This is an essay describing the co-dependent and abuser cycle that is formed as a result of childhood trauma and how it continues to perpetuate through generations. This is my personal opinion based on my own experiences, observations, and reading books on these subject matters. I am not a licensed therapist.
I believe that most of the problems that we have today, from personal relationships to work to politics to the cycle of poverty, addiction, crime, mass shootings and more begin with childhood trauma.
A trauma — it could be physical, sexual, verbal, mental, emotional, financial, neglect, abandonment, parental divorce, being made fun of at school, etc. or a combination of all of them— usually during childhood, before the child has fully developed cognitive capabilities causes the child to form core shame and a core identity or persona that deems themselves to be bad, difficult, unlovable, selfish, undeserving or not good enough.
The traumatized child grows up into an adult who believes that they’re bad or defective to the core and that there’s nothing they can do to change it. They usually have a confirmation bias that interprets negative experiences as a result of their inner deficiencies. "People mistreat me because I am unlovable. If I was better (more beautiful, smarter, have more money, etc.), people would treat me better, and therefore, I would be lovable." A traumatized person operating from this core negative belief seeks love and achievements outside of themselves to prove that they’re lovable but they also have an inner confirmation bias that causes them to seek out relationships and experiences that prove that they’re ultimately unlovable.
The traumatized person is arrested in the childhood development cycle and do not mature internally. They copy other people externally but do not have the internal maturation of other adults. This person usually comes from a chaotic family that fights a lot and a family that excuses these fights as “love” and "forgiveness" but continues to repeat the pattern without change.
Co-dependency vs. Abuser
The negative core identity causes the child to become either a co-dependent or an abuser. I don’t know why, but childhood trauma usually creates two major personality types. Depending on the adults around them and their natural proclivities, they will either become a co-dependent or an abuser. Both personality types have low self-esteem. They just deal with it in different ways. Sometimes a person could be both, but they usually have a dominant side that's either co-dependent or more on the abuser side.
A co-dependent child usually learns to fawn or please others to get their needs met from a harsh or overly punishing parent. An abuser child usually learns that they can use their anger or manipulations to get what they want from an over-lenient parent who doesn’t know how to establish rules and fair consequences.
Both parent types have low self-esteem themselves, do not know how to manage their own emotions, do not know how to be responsible for themselves or others, do not know how to create healthy boundaries, do not know how to establish healthy consequences, and do not know how to relate to others in healthy ways.
Most of the time, children with childhood trauma grow into adults who don’t even know that they have these issues or have these personality types. This is the insidious nature of childhood trauma. They’re usually not self-aware and they usually operate from an unconscious or subconscious part of themselves and repeat many maladaptive traits and habits until the co-dependent wakes up one day and realizes that something is deeply wrong; and they are actually going to do something about it by either learning more about themselves, going to therapy, or seeking religious and spiritual guidance.
The term co-dependent derives from families of alcoholics and alcoholics-anonymous. The term has changed over time and has been rebranded under the term “self-love deficit disorder” or “empaths”. Some therapists use the term “self-defeating personality disorder.” Enablers and high anxiety personality types can also fall under the umbrella of co-dependents.
My understanding of a co-dependent is basically a person who puts the needs and wants of others before themselves at the disregard of their own happiness, health, or safety even when it harms or hurts them to help the other person.
This is the person who will babysit a neighbor’s kids at the last minute even though they are extremely tired and the neighbor would never reciprocate it should he or she need the same favor one day. This is the employee who will work 60 to 80 hours a week and take on someone else’s workload to be a team player. This is the wife who will be convinced or forced to have sex when she doesn’t want to.
Co-dependents have positive attributes that are on chronic overdrive that usually leaves them burnt-out and depleted in every way. Not only are they into helping others, they usually take responsibility for other people’s emotions. This means that they will curb their own ambitions so as not to upset their partner, friend, or parent. They will let someone else win. They will turn the other cheek if you slap them. They will automatically blame themselves if their partner is upset.
Co-dependents believe that they’re being a good person when they do this. They give, give, and give and they repress their own wants and needs.
They want to help, save, and rescue others and they have a subconscious core belief that love is when and if someone changes for them. They believe that love defies all and that unconditional love also means accepting mistreatment. Based on this core belief, it’s easy to see how they will find the alcoholic or the abuser at the party. They usually fall for fake victims with a sob story, make excuses for people and are perpetual victims until they can’t handle it anymore and change.
The Abuser or Bully
The abuser is usually controlling of others, dominant, a manipulator, a tyrant, or someone who is addicted to a substance. The term that is used today is “narcissistic abuse” or “defective character disorder.” They drown out their low self-worth by dominating others. Their behavior can be overt or covert.
They exploit and take advantage of other people’s kindnesses. They operate from a one-up position and they can only see win-lose scenarios. They don’t understand win-win scenarios. If someone else win’s, they lose. This is the person who can’t be happy or celebrate a friend’s promotion or engagement. EVERYTHING is about THEM.
They always come first and their wants and needs are always the most important. They are always the most talented, smartest, and most knowing person in the whole room even when they are not. They usually live in a different reality.
