STOP! Calling me a co-dependent!

Partners have a right to identify themselves by the label that works best for them whether it is betrayed partner, partner of a sex addict, survivor of infidelity, co-addict, codependent to a sex addict, or co-sex addict.” – Vicki Tidwell Palmer

Palmer goes onto say, “It’s one thing for your spouse to choose to drink or gamble to the point of self-destruction or financial ruin. It’s quite another when your spouse chooses sex with himself or others over sex with you.”

My dear sister, if you’re anything like me, when you got married you probably had expectations of how you would be treated, how you would grow together in spiritual connection and experiences over the course of a lifetime.  You felt a sense of safety, stability and maybe fulfillment in your marriage.

And then the Earth around you gave way.  A relationship you once thought was safe, trustworthy and solid evaporated into thin air.  You feel like you’ve been punched in the gut and then backed over with a pick – up truck- repeatedly.  Your most intimate attachment bond has been shattered.  This is called relational trauma.  Trauma is a physical or psychological wound that takes place during an extrinsic event, whether the event is short and intense or continues over a long period of time.   The trauma of your spouse’s betrayal has threatened the sense of safety, contentment, stability and trust you were carrying in your relationship.  Your intimate attachment has now become an attachment injury or relational trauma.  Marsha Means explains that relational trauma or attachment injuries “occur when one person betrays, abandons or refuses to provide support for another with whom he or she has developed an attachment bond.”    Susan M. Johnson states that when attachment injuries occur it “overwhelms the coping capacities and defines the relationship as a source of DANGER rather than a safe haven in times of stress.”

Early on in the treatment of sex addiction, some psychologists began documenting that partners of sex addicts acted erratic, or “out-of -control”.  They saw that partners were controlling, and angry. They automatically assumed these wives needed intervention and they were partially to blame for the addicts behavior.   These psychologists have had a severe LACK of EMPATHY.  Unfortunately, I have sat in the office of one of these psychologists, I felt misunderstood, criticized, belittled and alone.

I will argue that the reason for the “erratic” behavior, the control and the anger is because we no longer have a sense of warmth, joy, trust, fulfillment and safety.. AND when that intimate attachment can no longer be counted on … the relationship becomes a source of DANGER. AKA: relational trauma, and here’s what I know about prolonged trauma:  It causes PTSD, and PTSD symptoms can sure look a lot like “erratic” behavior.  Does that mean I’m automatically a co-addict?  or a co-dependent?  When you are in DANGER the brain will find very creative ways to seek safety and avoid pain.

This DANGER: a discovery or a disclosure – forces us to face our deepest fear.  Ready or not … here I come…. it’s the “Fear of abandonment”   Our inner thoughts often sound like this: I don’t want to live out the rest of my days alone.  What if he leaves?  What if he doesn’t want me?  What if he chooses her over me?   What if I get divorced?  I don’t want to get divorced. What if we don’t make it?  What if our marriage is never restored?  What will people think of me if they really knew what was going on?  And, if you are anything like me, I spent 8 years of my life trying to rack my brain of all the ways I could try to fix him and find his “cure”.  I just wanted it all to go away and I wanted to get back to “normal”.

Sisters,  I want to hold space for your pain:  All of these valid questions stem from a very REAL fear.  The fear of being alone (abandonment).

In our fear, our Post Traumatic Stress symptoms can intensify and we may experience:

  • reliving the event resulting in helplessness and horror
  • avoidance of all people, places, things, associated with the trauma
  • increased hyper vigilance (controlling everything in your environment because you don’t want anything bad to happen again, or trouble falling/staying asleep)
  • restricted concentration at work or unable to function in other areas of your life

