Gregory Jantz, Ph.D.
The emotional costs of childhood abuse are significant, but regrettably, they are not the only costs. The long-term effects often manifest later in life and are, therefore, difficult to connect back to the events of an abusive childhood. In addition, the cumulative effects of emotional trauma may take years to reach critical mass.
I believe one of the relational costs of childhood abuse is a tendency, in some survivors, toward codependency and relationship addiction. Dr. Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, and I recently wrote an entire book on this subject titled Don’t Call It Love: Breaking the Cycle of Relationship Addiction. I first heard the term codependency through Melanie Beattie’s work in her book Codependent No More. Developed through experiences with those in relationship with alcoholics, codependency has come to describe a relationship where one person believes their value emanates solely through another person. To safeguard that relationship, the codependent person becomes obsessed with controlling the other person, often through enabling the other person’s addictive behaviors. What began as a way to understand those in relationship with alcoholics has expanded to include other types of addictive behavior. For example: If you love me and stay with me, I’ll help you continue to drink (or do drugs or eat too much or shop excessively or gamble or emotionally or physically abuse me).
A person whose self-value has been damaged or destroyed by childhood abuse may be especially susceptible to deriving worth and validation through another person. Unfortunately, some individuals will take advantage of such vulnerable survivors and seek to enter into a codependent relationship to exploit the survivor emotionally, physically, sexually, financially, or any or all of the above. These manipulative predators do not attempt to elevate the survivor’s self-esteem but, rather, seek to depress it even further to gain the survivor’s active agreement and participation in their addiction. They gain a sense of gratification merely from the power and control they can exert over other people. These are exactly the type of people who would abuse a child, so the personality can be very familiar.
Codependency turns into relationship addiction when the object for self-validation is not a specific person but a codependent relationship. Thus, a person may end up in an addictive cycle of pursuing a relationship, establishing a relationship, attempting to control that relationship, strangling the relationship, being in fear of losing that relationship, losing the relationship, and starting the cycle all over again with someone else.
I’ve had both men and women in my office mystified by their pattern of behavior concerning relationships, especially romantic relationships. They will say things such as, “I always seem to pick the wrong person,” or “Why can’t I ever find someone I can be truly happy with?” Real answers are possible when they stop looking at the other person and start looking at themselves.
Please don’t interpret what I’ve said to mean that a person who has suffered childhood abuse will automatically enter a codependent relationship or become relationship addicted. Many survivors enter relationships with psychologically healthy individuals. And even psychologically healthy individuals are in no ways perfect. Anyone who enters a relationship with another person brings past baggage that can complicate things. But childhood abuse is ex- tremely heavy baggage to carry into a relationship.
What is your pattern with relationships? Do you put up with harmful or hurtful behavior to stay in the relationship? Are you afraid of what will happen if you object? Are you worried no one else will love you? Do you take more pride in whose you are than in who you are? If you have been abused, if you have been aban- doned or neglected, your psychological resiliency about who you are and your value and worth have taken a beating. You will need to be aware of how that damage is affecting your relationship with yourself and your relationship with others.
Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 36 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.