How Trauma Can Result in Codependency

Trauma is damaging in many ways—to physical health, to emotional health, and to relationships. Any type of trauma can lead to relationships that are codependent, in which the person who experienced trauma feels completely and destructively dependent on another. Families may develop these relationships, but they also occur in intimate relationships. To break the bad habit of codependency, it is essential to get to the root of the problem and to address and begin healing from the trauma.

The experience of trauma can take many forms, but what every traumatized person has in common is lasting consequences. Even with the best protective factors in place, such as a loving family, trauma can be destructive, causing physical health problems, mental illness, substance abuse, and for many, codependent relationships.

If you have gone through trauma and continue to struggle to develop healthy relationships, or if your family has experienced trauma and has a hard time relating to each other, treatment can help. Trauma may bring on codependency for many, but professional treatment can heal the damage and help you construct better, healthier relationships.

Trauma and Its Impact on Mental Health

Trauma is not an event or an experience but rather an emotional response to one. Traumatic things can happen to anyone, and some cope better than others. A traumatic event may be abuse, witnessing violence, combat experiences, a natural disaster, an assault, or anything else that is extremely frightening or life-threatening.

If you do not cope well with that experience, it can lead to a trauma disorder and serious consequences for mental health. Even with good efforts to come to terms with a traumatic experience, it can leave a lasting impact on mental health, even triggering or contributing to anxiety disorder, depression, substance use disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With or without a mental health diagnosis, trauma can cause all kinds of difficult symptoms and complications: fear, social withdrawal, substance abuse, self-injury, nightmares, and intrusive memories, and even suicide. Trauma also impacts relationships, putting a strain on families, friendships, and intimate relationships.

What Is Codependency?

A codependent relationship is an unhealthy one. It is one-sided, with one person relying on the other to meet most of their needs. The other person in the relationship encourages this and enables their partner’s or loved one’s damaging behaviors. This may include substance abuse, impulsive behaviors, underachievement, or any other behaviors or lifestyle choices that are negative and harmful.

Every relationship is unique, but there are some commonalities that many people in codependent relationships experience:

  • Low self-esteem. You may feel unworthy of others, like a loser, unlovable, guilty, or ashamed, even if you project an outward appearance of confidence.
  • Lack of boundaries. codependent relationships generally have poor boundaries, not only with affection and emotions but also with material things.
  • A need to please and take care of others. It’s hard for these people to say no. They feel anxious if they disappoint others.
  • High sensitivity. In codependent relationships, you are likely to overreact emotionally to situations that do not warrant it.
  • Poor communication. You struggle to express how you feel or what you want.

These are some of the common characteristics of codependency, but there are many more: difficult emotions, denial that there is an issue, difficulties with intimacy, obsessing over relationships, and a need for control.

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How Trauma and codependency Come Together

One potential consequence of going through trauma is damaged relationships, or even beginning new, unhealthy and destructive relationships. Even if only one person in a relationship went through the trauma, the impact ripples outward to all people close to that individual. Their friends and family may experience secondary trauma or the effects of their loved one’s reaction to trauma.

Healthy, supportive relationships are important for recovering from and minimizing the impact of trauma. But too often relationships become codependent, veering into an unhealthy pathway that harms both individuals. Childhood trauma, complex trauma, and current or recent trauma can all contribute to a codependent relationship.

Childhood Trauma and codependency

Many people experienced trauma as children, and few were given the resources to cope with it. Research has shown that adverse childhood experiences, largely traumatic, have lasting impacts on people, including:

  • Chronic physical health conditions
  • Depression
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Self-harm
  • Distrust in relationships
  • Poor emotional responses
  • PTSD

Childhood trauma is often a root cause of codependency. They don’t always result, but for many people codependent relationships are a response to unaddressed past traumas.

One reason may be that childhood trauma is usually family-centered: abuse, neglect, domestic violence, or even just divorce and fighting. Without a good model for healthy relationships, many people carry these examples into adult relationships.

Or, childhood trauma may lead you to feel helpless and dependent, like you need another person to validate you and fulfill your emotional needs. On the other end of the spectrum, a traumatized child may grow into an adult who needs to care for or have someone depend on them, providing the other side of the codependent relationship.

The Trauma-Bonded codependent

Not all codependent relationships are abusive, although all are unhealthy and harmful. In some cases, though, the codependent is emotionally or physically abused by the other person in the relationship. If you have ever felt ashamed or weak for being unable to leave your abusive relationship, you may be experiencing trauma bonding.

It’s a coping mechanism for a traumatic situation in which you feel loyalty to and dependence on your abuser. It often occurs when the abuser goes through cycles of abuse and affection. They treat you badly but always go back to a pattern of being loving and caring. It makes it extremely difficult to break free.

Trauma bonding can even occur without genuine abuse. When the relationship is codependent, even without overt abuse, you can develop this attachment and loyalty to someone who isn’t good for you. Breaking the trauma bond is difficult but possible.

Treating Trauma to End Codependency

Treating codependency involves recognizing and changing harmful and damaging relationship patterns. However, the most effective way to make lasting positive changes is to get to the root of the problem and to process past or ongoing traumas.

For the individual traumatized, trauma-focused therapies begin the process of reliving, reframing, and healing from those experiences. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, experiential therapies, milieu therapy, and other types of therapy can help you face up to a difficult past in a safe, supportive setting.

Getting treatment for the individual with trauma is essential, but to truly heal relationships, everyone must be involved. This is especially important for families whose members are impacted by the ripple effects of trauma and who may even be participating in problematic codependent relationships.

Family therapy is a powerful tool to process the effects of trauma and rebuild healthy relationships. Those who enable learn to let go of control and to set boundaries; everyone learns to communicate better; and the entire family learns more about trauma, codependency, and how to change unhealthy behaviors and interpersonal dynamics.

If you or a loved one has suffered trauma or is in a codependent relationship, if your family is struggling because of trauma and unhealthy patterns in your relationships, consider treatment for everyone. A residential program for the victim of trauma that also involves partners and families is a great way to heal from trauma and rebuild relationships.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental illnesses. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.