For some of us – repeated attachment injuries have been going on for decades.  I lived with my husband’s sexual addiction for 12 years.  When betrayal becomes a recurring pattern, he acts out again or discloses new information yearly – your healing will be repeatedly interrupted.   The new scab that has been working to heal the wound is ripped open once more and  blood comes gushing out all over again.  This means DANGER has returned to your relationship, the pain of your trauma will intensify and the PTSD becomes chronic.  This can result in changes to personality, and long term physical health.  Sister, if this is you – I know exactly how you feel.  It is imperative for us to be met with empathy, validation and compassion – rather than a label of co-dependency that places the responsibility of the marriage back on you.  I have heard myself and others say, “If I could just fix myself – then the marriage would be fixed.”  The co-addiction/co-dependency model does not address the special circumstances and needs of partners of sex addicts.  When that label is tossed in our face we are left feeling we are at fault for the addict’s behavior.  In her book Moving Beyond Betrayal Tidwell Palmer states, “The co-addiction model says that partners of addicts play a role in the addiction cycle by refusing to acknowledge that the addict has a problem (denial), by enabling the addict’s behaviors.”  My dear sister, that is NOT you.  You are here now, becoming educated and empowered.

YOU are SEEKING SAFETY  where there has been no safety, for a very long time.  If your partner is unrepentant and not engaging in his FULL recovery program, then he is UNABLE to give you any of the safety you desire.  If you are reading this blog, I commend you because you are doing what you can to meet your own needs and become safe and empowered.

Marsha Means and Barbara Steffens say this about their work with betrayal trauma: We believe that the partner’s emotional and behavioral responses to living with a sex addict are better framed and understood as attempts to find safety and security following the most devastating of all traumas: the betrayal of trust

Back in the day, when there were no resources for partners of sex addicts -counselors and psychologists relied on the 12-step model for treatment for the addict, just like they would for Alcoholic’s Anonymous or Gambler’s Anonymous;  the 12-step program can be effective and some sex addicts have found freedom by incorporating this into their recovery plan.  However, as a by-product they also adopted the 12- steps philosophy for the partners, labeling them as a co-addict.  Palmer describes the history of this process in her book as; “throwing partners out into the world with no resources, no empathy, no support – essentially the betrayed partner was on her own or simply treated with Al-Anon.”  I have personally read the Al-Anon book and I have found it very helpful in DETACHING – however it does not take into account the unique needs of a partner experiencing betrayal trauma and abuse.

When it comes to  abuse inside a relationship with a sex addict, the co-dependent label doesn’t work for us partners, because the victim is far from enabling abuse, often times – the victim isn’t even aware that the abuse is happening.  In addition, even when I did try to create consequences to help promote change in the abuser/addict – he manipulated and wiggled his way out of consequences over and over no matter what I did.

I believe for most partners, trauma plays the dominant role – and any behaviors that appear co-dependent may actually  be effects of  covert abuse and her innate need for safety.  Dr. George Simon states, “Unfortunately, I’ve seen the co dependence label applied many times where a mutual dependency situation appears to exist but the reality is that character-impaired, abusive individual is habitually exploiting his partner’s vulnerabilities.”    Rather than being a “co-dependent”  I believe that we can take on these characteristics as a way to survive and cope.

As abuse victims, we are seeking safety.   My counselor, Peg Roberts (Spirit of Hope Counseling Center) has coined the phrase:  “Reclaiming a Lost Soul”   The relational trauma you have experienced has truly swept your soul away and taken it back.  Back in time to your original source of trauma (the family of origin)  and we cannot process the current betrayal trauma until we see how we have been crippled in childhood (crippling results in: our value based on others, value based on “fixing”, or a performance based value, people pleasing, ect.).  The truth is; God designed us for belonging and intimacy, every infant longs for affirmation, validation and unconditional love.  However, some of us did not have secure attachment, we did not have a home that modeled healthy affection, boundaries, emotional availability, validation, empathy or communication.  Distorted beliefs were downloaded into our brain by caregivers who were supposed to give us what we need – and whether we like it or not, until that childhood trauma is addressed we will continue to react from those distorted beliefs. Even worse; some of us are enmeshed with a very toxic family of origin system into adulthood and our soul is STILL lost, our God-given need for affirmation and validation being exploited while our identity is continually being stolen from us.  Some of us are so enmeshed with a toxic family system that we refer OUTSIDE ourselves for thoughts, opinions and feelings.  It mirrors the type of thinking that was done for us as a child, where we weren’t allowed to express different views or opinions and so we’ve come to rely on the spoon feeding of the toxic family system.   If this is you, I want to share with you the most compassionate definition I have found on being a lost soul (codependency) thus far:

