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#6: Surviving the Co-dependent / Narcissistic relationship


Through this series of ‘thought snippets’, I am hoping to bring the issue of co-dependency centre stage with caring professionals. By being alert to its pervasiveness, they can offer their clients the huge benefit of early identification and, thereby, the prompt implementation of an effective recovery strategy.

This ‘thought snippet’ explores the typical characteristics of the co-dependent / narcissistic relationship. It also considers how co-dependents can survive their addictive relationships.

The typical characteristics of the co-dependent / narcissist relationship

It is easy to see why the narcissistic / co-dependent relationship is always harmful for the co-dependent. Overtime the narcissist chips away at the co-dependent’s self esteem and purposely make them doubt what they are feeling or experiencing.

This causes the co-dependent to shut down and become silent resulting in the narcissist gaining the total control they want. On the rare occasions that the co-dependent does express feelings, the narcissist then demands that they be justified. Unfortunately, the co-dependent usually doesn’t realise that they don’t have to justify why they feel a certain way – so this gives the narcissist the ultimate power!

The other aspect to the relationship is that the narcissist does not respect the co-dependent’s boundaries. Unfortunately, from years of experience in dysfunctional relationships, this is mirrored by the co-dependent not being very good at setting boundaries in the first place. The upshot of all this is that the narcissist is all controlling while the co-dependent is driven to silence.

Working with the co-dependent to help them recover

From the above, it is obvious that the co-dependent is silenced in the co-dependent/narcissistic relationship. In fact, the co-dependent will never be heard!

So the only option for the co-dependent if they want to survive is to step out of the narcissistic dance! For some, this might mean stepping out of the relationship completely. When they realise they have this choice the co-dependent can start to take their power back. Getting the co-dependent to grasp this point of understanding is critical for a successful recovery outcome.

In my work with my co-dependent clients who have experienced the trauma of living with a narcissistic person, I have found that, typically, they have completely lost their sense of self. They often suffer with extreme anxiety and confusion to the point where they no longer trust their own memory, perception or judgement.

In the relationship with the narcissist, the co-dependent is continually made to believe that the expression of feelings is a sign of weakness. This causes them to become silent and not express how they feel at all. So, of course, this needs to be challenged by the therapist, and the co-dependent’s conditioning changed, so that the they can wrestle back control from the narcissist.

Another aspect that the co-dependent has to grasp is that they do not need to justify their feelings to anyone. When the co-dependent stops justifying why they feel the way they do, this also takes the power away from the narcissist and gives it back to themselves.

As we have seen in the last ‘thought snippet’, the co-dependent is not good at setting boundaries while the narcissist is very good at crossing them. In fact, by the time they present for therapy, it is common for the co-dependent to have internalised that they don’t have a right to any boundaries at all. As such, there is another huge chunk of work for the therapist to do in resetting this conditioning.

As time goes on, the co-dependent begins to understand the role they are playing in their relationship with the narcissist. With this awareness, they can also comprehend how they can choose not to play this role. As they take responsibility for their role in the ‘dance’ between co-dependent and narcissist, they can then choose different behaviour and start the process of taking back their power.

In the co-dependent / narcissist relationship, it is the co-dependents who are most likely to be our clients. They are the ones who have become emotionally lost and, therefore, enter therapy. It is unlikely that the narcissist is going to come into therapy unless they find themselves in a twelve step programme due to some other addiction.

Generally, narcissists don’t take responsibility and cannot see that there is anything wrong with them anyway. There is a bit more of a chance of recovery for female narcissists as evidence suggests that they are more willing to admit to their psychological issues.

Learning to work with ‘relationship addiction’

My experience of dysfunctional relationships as possible sources of addiction, and the huge strides in recovery that are possible when it is named for those clients who are affected, has prompted me to put together a course which deals with this issue. It provides a real and meaningful resource for the helping professional who wants to give his / her clients the best chance of recovery from whatever is their issue or addiction. For further information, click to my website courses

Note: This is one of a series of ‘thought snippets’ through which I am hoping to bring co-dependency centre stage with caring professionals. By being alert to its pervasiveness, they can ensure that their clients reap the benefit of early identification. To read other ‘snippets’ in this series, click: margaretparkes snippets

For more information about the subjects covered in this blog, contact Margaret Parkes - phone: 086 832 0422 email:

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