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Love Shouldn't Feel Like a Cage: The Telltale Signs of Codependency and Trauma Bonding

Updated: Jan 28

A couple hugging but feeling chained
Chained relationship

Codependency, a term whispered in therapy circles and online forums, is stepping more and more into the spotlight. It commonly appears connected to another important concept: trauma bond. But what exactly are they, and could they be silently suffocating your relationship?

"Codependency" and "trauma bonding" might hold the key to clearly interpreting what's happening when you feel drained and lost in your relationship. Although both are terms coined or used by writers more than academics, they are widely used in the mental health arena and mentioned often to describe all sorts of toxic relationships. I’ll provide some context on their origin and use to help you determine if they apply to you or your circumstances.

First, let’s differentiate between codependency and dependence. Many people use these terms interchangeably, assuming they are the same, but they are not.

Dependency vs Codependency

To be dependent is basically the opposite of being independent. Someone who is dependent relies on others to get certain necessities met. These needs may be of different nature which can make someone completely dependent (e.g., mobility issues or incapacitating illnesses) or only partially dependent (e.g., financially). Some people are emotionally dependent and require emotional support, companionship, and social interaction to feel “happy,” stable, and to maintain a sense of connection and well-being. Since dependency can be healthy or unhealthy, let me go into more detail:

· Healthy (or natural) dependency: In one way or another, we all depend on others. For example, children rely on their parents (or other adults) for basic needs like food, shelter, and safety, while non-working caregivers may depend on the working partner for the financial sustenance of the family. Good parenting includes helping children to develop agency and autonomy. In healthy adult relationships, dependence looks like a mutual give-and-take of support that benefits both while allowing space for independence in many aspects.

· Unhealthy dependency: Extreme reliance on others can interfere with the ability to function on your own, to make healthy decisions, to develop confidence in your abilities, etc. If a child becomes dependent, their autonomy, agency, and sense of self-worth get compromised, and this may manifest in adulthood as self-doubt and inability. Unhealthy dependence also relates to substances where the person relies on being intoxicated to somehow “feel better” about themselves.

Even when dependence can be detrimental for a person, unhealthy dependence is not always codependence.

Codependency, as used today, refers to a dysfunctional way of acting in relationships. It has to do with a lack of boundaries, low self-esteem, incapacity to regulate emotions, and the tendency to dismiss one’s emotional needs to prioritize others’. It regularly translates into forming unhealthy relationships, especially with those who are prone to neglect the codependent’s needs and prioritize their own. Codependency happens when one becomes overly invested in another person’s well-being, sacrificing one’s own well-being.

The term codependent was originally introduced in the 1980s by Dr. Robert Subby to replace terms such as “co-alcoholism” and “co-addiction” to describe the ways in which family members of alcoholics or addicts became emotionally dependent on the instability of the substance abuser. Dr. Subby explained that relatives of alcoholics lived their lives intertwined with the addict’s life, suffered from denial, a tendency to enable the addiction, and assumed a caretaking stance toward the person who had a substance dependency. Their own sense of self-worth was often tied to “fixing” or “understanding” the alcoholic’s behavior, and their lives revolved around the ups and downs of the addicted. Some years later, the term codependency was used by Melody Beattie, who wrote the book “Codependent No More” (1986), where she used the term to convey the idea that codependency included all relationships in which one person becomes excessively reliant on the emotionality of another person without necessarily being connected to substances.

Today, codependency is used to describe either personality traits of someone who behaves in a certain way in relationships or a pattern of dysfunctional and unhealthy dynamics within the relationship.

A codependent person is characterized by a lack of boundaries, a need for approval, and a tendency to prioritize the needs of the other over their own needs. These patterns make the codependent’s emotional stability contingent on the approval and identity of the partner, not necessarily because of the partner’s behavior but because of some of the codependent’s own characteristics, such as coming from families where there was addiction, having learned self-sacrifice cultural values, or suffering from low self-esteem and lack of self, among some of them.

Trauma Bonding as a Risk of Codependency

It’s frequent to see codependency tied to abuse. The presence of codependency in itself does not necessarily mean there is abuse, but it can become a contributing factor to the creation of a dynamic that ends up being abusive. Since codependency is about an individual neglecting their own needs and boundaries in order to meet the needs of the other person, it results in emotional, physical, or psychological harm to the codependent person, and in some cases, to the other person as well. That’s when we arrive to the concept of “trauma bonding.”

Now let me talk about trauma bond. Beyond the heated arguments and silent resentment, trauma bonding masquerades as love in toxic relationships. Let's untangle the web and see if it ensnares your connection.

Trauma bonding is a complex psychological attachment to an abusive or dysfunctional person. You could say that my previous phrase sounds very much as codependency. Yes, it does. The difference lays on the perception of the abused of why they stay in that type of relationship. While the codependent stays to “fix” the other, the trauma bonded stays because they “love” the other.