“Codependency is a self-focused way of life in which a person is blind to his or her true self- continually reacts to others being controlled by and seeking to control their behavior, attitudes and/or opinions, resulting in spiritual sterility, loss of authenticity and absence of intimacy.”   -Nancy Groom

It’s not your fault dear one, to summarize Patrick Carnes… he says, when you were MEANT to be securely attached in childhood and receive healthy beliefs on love, communication, and intimacy – you didn’t – and so you became a “vulnerable host”  to receive the distorted beliefs, maladaptive behaviors and feelings of your primary caregiver.  Sisters, some of us have failed to thrive in adulthood because our brain was hijacked and we lack the emotional capacity to handle current stressors in our adult life.  LET ME VALIDATE YOU:  The wounds you accumulated in childhood are NOT YOUR FAULT.  But healing from those wounds IS your responsibility.

In her book, Reclaiming a Lost Soul Peg Roberts offers some insight on characteristics of codependency (I would make the case that these are also a  response to trauma and we may mirror these characteristics out of survival)

  • Compliant
  • Neglect of Self
  • Isolated or Socially Stunted
  • Avoidant
  • Controlling
  • Reactionary
  • Perfectionism
  • Enmeshed Relationships
  • Chameleon
  • Compulsions
  • Manipulation
  • Poor Coping Skills (lack of emotional capacity due to past trauma)
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Fear of conflict
  • Shame/Guilt
  • Powerlessness
  • Unaware of Emotions/Emotions out of control

I want to offer yet ANOTHER perspective  – it is the more painful reality, as if we could get anymore painful, I know…

Sexual betrayal is unique because it is surrounded by abuse, manipulation, deception, blaming, gas lighting, and crazy making.  The use of pornography in and of itself IS ABUSIVE – especially when it is a recurring, unrepentant sin in the home.  It is so much more than just infidelity – it’s idolatry.  As betrayed women, our reality has been turned on it’s head and we don’t know which way is up or down.  Oftentimes, we genuinely believe it could be our responsibility because the addict/abuser has told us this so many times – in very covert, manipulative ways.

The painful reality is that for some of us – we have been targeted for our strength, empathy, compassion and health.  We were consumed and devoured by men who saw what we had, and in the process of taking it from us – they have destroyed our sense of self.  Add to that the layered destructive behaviors that accompany addiction and it’s not surprising that us women act “erratically”  – we have been trained and groomed by the addict to question our reality.  We MUST consider thatwe have actually been TRAINED to look outside ourselves for our thoughts because our intuition has been so damaged!   Codependent-like” behavior is our trauma response.  It is our maladaptive way to cope.  The deck was stacked against us.  An unrepentant addict’s number one goal is to avoid any setting, topic or conversation that would lead to exposing his addiction.  His top priority is to protect his addiction at ALL costs – including you.   Tidwell Palmer states, “Addictive thinking is fundamentally DISTORTED, CONTRADICTORY and ILLOGICAL… as tempting as it is to get inside [his head] -you will [only] gain clarity, safety and serenity by rebuilding trust in your OWN perceptions.”

As we are repeatedly lied to and deceived we begin to feel crazy.  We might even be labeled by the addict as paranoid or irrational.  My ex-husband went so far as to tell me that “he wished there was a pill I could take to fix my crazy”.   Was I crazy or was I seeking TRUTH?   Sadly, many of us have experienced decades of deception, psychological manipulation, covert abuse, physical and sexual abuse.   When we live in this EXTREMELY dangerous and toxic environment our PTSD often presents like this:

  • Panic attacks (when your intuition is screaming at you and you know the other shoe is about to drop with another discovery or disclosure)
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Loss of sense of safety (living with triggers every day like when he shuts down emotionally, gets aggressive, anger outbursts, lies, forgets to tell you things, cold, distant, kids’ behavior that you have less emotional capacity to address because your mind is preoccupied with the relational trauma, ect)
  • Obsessive thoughts

