For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Pamela Jessen shared her story of partner abuse. In her post entitled Domestic Violence (It Affects Us All), she included some of the more covert forms of partner abuse and provides some tips on how to begin working toward making a clean break. Many people assume the story ends there, but it’s really just the beginning of the long process required to heal from domestic violence. In today’s post, I will discuss breaking codependent cycles in your life so you can begin leading a healthy new life.
Abuse victims don’t have to remain victims. You don’t have to continue to put yourself second to the needs of others and there’s nothing selfish about it. It’s quite natural and healthy (but your abuser doesn’t want you to know this). The reality is that no one will ever care for you right if you don’t care for yourself.
Anyone can learn how to become a survivor and live in their own truth instead. You can have a healthy mind and lead healthy life with a healthy partner. It doesn’t happen magically. It takes a little work and a lot of change, as does anything worth achieving. I can tell you firsthand the work is more than worth it and pays off heavily in happiness dividends. Change can be scary, but the alternative is even scarier. From 2014 to 2017 murders by intimate partners has risen more than 19 percent in the US. Every day, we lose an average of 6 women to partner violence in the US. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you could never be one of them.
Ritual Abuse Creates Perpetual Victims
As a child growing up in an atmosphere of ritualized abuse and neglect, I was quick to recognize how these patterns repeated from me throughout my life and in all of my relationships. As the family scapegoat and black sheep, I was used and abused by everyone including my siblings and extended family, select teachers, friends and boyfriends. By the time I hit high school, I’d been molested and raped, bullied on a regular basis at school and landed myself in several unhealthy relationships with boys.
By the time I was 18, I was planning my first wedding, to a man who had already tossed me out of a moving pick up truck and beat me over the head with a glass coke bottle. I thought it was simply what I deserved because I’d never known anything else. What I was suffering from is known as distorted thinking, and it’s something that happens to all victims of abuse.
By this point, I even knew about codependency; I’d been going to CODA (codependents anonymous) for teens, a group organized by a couple of the counselors at my school, as well as individual counseling. But I didn’t yet understand or believe that I had the power to change these cycles; I was simply desperate to be loved and that desperation lead me to take many risks and accept the good treatment I could get, even though I knew it wouldn’t last. I thought I could work on these problems and still seek that love and magically everything would somehow be okay. It wasn’t.
After less than a year under his heel, I knew that I would die by his hand or maybe even my own. I got the courage to escape one night during a fight that began to escalate. I returned the very next day with my mother and brother in tow. On my way out, I dumped all of his guns in the dumpster. Maybe not the safest thing to do, but the last thing I wanted was to be stalked by someone fully locked and loaded.
Even after leaving, I didn’t take my own codependent issues seriously. I knew I had them, but I felt that if I simply became hard, I wouldn’t fall into the codependent trap anymore. I became very particular about who I’d date, but I swung too far in the wrong direction, letting the chip on my shoulder take the lead, thinking that if I proved myself tough enough, no one would dare ever try to abuse or use me ever again. In my ignorance, I hurt some very nice people, because I assumed all men were the same and deserved my wrath for all I’d experienced.
The truth I eventually had to swallow was that unless I put in the hard work of healing my own codependency and non-existent self-esteem and learned how to love and respect myself, I only had two choices: I would be miserable and alone or miserable and abused. I didn’t like those answers, so I got to work. Here is a list of the things I had to do to get healthy and finally find a relationship that I can maintain without falling into the classic patterns I kept falling back into.
- I had to process through my trauma, all of it, in a safe and supportive environment. For me, that was therapy.
- I had to accept that the trauma I experienced left me with a lot of protective mechanisms that only worked in dysfunctional relationships.
- I had to have a genuine desire to examine and change those protective mechanisms before I could attempt a healthy, successful relationship with someone.
- I had to accept that while I wasn’t responsible for creating these protective mechanisms and unhealthy habits, it was my responsibility to work toward changing them. A bonus; taking responsibility actually feels pretty good.
- I had to remove from my life and influence all those people with whom I was still conducting unhealthy relationships. In my case, this was my entire family and even some friends and it was a must to avoid being triggered by old traumas and falling back into old habits.
- I had to learn about what healthy relationships were in order to begin to try to emulate one with someone.
- I had to accept responsibility for the abused little girl who lived inside me that I’d been trying so hard to run from. I was still her, no matter how much I began to change and I couldn’t just leave her behind. She needed my unconditional love and acceptance, my nurturing and my respect so I could become a whole person and accept all the parts of myself. To feel safe, she needed to know I would never, ever allow anyone to abuse her again, that she had my respect, loyalty and love. All things I had been denied throughout my life.
- I had to stop seeing myself through the eyes of my abusers to see who I really was, by changing the distorted thinking I developed and examining it under an objective lens.
- I had to accept that I deserved good things in my life in order to attract them.
- More than anything, I had to forgive myself for the things I’d done wrong and would continue to do wrong as I tried to live a new kind of life.
My Blueprint for Overcoming Codependency
Everyone needs to follow their own path to defeat codependency, but these are the things that worked best for me after much trial and error. Perhaps they can help you to build your own roadmap to success:
- Commit to rejecting any and all new relationships for at least 1 year. When the year is up evaluate your progress and consider whether you need to continue for another year. Do whatever you need to stick with this.
