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Opinion Are you in a controlling or co-dependent relationship? Would you consider therapy?

Therapist Margaret Parkes has advice for anyone concerned they may be living in a toxic relationship.

LAST UPDATE | Jun 4th 2022, 11:27 AM

MOST RELATIONSHIPS THANKFULLY are healthy, where the couple are respectful and considerate of each other. They can communicate and have discussions that lead to win/win outcomes.

The couple listen to understand each other. In this type of relationship, each allows the other a voice, choice and independence. Both flourish and grow as individuals.

However, sadly there are relationships where the opposite is true. In my work I have found that there are co-dependent/co-dependent type relationships or co-dependent/narcissistic/coercive type relationships.

Both are enmeshed and in both, neither couple are free to flourish individually because there is an element of control over the other in both which stifles the growth of one or both individuals in each type of relationship.

The draw of personality types

In the coercive/narcissistic type of relationship the abusive person tends to control, manipulate, lie, can be financially mean, can cheat and gaslight and in many cases can be violent. Their partner becomes destabilised and loses their self-esteem. All too often this is not the first relationship of this type that the struggling partner has been in where they have been abused.

The abuser has often also come from a background where at least one parent was emotionally or physically abusive.

In therapy, we help the client to recognise the red flags earlier because if they do not, they are at risk and do enter similar relationships over and over and do not understand why. Therapy helps to build the person’s self-esteem perhaps for the first time because often the client has come from a narcissistic background and they are not aware of what normal is.

The co-dependent’s control is very subtle/covert. They control by being dependent, needy, jealous, and fearful, they control the choices of others, they need to be needed to feel of worth and need to be externally validated, when they do something its often conditional. Many fear the outside world so they become dependent on their partner. This stops them both from growing. Or keeps the co-dependent in a toxic relationship. Therapy can help the co-dependent to recover.

In a co-dependent relationship neither person makes their own needs a priority, this comes from childhood conditioning to get their parent’s approval. It has been my experience that the co-dependent couple can neglect their children’s needs to take care of others’ needs.

Neither partner is centring their focus on their own or their family’s needs, this is because their self-esteem is met externally to get approval. This is a very hidden dysfunction in a relationship.

For example, a client of mine in the past came to see me about her relationship with her narcissistic mother. In trying to get a feel for her other dynamics I asked about her relationship with her partner – does she tend to please him too at her expense? Initially, it was the perfect relationship but after further exploration, she realised that she and her partner just pleased each other and everyone else at a cost to themselves and their own children.

I have no doubt with this awareness and further therapy can enable clients in this family dynamic to change, even to the point where the narcissistic mum will not have the control she had previously.

Making healthy choices

Therapeutic support is invaluable in helping the victim/survivor of abuse to find their strength again and to make healthy choices for themselves. I generally work with victims of abuse individually because coercive or narcissistic partners who attend and who don’t want to change are often present (perhaps unconsciously) to disrupt the process or find something to criticise their partner about after the session.

They can go to their own therapy. The consequences of an abused partner not getting therapeutic support is serious for both them and the family if there are children involved.

Seeking help from support centres such as Women’s or Men’s Aid, and other supports such as ACOA are essential.

Working therapeutically in a psychoeducational way – providing information as well as support – and in tandem with processing the trauma is essential to facilitate timely change in the client. In this area of work it’s essential we facilitate the client to learn and act speedily because in some cases lives may be at risk.

One former client who lives abroad comes to mind, she was a successful businesswoman and she had been under the control of a manipulative and abusive man for 18 years. He would physically assault her, which often led her to visit A&E regularly.

She was so lost emotionally when we started our work. I worked with her using the psychoeducational approach and within weeks she was out of her denial and in a place where she had the strength to leave him. This woman is now happy, confident and free today. She realises she is not responsible for any choices he decided to make. Seeking therapeutic support gave her back her freedom.

It is believed that coercive control as an issue is growing, however, I believe it has finally come out into the open. It has always been present. Through education, some women and men are finally recognising when they are being abused and have less shame in seeking therapeutic help. Sadly, though it remains somewhat hidden for many others. Particularly where men are being coercively abused by women and men are being abused in gay partnerships.

Highlighting the abuser’s tools

Therapy can bring the coercive abuser’s main tool of gaslighting to the awareness of the abused. It can be so subtle, confusing and de-stabilising, causing the abused to doubt and lose themselves. In therapy, you will be validated and helped to see what is truly going on and how to handle it.

For example, I was working with a co-dependent woman who wondered why she wasn’t thriving and who initially came for support on how to deal with her narcissistic mother. I asked her about her relationship with her partner. She said it was great.

I had wondered if he was gaslighting her due to a few things she had mentioned – in the next session she said the very first question he asked her when she returned from our first session was “well did she tell you everything you are doing wrong?”. She said she saw and understood so many things for the first time and that awareness continued throughout the week.

In a co-dependent/coercive type toxic relationship the co-dependent who keeps going back for more and is so attached that they can’t leave often has become addicted to their abuser. In therapy the addicted person is helped to recover from this toxic addiction – it is an essential support.

Seek help

If you are in a relationship that is not thriving or is indeed abusive seek out therapeutic support with a therapist who has knowledge about coercive control and co-dependency.

It is essential you seek this support to work on yourself to build up your emotional strength and find your voice maybe for the first time in your life.

You can never change the coercive controller/narcissist. That is their responsibility. Just focus on yourself.

However, if you think you are in immediate physical danger go to your GP, the gardaí and Women’s Aid or Men’s Aid. They will let you know if it’s advisable to get a safety order or even a barring order, the legal people who work in the appropriate area will advise you what is the best route to take. They will also help you to report any child welfare issues to TUSLA.

If your sense is that you are in danger, it is vital to reach out to the authorities mentioned. Help is available. That’s not to say that those steps are easy, so as you navigate the everyday in this, it can also help to have a safety plan to protect yourself. Things like going to a safe part of the house away from dangerous objects that you could be attacked with, keeping spare car keys always ready, backing your car into the driveway, and having some spare basic clothes ready and hidden for any need to escape. Safe Ireland has a more comprehensive list.

If you’re feeling threatened, it can help to have trusted neighbours aware so you can switch on and off lights to get their attention, have a code word ready to use with trusted contacts and have the local guards’ numbers and details of any domestic violence centres. Unfortunately, there are no such centres yet available for men in Ireland but hopefully, this will change soon.

It is essential for your children that they have a chance to live in a healthy family system, where their needs are central. This might mean two parents who are willing to change and work on the relationship by going to counselling together.

CHANGE CAN HAPPEN.

Or by having at least one healthy parent who prioritises themselves and their children and gets help so that they can live in peace and calm. This will positively impact the self-esteem and contentment of all.

Margaret Parkes is a psychotherapist, counsellor and systemic practitioner. She is a member of the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. Please visit the iacp.ie for more information on where you can find an accredited therapist near you. Other helplines/advice:

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