It is almost impossible to deny that our behavior is fueled by a lack of safety and post traumatic stress that has been sitting untreated for years.  To paint the picture, I have taken a few “characteristics of codependency”  and added the TRAUMA RESPONSE which MIRRORS the exact same characteristic.  Let’s consider…

Codependent?  OR  Response to Trauma (SAFETY seeking)?
  • Difficulty in identifying and staying true to one’s reality;  (a result of covert abuse and becoming a target of the psychological abuser, a main point of your healing will come when you acknowledge how much your core person hood has changed while in the dangerous relationship)
  • Difficulty establishing and maintaining effective boundaries;  (exploited by the psychological abuser – when the betrayed partner reacts in anger  or states truth or begins to use boundaries against the trauma; the abuser/addict points out her behavior and uses this as an avoidance tactic to keep the spotlight from exposing his sinful behavior.)
  • Placing others needs ahead of one’s own;  (Actually,  pre-abuse victims were kind, caring deeply compassionate, served others, loved well, and have tremendous emotional strength – as they walk thru abuse/recurring infidelity – serving others can be a way to cope with and avoid the pain – the brain’s way of seeking safety in the ‘familiarity’ of serving and loving others. Serving others can also be a way to increase joy capacity to a level higher than the pain- when done in a balanced way in recovery.  Their kindness was exploited; perhaps the victim should not be condemned because of another person’s abusive behavior, but rather met with understanding in helping them to see that excessive serving more will not cure the pain)
  • Preoccupation with gaining other’s approval or attention;  (This is often confused with being an empath: Empaths must learn to keep their levels of empathy from being harmful to their well-being.. meaning they  must learn to enact strong boundaries in order to avoid “compassion fatigue”)
  • Attempts to control people or situations through subtle/indirect manipulation (PTSD symptom:  Trauma Splitting – we can ignore traumatic realities by dissociating or compartmentalizing experiences.  Oftentimes preoccupation with other things and/or OCD and obsessive control tricks the brain into a false sense of safety. When in reality we are avoiding pain. Increased hyper vigilance (controlling everything in your environment because you don’t want anything bad to happen again.. STRIVING TO MAINTAIN a sense of SAFETY)
  • Neglect of Self and Avoidant (PTSD symptom: Trauma Abstinence, as a result of prolonged trauma women tend to deprive themselves of things that are wanted, needed or deserved.  We have a difficult time asking for help in meeting our needs.  Trauma Aversion (avoidance) helps us to reduce fear and gives us a false sense of control.  This could present as trouble with weight  gain/loss and binge-purge cycles with chosen substance (food, Netflix, exercise, drugs, alcohol, fantasy, ect.)  (Ref. Patrick Carnes)

As you consider that list keep this quote in mind from Shannon Thomas,  “Toxic environments bring out poor behaviors in even the most patient of individuals.”   As betrayal trauma survivors, who seek safety, we find ourselves often behaving in ways that don’t fit our normal personalities. Most of us would describe ourselves pre-abuse as having a “generally happy, loving, positive outlook” type of people.  We have been deceived and deeply wounded – even the most compassionate and kind woman- will lose her cool upon losing her most intimate attachment

Not all partners of sex addicts are co-dependent.  You may just be experiencing a NATURAL response to trauma in your life, you may have been living with post traumatic stress all this time.  There is FREEDOM in owning and acknowledging that fact.  YOU ARE BECOMING A TRAUMA SURVIVOR.   YES, your life has been affected by the addict and YES we all have our own work to do because we are human.  But not everyone needs a label – we may just be seeking safety.

It is your healing journey and you have the right to decide.  You have the right to use the description that works best for you, to dig around and hunt for truth – don’t just accept what someone labels you.   You know your story better than anyone else.  The more knowledge you find to validate your story – the more empowered you become!

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You are not alone.


Rochelle Sadie




Resources used for today’s blog:  The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, Susan M. Johnson.  Healing from Hidden Abuse, Shannon Thomas. Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, Means and Steffens. From Bondage to Bonding, Nancy Groom. “Co-addict or Truama Survivor”  and “Moving Beyond Betrayal” by Vicki Tidwell Palmer

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