- Find a counselor who specializes in codependency. You need a counselor you feel comfortable and safe with, but who will also push back and offer strong guidance. You aren’t looking for a mother or a yes man and definitely not someone you can manipulate. You’re looking for someone who’s going to tell you when you’re wrong and call you out on your shit, and then they need to be able to offer good exercises to offer to help change it. It is very important to process through all of your experiences, but it’s never enough. You must begin working toward change, as well.
- Get to know and nurture your inner child. Love them unconditionally by accepting and forgiving him or her for all their faults. Place the blame where it belongs; on the people who hurt you and failed to protect you. Give the shame back to those with whom it truly belongs and forgive yourself for ever carrying it.
- Utilize cognitive behavioral therapy exercises to train yourself on how to identify and change codependent behaviors and distorted thinking.
- Work with your counselor to remove those people from your life with which you still have codependent relationships. You’ll begin to identify and recognize these relationships as you work with your therapist. If you absolutely cannot terminate a codependent relationship due to extenuating circumstances, work with your counselor to develop strategies to resist falling into the same old habits with them and how best to set boundaries.
- Practice building healthy new boundaries with coworkers, friends and new people in your life.
- Do the work. Put in the time with workbooks and exercises and try to figure things out on your own as much as possible. You won’t have that counselor forever and relying on them too heavily can be a form of codependency itself. You want to become your own person and that means accepting responsibility for your choices and their outcome.
- Accept that it’s an ongoing process that you have to continue to work at with the people in your life. You will never “graduate” and no matter how well your life is going. It’s imperative to check in with yourself every now and then and evaluate whether you’ve fallen into any old, unhealthy patterns.
- Be vigilant of how life changes can lead to setbacks. For me, becoming disabled by my chronic illness caused me to digress because it was such a big hit to my self-esteem. I was naïve about how that would prey on past and reassert old bad tapes and distorted thinking.
- Even when you’ve achieved a healthy relationship, that doesn’t mean you won’t experience new challenges to your mental health or that of the relationship. Be honest with your partner about everything you’ve experienced and respect when they feel like you might be practicing some self-sabotaging behaviors. If you feel it’s a relationship issue, enter into counseling together. It’s up to you both to maintain a healthy relationship.
- If you find yourself in an unhealthy relationship, get help right away. We all experience setbacks. It’s when we choose to ignore them that they become a problem. Remember it takes two to tango and if your partner isn’t willing to accept their part of the responsibility, you probably won’t be able to achieve the relationship you want with them. Remember, your ultimate responsibility is how you behave and what you allow in your life. No one has to stay in an unhealthy relationship. Ultimately, it is a choice and your responsibility. Get the help you need to get out.
It never fails that we humans resist change and the easiest way for us to do that is to come up with reasonable objections as to why we can’t do something. The truth is we’re really just afraid of change and will resist with everything in us if we let ourselves.
#1: I can’t afford Therapy
This is probably the number one complaint I hear, but the fact of the matter is there are free counseling services available just about everywhere. Check with DV/SA (Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault) organizations. If they don’t have a free of charge or sliding scale counseling program in house, odds are they know of a few in the area. If you don’t have a local organization, call the national hotline for your area. They will have options for you.
#2: I didn’t grow up abused, so I won’t have any problem creating a healthy relationship
Even if you come from the world’s most loving home, experiencing violence at any point in our lives impacts how we think and feel long term. Every person who has experienced relationship violence needs counseling. Sometimes we even find that our seemingly bland and benign childhood was actually filled with covert forms of abuse and that our parents still managed to transfer all their shame onto us. It never hurts to give therapy a try, even if you think you don’t need it.
#3: I don’t need counseling. I need someone to love me
We all need love, and in truth is does help, but we can’t really be receptive and accepting that someone truly loves us until we’ve learned to love ourselves. After all, if you can’t truly love and accept yourself, how can you trust that someone else possibly could? Incidentally, I learned that self-love is by far the most rewarding kind. My relationship with my husband means a great deal to me, but it comes second. I know I can survive without him because I know who I am and that I’m perfectly able to take care of myself, even with all my health limitations.
#4 People don’t really change. I am who I will always be.
If you think that way, you’re probably right. You will always be the same and your life will continue to be mired in the same problems. Change takes hard work and responsibility. It can be scary. But you can change and you can achieve happiness. The only thing holding you back is the courage to try. I’m certainly very glad I tried and I can’t imagine my life without having done so. I anticipate it would be a life filled with regret. The only thing I regret now is that I didn’t do the work sooner.
#5 I can change him/her
As I stated in #4, change is possible. However, it’s only possible if you want to change and fully embrace it. You can’t change someone else, no matter how hard you try. Concentrate on you. You are the only person you are truly responsible for, unless you have minor age children. If you have minor age children, then you owe it to them and yourself to get free and break those patterns. Dysfunction breeds dysfunction and no matter how young they are or how well they pretend they aren’t affected and don’t notice, THEY DO.
Life can be terrible, long and hard living with abuse. Break the cycle. For yourself and the generations that come after. You don’t have to be a victim anymore!
Additional Reading on Codependency:
- 5 Tips for Breaking the Cycle of Codependency
- Breaking the Cycle of Codependency
- 4 Steps to Break the Shackles of Codependency
- What’s to know about codependent relationships?
- Healing Codependency in Relationships
- How To Overcome Codependency, According To Therapists Who’ve Seen It Happen
- How to Set Healthy Boundaries: Codependency Explored and More