When someone with codependent traits find themselves in a relationship they can’t leave even when abusive, dysfunctional, and detrimental, the repeated cycles of positive experiences (love, affection, and care) and negative ones (abuse, neglect, and manipulation) alter their nervous system and the production of chemicals and hormones, causing distortions on perception. The “cognitive dissonance” in the individual’s mind debilitates them, especially when external factors add to the situation (such as a lack of social support or resources), which pushes the person to “believe” that the abuse is justified or deserved, or that whatever the relationship offers (family, support, recognition, etc.), makes it worth staying. The distortions take the route of hiding the suffering under concepts such as love, family values, being needed, etc. Trauma bonding has the characteristic of putting the person not only at risk, but in disadvantage: Many times, those that are trauma bonded don’t know it. Unconsciously, abused individuals seek to psychologically negotiate extreme levels of stress and threats to physical safety caused by their abuser by feeling “strongly connected” to them. We could call it a “mental protection” that allows the individuals to feel less bad about the abuse and the inescapable situation.

Trauma Bonded But Not Codependent?

Trauma bonding can occur in various types of relationships, not only romantic ones but also familial relationships and even in cults or other manipulative groups. In some cases, an individual may become codependent as a result of trauma bonding. For example, an individual who has experienced traumatization in childhood or a previous relationship may be more vulnerable to forming a codependent attachment with an abusive partner. Alternatively, an individual who has already developed (or has) codependent tendencies may be more likely to stay in an abusive relationship and develop a trauma bond.

There is a level of denial in a trauma bond, and a high level of dissociation because abuse activates survival circuits that alters brain functioning. The abused person stops thinking about it and becomes numb at the abuse by not feeling, not seeing, not ‘registering’ it’s happening because some “switches” in the brain are turned off. They can even become convinced of a different reality, like in the case of cults where the followers workshop the ideals of the leader and ignore the cost of such adoration. The adoration makes them vulnerable, gullible, manipulated, and weak but they believe the opposite.

Are you codependent, trauma bonded, or both?

I hope the previous descriptions of both psychological concepts are helpful for you to identify if they apply to you. I’m adding here a list of some common characteristics of both to make it even easier:

Codependency has certain characteristics you could check. To be codependent you need to have many or all of them and not only few and they have to cause you certain level of dysfunction:

  • Difficulty saying no, setting boundaries, or asserting yourself

  • Prioritizing other people’s feelings, needs, and problems over yours

  • Tendency to neglect your needs, goals, and interests to please others

  • Difficulty expressing emotions or feeling numb

  • Low self-esteem or sense of self-worth

  • Perfectionism or fear of making mistakes

  • Needing to be in control or feeling responsible for others’ actions

  • Difficulty making decisions or trusting your own judgment

  • Fear of rejection and of being alone due to lack of self-value

  • Attraction to people who are emotionally unavailable, needy, or conflicted

  • Enabling behavior, such as rescuing or enabling others to avoid consequences

  • Sense of guilt or shame when asserting yourself or setting boundaries

To know if you are trauma bonded, you can check the following list and find how many of these characteristics apply to your case. Again, many or all of these characteristics need to be experienced and create dysfunction to be considered a trauma bond:

  • Intense emotional attachment to an abusive or manipulative person. This attachment may be driven by a sense of loyalty, love, or a desire to protect the abuser, despite their harmful behavior

  • Fear and anxiety when you think about leaving the abusive relationship as well as having a sense of hopelessness or helplessness, believing that you cannot escape the situation

  • Conflicting feelings such as love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, or attraction and repulsion towards the abusive person

  • Isolated by the abuser from friends and/or family, making it difficult for you to seek help or support

  • You blame yourself for the abusive behavior of your abuser. You may believe that you caused the abuse or that you somehow deserve it

  • You regularly justify or minimize the abusive behavior of your abuser. You may make excuses for the abuser or believe that the abuse is not as bad as it seems

  • You have lost your sense of self and identity. It may feel like you are living for the abuser and not yourself and that without the abuser, you would be lost

Remember, labels can be helpful guides, but they shouldn't become rigid boxes. Examining these concepts honestly doesn't mean pathologizing yourself or your partner; it's about gaining deeper understanding and fostering healthier dynamics. Ultimately, the goal is to move towards relationships that nurture personal growth and well-being. Maybe it’s not even “toxic.” This exploration of codependency and trauma bonding is just the beginning. In future posts, I'll go deeper into complex terms like 'toxic,' offering diverse perspectives and practical tools to navigate relationship challenges and cultivate healthier connections.

Antonieta Contreras is a therapist, supervisor, consultant, professor, and author working in NYC. You can check some of her answers to many questions related to trauma and relationships here. You can also get her book Traumatization and Its Aftermath (Routledge, 2023) or sign in for news here.

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