© 2018 Rhonda Freeman, PhD | Reviewed 2022
Have you been involved with a narcissist and wondered if the reason you stayed or made that partner choice was due to 'codependency'? It can be easy to jump to the conclusion that you attracted a mate that was abusive, disrespectful and unkind. But the reality is, narcissists are attracted to a large array of personalities and people. They can see the best in us just like anyone else can.
I'd like to share a quick story regarding my personal encounter with the concept of codependency.
For those of you who have followed me for a while online, you might recall many years ago I put out a video about codependency. I disclosed my therapy experience when I sought treatment after my psychopathic relationship. My psychologist said, “Rhonda have you considered that you are codependent and found yourself within this kind of relationship due to having codependency patterns? I believe that’s why you stayed and can’t let go now.”
I asked her... if that were true, then explain why I have these intense emotions, struggles, and experiences with only this particular man. "Isn’t codependency a pattern that I would carry with me across romantic partners and not just this particular relationship?" She had no answer. However, she told me to “look more into codependency.”
Codependency and Neuropsychology
Codependency is not a term used in the field of neuropsychology. It does not fit with how we conceptualize or view human behavior.
On a side note, when we look up the word codependency, we get various definitions; different therapists can describe it in different ways. Some of you reading this right now might have an entirely different take on the concept than what I am thinking when I think of codependency.
The main reason you will not likely hear a neuropsychologist look at relationships of any type using the terminology of “codependeny” is because the behavior and emotions of 'victims of abuse' can be the result of different underlying causes.
Here are merely three (of several) concepts I would consider regarding the reactions of a survivor exposed to narcissistic abuse:
1) Neurobiology of Love Some have referred to the very natural process of love and feeling deeply attached and ‘addicted’ to the partner as codependency. However, if you look at the neurobiology of romantic love, a portion of the process involves the reward system, which causes a “partner addiction.” In neuroscience it is considered completely normal to feel addicted to our mate and feel that they are a part of us.
2) Neurobiology of Rejection Some do not take into account that throughout the relationship (and often at the end as well), pathological narcissists engage in rejection. They do this covertly and overtly. They give the message that their partners are not good enough. They convey that their mates do not deserve the respect that they might give others. And guess what rejection causes to happen in our brain? It activates the neuropathways of pain, ramps up the neurocircuits of bonding (yes – makes us feel more connected to the person), lowers the activation of portions of the prefrontal cortex (we can’t reason as well under conditions of rejection), ignites systems associated with feeling unsafe or defective, and intensifies our attention (focus) on the person who is the rejector (the narcissist).
3) Traumatic Bonding In relationships with a pathological narcissist, it is not uncommon for the survivor to find themselves within a traumatic bond with their partner. And this can be maintained even after the relationship is over. For those who have followed my particular theory on the neurobiology of the trauma bond, you know I believe it is associated with a combination of the reward and bonding systems. And these systems are strongly tied with chemistry such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endogenous opioids, etc. This large set of chemistry, when released under certain conditions, is associated with being connected with others (very intensely). However, often blocking the brain’s reasoning system that is also telling you this person is not a good match and you should leave. So, if you do not take this system into account and label what you’re seeing as codependency, an opportunity to recognize it, target it, and treat it are missed.
As a neuropsychologist, given that codependency is not recognized in my field, let me tell you what we do look at and how we conceptualize this topic. We go toward the research of 1) personality and 2) attachment styles. Human beings bring a certain attachment style to our relationships (e.g., secure, insecure) and these patterns are laid down by our earlier relationships in life (e.g., with parents, peers). It's our foundation.
These styles can significantly impact your resilience when the relationship is over and you are in the healing process. I say, “after” because, just because someone has a secure attachment style and gets involved with a narcissist, it doesn’t mean they will do well with them. No one does well with them. And yes, securely attached people can get involved in a narcissistic relationship.
Narcissistic abuse is about the pathology of the narcissist damaging the well-being of their partner. There is no one who will do great in these relationships - not even the securely attached. Why? Because narcissists have a disorder of impaired social neuro-networks of their brain. That is the key to the problem. The survivor is having a reaction to the narcissist’s limited emotional system.
Knowing your attachment style will help you in your healing journey, but not so much when you are within the relationship. Knowing your attachment style will allow you to work on healing your foundation. If you have an insecure attachment style associated with childhood (which I strongly suspect is a reflection of complex post-traumatic stress disorder), it will be important to do the additional healing work on you so that you can have better relationships in general.
It is also important to note, that although no one can do well within a narcissistic relationship, those with an insecure attachment style will fair worse. And that is because they often have traumatic experiences in their past before they encountered the narcissist. I suspect that when others use the term codependency, they are likely referencing one of the insecure attachment styles.
For those of you trying to learn more about yourself as you go through healing from a narcissistic relationship, just know, the brain goes through incredible upheaval in response to a disordered partner. When I was told I was “probably codependent” by a psychologist who used that term to explain why I stayed with someone who abused me, it was not an appropriate label. By doing this, she intensified my pain. The psychologist did not consider other variables or ask herself as a mental health professional key questions, such as:
a) Did my patient demonstrate those patterns in other relationships? If I am unsure, I need to dig further into this patient's history, give her psychological tests, interact more with her to see how she responds within this relationship with me.
b) Does this patient have an insecure attachment style. If I am not sure, I need to gather more information; determine if she has abuse in her past. Give her psychological tests and trauma scales.
c) Do I understand the brain reactions regarding love, rejection, or traumatic bonding? If I do not know these things and I am giving help to patients who are recovering from breakups, it is my responsibility to take continuing education courses or get supervision on these topics.
d) Did I consider her brain's reaction to long-term abuse from a romantic partner. Am I considering the presence of complex post traumatic stress disorder?
As a psychologist we are required to ask ourselves several questions when we are conceptualizing a case. The above list (a - d) are merely four that the psychologist could have asked herself before she settled on the conclusion of codependent.
Thankfully, after I left treatment with her, I determined the the issues that were present; targeted those issues from a neuroscience angle, and worked intensely on those issues. I have since lived a life of peace. And not since that time have I had a "codependent" relationship (using my psychologist's words).
Can someone have an insecure attachment style, be trauma bonded, in love, and feeling hurt by the pain of rejection? Unfortunately - yes.
There are some survivors with each of those variables on the table contributing to their difficulties in their healing journey. Some people are experiencing even more than that, as some will have PTSD, depression, complex PTSD, and the pain of betrayal as well.
This is why it will be important to identify what is happening to you, rather than lump all of those symptoms and conflicting neurochemistry reactions under the heading of "codependency." You are not expected to be a psychologist, however over-simplication of something as complex as human behavior can leave you feeling stuck in your healing.
And making the assumption that staying, tolerating abuse, or feeling attracted, or compassionate toward your abuser is codependency will put a burden on your lap you do not deserve.
Let's review here - I offered you three other possibilities that could be at play when dealing with these relationships, that veer outside of the concept of codependency:
- Neurobiology of love
- Neurobiology of rejection,
- and Traumatic Bonding.
There are certainly additional brain related reactions that can appear in association with narcissistic abuse not listed here, that some might term codependent. As you go through your healing journey, add a bit of neuroscience in there to try to go to the root of the issue. I'll help however I can (i.e., read the content here on this website | or enroll in my online program). *A few years ago when I created my course I added an entire module on codependency to help survivors get a different view. If you are in my course, please make sure to check out those lessons.* All the best, Dr. Rhonda Freeman