Before It's Too Late: Helping Women in Controlling or Abusive Relationships
By Robert J. Ackerman, Ph.D., Susan E. Pickering
Women in abusive relationships are "in the crossfire." They are suffering not only abuse, but also many other negative behaviors. At the same time, they are maintaining numerous personal and family responsibilities. For example, abuse is almost always accompanied by controlling behavior and often is coupled with too much drinking. At the same time, if the woman has children, she must care for and support them. Additionally, many women are balancing an occupational career. All of these things put a woman in the middle of being "pushed and pulled." On one hand she is being bombarded by the abusive, controlling behaviors of her spouse, and possibly too much drinking as well. On the other hand she is being pulled to fulfill her responsibilities while trying to protect herself.
This tension often leads the woman to a concern for her own sanity and causes her to think and act in ways that impede her ability to help herself. Being caught in the crossfire leads her to an unhealthy identification with all of the negative things going on around her, while she is pulled to meet extraordinary demands. At this point she is usually overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. Clear thinking gives way to emotional confusion, lowers self-esteem and creates a negative self-image; it is no wonder that self-defeating behaviors begin to develop.
Women who live with an addict or alcoholic are familiar with many of the crossfire outcomes. The condition is often referred to as co-dependency. But it doesn't stop there. Co-dependency is not limited to addicted families. It can also apply to any abusive family or any controlling relationship.
Robert Subby, an authority on co-dependency, defines it as "an emotional, psychological and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual's prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules-rules which prevent the open expression of feelings or the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems". Oppressive rules and living conditions are predominant features of both the spouse abuse and the alcohol abuse milieus. The common denominator of these two abusive situations is that both can produce co-dependency in those involved with the abuser or addicted person. This does not mean we believe that abused women cause their abuse. Co-dependency develops as a result of exposure to abusive conditions; it does not develop before these conditions.
Characteristics of Co-Dependency
All people may display co-dependent behaviors at one time or another, but that does not make them co-dependents. It is the degree to which these characteristics exist in a person that determines codependency. For example, the following would be typical co-dependent statements from a spouse in an abusive relationship:
"It's not that bad."
"I think it's getting better."
"It's just because I'm under so much pressure."
"I just do my thing; his behavior/drinking doesn't bother me."
"I never get angry."
"I'm not the type to go to treatment."
"I know I should talk to him, but it will upset him."
"He's really not an abuser; he didn't mean to hit me."
All these statements contain the most important ingredient of codependency: the language of denial. If you are going to be a "good" co-dependent you have to be in denial.
However, denial alone won't qualify you as a co-dependent. How many of the following statements apply to you?
"I have an over- (or under-) developed sense of responsibility. It is easier for me to be concerned with others, even if it means ignoring my own legitimate needs."
"I 'stuff' my feelings about my own childhood and have lost the ability to feel or express feelings because it hurts too much."
"I am physically or emotionally isolated and afraid of people and authority figures."
"I have become addicted to approval or excitement, and I have lost my identity in the process."
"I am frightened by angry people and personal criticism."
"I live as a victim."
"I judge myself harshly and I have low self-esteem."
"I am very dependent and I am terrified of abandonment. I will hold onto any relationship to keep from being abandoned."
"I feel guilty when I stand up for myself."
"I confuse love and sympathy, and tend to love people I can rescue."
"I either have become chemically dependent, a compulsive undereater or overeater, or have found in my relationships another compulsive person such as a workaholic, addict or abuser."
"I am a reactor to life, not an actor."
Unrecognized co-dependent behaviors can keep you from getting help. Again, we do not believe that you have contributed to your abuse. Victims do not cause abuse. Women do not cause alcoholism in their husbands. People do not deserve abuse. You may, however, have co-dependent characteristics that not only keep you locked in dysfunctional relationships, but also keep you from "justifiably" helping yourself or your children. Many women expressed the following patterns about their relationships.