's drinking.      She said to Ann that if she didn't leave Tom, she was going to have a miserable life.  Carla knew because she watched her father drink himself to death and watched her mother and everyone in the family suffer, including Carla.

After three years of being with Tom and watching him lose one job after another, Ann felt emotionally and physically exhausted.  They barely got by on her salary.

By then, Ann was no longer in love with Tom.  Just the sight of him drunk and lying passed out on the couch made her stomach turn.  But she dreaded being alone, so she stayed, feeling helpless and hopeless about her life (see my article: Fear of Abandonment: Are Your Fears of Being Alone and Lonely Keeping You in an Unhealthy Relationship?).

A few years later, Tom was rushed to the hospital and he was diagnosed with pancreatitis due to his excessive drinking.  The doctor told Tom in front of Ann that if he didn't stop drinking, he was going to die.  But it made no difference.  Once he was discharged from the hospital, Tom resumed drinking even worse than before.

One day, when he was in a drunk stupor, he told Ann that he wanted a divorce.  He continued to blame her for his drinking and told her he wanted out of their marriage.

Ann was stunned and terrified of being alone.  Even though, at this point, she hated Tom, her fear of being alone was much greater than her dislike of her husband.

She pleaded with Tom not to leave her.  Tom took that as a sign that he could bargain with her, so he told her that if he was going to stay in their marriage, he wanted to be able to see other women.  He told her that he was too young when they got married and missed out on sowing his wild oats.

After much arguing, Tom said this was the only way he would agree to remain with her, so Ann agreed.  At that point, she felt she would agree to anything so she wouldn't be alone.  She feared she would never meet anyone again.

Soon after that, Tom began spending most of his time in bars where he met other women.  One night, Ann woke up to the sound of Tom and a woman laughing and having sex in the living room.

Ann was furious that Tom would be so disrespectful of her, but she pretended not to know what was going on.

After that, she knew she had to get out of the marriage, but she was still too afraid to be alone.  She felt desperate to leave Tom for another man because she knew if she had someone else, she could leave Tom.

Fast forward 10 years:  Ann divorced Tom and soon after the divorce, she married Bill, who was kind and gentle to her.  He also had a steady job, so all the financial burdens weren't on her shoulders.

But a few months into their marriage, Ann discovered that Bill was a compulsive gambler.  She also found out that he was heavily in debt, something he never revealed to her and he owed money to loan sharks.

Ann bailed Bill out time after time and hoped that he would stop gambling, but his gambling just got worse over time--to the point where Ann couldn't bail him out anymore.

By the time Ann came to therapy, she was in her late 30s and she had been through several dysfunctional relationships.

As she described her relationships to the therapist, the codependent pattern was the same with each relationship.  Ann was continuously trying to rescue these men and blaming herself for their problems.

Before she ended one relationship, she made sure she had the next relationship lined up so she wouldn't be alone, which she still dreaded.  As a result, she got into relationships without knowing these men well.

Her current husband, Jack, was obsessed with Internet pornography to the point where he spent hours online.  Initially, he hid it from Ann, but then one day she discovered his problem when she saw the browser history (see my article: Sexual Addiction: Is a Compulsion For Viewing Pornography Online Ruining Your Marriage?)

Once again, Ann blamed herself for not being pretty enough and sexy enough to hold Jack's attention. She tried dieting (even though she wasn't overweight), she bought sexy clothes and tried doing everything she could think of to be more attractive, but nothing changed.

She came to therapy because she hoped the therapist could help her to save her marriage.  She knew, on some level, that all of these relationships had the same pattern and that this marriage was probably not going to work out.  But she would do anything to avoid being alone.

She was too afraid to leave Jack and she feared he might lose interest in her altogether and leave her.  She wanted the therapist to tell her what she could do to help Jack.

When the therapist asked Ann to focus on herself, Ann became angry.  From Ann's point of view, she didn't have a problem--Jack had the problem.

The therapist listened to Ann patiently and then explained codependency to Ann.  She also recommended a book that Ann could read about codependency.

Ann wasn't happy about this, but she didn't know what to do, so she began reading the book.  After a few pages, Ann realized that this book could have been written for her.  She recognized herself on nearly every page, and she finished the book in a day.

When Ann went for her next therapy session, she was much more open to exploring her early history and it affected her (see my articles: Understanding Why You're Still Affected By Trauma That Happened a Long Time Ago).

At first Ann felt ashamed but, over time, Ann's shame diminished.  She began to understand the connections between her fear of being abandoned, her codependency and her childhood history (see my article: Healing Emotional Wounds in Therapy and Healing Shame in Psychotherapy).

As she continued to work on herself in therapy, over time, she developed more confidence in herself.  She also began to feel that she deserved to be treated better.

Once she was ready to work on her early childhood trauma, Ann and her therapist focused on her emotionally abusive relationship with her mother, and Ann saw parallels between how her mother treated her, how unlovable Ann felt as a child, and her relationships with men.

She regretted how much time went by before she got help, but she also knew she would have probably continued in the same relationship patterns for the rest of her life if she never went to therapy.  And she was grateful that she was feeling better about herself and working through the earlier trauma (see my articles: Overcoming Emotional Trauma Developing Resilience and Becoming Resilient).

Within a year, Ann left Jack and she decided that she would learn to spend some time alone rather than rushing into another relationship.

Although she still had some fear about being alone, she was no longer terrified by it.  She worked in her therapy to appreciate her solitude and, after a while, she was surprised to discover that she wasn't lonely or afraid of being alone anymore.  She actually enjoyed her own company (see my article: Solitude vs. Feeling Lonely and Abandoned).

The Connection Between Abandonment Issues and Codependency

When she was ready, Ann began dating again.  This time she felt much more deserving in terms of what she wanted from a relationship.

When she met a man that she really cared for and who cared for her, she took the time to get to know him before they moved in together.

It can be very difficult to see the connection between fear of abandonment, codependency and earlier trauma, especially if you're so fearful of being alone that you go from one relationship to the next without really knowing the person.

The desperation to avoid being alone can lead to unhealthy relationship choices.

Becoming aware of this pattern is the first step.  Accepting that you have a problem is the next step, and taking action to get help is the step after that.

A skilled psychotherapist, who knows how to help clients to overcome these unhealthy patterns, can help you to understand and overcome these problems.

Part of the work in overcoming these patterns is preparing you to do the trauma work in therapy.  This means helping you to develop the necessary coping skills to work on the emotional trauma (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Coping Skills).

Therapy to overcome these patterns also involves working through the original trauma, so that it no longer gets played out in your relationship choices.

Getting Help in Therapy
Rather than suffering on your own and continuing to get into dysfunctional relationships, get help in therapy from a licensed mental health professional who has experience helping clients with these issues (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Being able to free yourself from your traumatic history will allow you to live a much more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New YorkCity psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

See my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

I have helped many clients to overcome their fear of abandonment, codependency and history of trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.