These are the love bombers and the guys who will volunteer to work at your startup when they just want to get into your pants. This is the coworker who will say that she will complete the task but doesn’t and then makes an excuse that you are all in this together and that you can feel free to finish it and imply that you are wrong to even ask her to give an update on the project. They often equate assertiveness with aggression. This personality type is usually promoted and encouraged in corporate.
Here is a sample scenario:
Jane asks her husband John a week in advance if she can have a girl’s night out on Wednesday night. He agrees to babysit their kids well in advance. One hour before Jane is ready to leave the house, John gets tickets to a Red Sox game with his friend. Instead of calling a babysitter or just being upfront with his wife, he implies that he never agreed to watch the kids, that she is being a bad mother by leaving her kids in the first place, that she’s selfish, and that her friends are a bad influence on her and he wouldn’t want her to drink and what if out of bad luck, there’s a bad accident and their kids lose their dear mother.
John uses an arsenal of abusive tools: denial, shaming, guilt-tripping, and catastrophizing all in the name of looking out for Jane when really he’s looking out for his own interests. Other forms of tactics include gaslighting, raising their voice, using vailed threats, playing the victim, playing the savior, provoking and baiting, and never hearing no’s. They switch up their tactics a lot.
A female abuser with internalized misogyny will be a pleaser and raise the pitch of her voice when speaking to a man to get what she wants but be aggressive and insulting with another woman to get what she wants. They are chaos personified. The abuser type usually chooses co-dependents who will answer to their every whim and make the co-dependent feel crazy by gaslighting and projecting their own faults onto the co-dependent.
For example, they will provoke, yell, scream, accuse, and belittle to get a rise out of the co-dependent or victim. Once the co-dependent or victim raises their voice or fights back, they go — “See — it was you all along. You’re the bad one.”
They project their disassociated inner selves onto their victims.
Co-dependents are looking for abusers and abusers are looking for co-dependents. They are addicted to each other and their relationship looks like an emotional roller-coaster that’s typified in romantic films. The abuser usually pushes, pulls back, sends a gift and then pushes again. The abuser cannot have peace. They are afraid that the other shoe will drop, so they create it themselves.
These two personality types usually end up getting married and having kids of their own. Because both personality types have maladaptive traits that they are unaware of or do not want to confront, they usually traumatize their kids and pass on the cycle.
To break the cycle, co-dependents will have to reconnect with their emotions, tackle their negative core identity, their negative core beliefs, and their maladaptive habits. They will have to make self-awareness their raison d’être.
Intellectualizing is not the same as self-awareness. Becoming self-aware of one's codependency is an extremely painful process. The grieving process can feel like a deep chasm that is momentous to confront. Facing these emotions will cause the codependent to want to return to the way things are. Because these emotions can be so painful and so deep, it's natural for the codependent to want to avoid these feelings and to run away by falling into old patterns. The codependent will want to go back to "save" the abuser again. The only way that a co-dependent can truly save an abuser personality type is to walk away from the relationship. Abuser personality types don’t have any incentives to change unless the co-dependent stops making excuses for abuser types and walk away or establish firm boundaries and consequences. Even then, the abuser will most likely seek new supply.
Abuser types have to understand that their behavior is hurtful and abusive and that taking advantage of other people’s emotional vulnerabilities is not okay. If they’re a malignant narcissist, they might never get it. Even if they go to jail, they will just think that the world is unfair instead of admitting that they did something wrong. They don’t allow reality, appropriate shame and appropriate guilt to penetrate the ego they have created to protect themselves from their defective core selves.
Where Love Comes In
Love will help the co-dependent. Love will not help or save the abuser personality type. Co-dependents can learn and grow from love, especially self-love. They need to give themselves the love that they would otherwise give to someone else but they usually have a core belief that loving themselves will make them a bad or selfish person. Abusers will only use love and forgiveness as permission to continue to be mean, cruel, abusive, manipulative, exploitive, destructive, etc. They might let up for a moment but you can be sure that they will create a maelstrom of chaos as soon as you relax.
Abusers cannot learn by example. In fact, they don’t learn at all. They don’t learn to fight fairly or to compromise. They learn how to hurt to get their way. They need rules and consequences.
The insidious nature of this cycle is that these identities are formed before the child even has the capacity or the capability to think differently or fight for themselves.
When traumatized children become adults, they are operating from a broken sense of identity and a broken sent of belief systems that go undetected. It’s like a 2020 computer operating with a virus infested 1995 operating system.
This is my short, generalized view of how co-dependent and abuser personality types are formed during childhood. Sometimes two abusers will meet and have kids and pass on the cycle that way as well. Sometimes a co-dependent will become more abusive so they can show their abusive partner a taste of their own medicine. An extreme example of this situation is when the battered wife kills her husband out of fear and to protect herself and her children. There are variations of both personality types but these are the two main personality type that arises from childhood trauma and the “I am a bad person” identity.
I hope that by learning about these major personality types, you will be more self-aware and aware of these personalities at work, at the grocery store, and perhaps your own family systems and the friends and partners that you choose.