Codependency and Childhood Neglect: What You Need To Know

How does childhood neglect contribute to codependent relationships in adulthood? In this article we will explore a definition for childhood neglect and codependent relationships, and explore how one begets the other. You will also learn how to recognize if you have experienced childhood neglect, as well as codependent relationships in adulthood. A case example will be provided, to help you understand how these definitions demonstrate themselves in everyday relationships. And lastly, we will discuss the three most important steps that you can take, today, to start healing codependent traits that are no longer serving you.

After reading this article, you will feel…

  • Inspired to make changes in their own life
  • Have a greater understanding of what codependency is and how it manifests
  • Recognize if they have experienced childhood neglect or are currently in a codependent relationship
  • Be provided with tools on how to start making changes in their life today.

So let’s dive in!

What is Childhood Neglect?

Childhood neglect is a type of emotional abuse that can occur when parents or caregivers fail to provide the necessary physical and emotional care for their children. This can include basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing, but also extends to more intangible needs such as love, attention, support, and affection. When these needs are not met, it can lead to feelings of abandonment, insecurity, worthlessness, and shame.

Here are some signs that you’ve experienced childhood neglect…

  • You felt alone and unsupported growing up
  • You often had to take care of yourself or your siblings
  • Your parents or caregivers were absentee or emotionally unavailable
  • You never felt like you belonged or fit in
  • You felt like you had to be perfect to be loved
  • Your parents or caregivers were critical, judgmental, or dismissive of your
  • feelings

What is Codependency?

In a codependent relationship, one person usually takes on the role of caretaker or rescuer, while the other person relies on them and becomes dependent. This type of relationship is dysfunctional because it’s based on an unequal balance of power.

The caretaker is the one who always puts their partner’s needs before their own. They might enable their partner’s bad behavior because they feel like it’s their duty to keep the peace. This can often be traced back to childhood, where the caretaker was the parentified child who had to take care of everything and make sure everyone was happy, because otherwise their needs would go neglected and unnoticed.

The caretaker’s biggest struggle in a codependent relationship is that they are constantly giving and never receiving. They might feel like they’re the only one who is holding the relationship together, and that their partner would be lost
without them. This can often lead to resentment because the caretaker feels unappreciated and taken for granted. The caretaker is also at risk of self-sabotage because they often don’t know how to ask for help or set boundaries.

Here are 6 signs you might be the caretaker in a codependent dynamic:

  • You put your partner’s needs before your own
  • You enable your partner’s self sabotaging behavior
  • You have trouble setting boundaries
  • You feel responsible for everything in the relationship
  • You resent your partner for taking advantage of you
  • You feel unappreciated and taken for granted

The dependent partner often has significant feelings of low self-esteem, fears of failure, self-doubt, guilt and shame. This partner is the child that absorbed the dysfunction in their childhood home, and recreates it in their adult life. The
dependent partner with low self-esteem might stay in a codependent relationship because they feel they can’t function without their partner. They might believe that their partner is the only one who will ever love them, so they stay in the relationship even if it is unhealthy.

The dependent’s biggest struggle in a codependent relationship is that they can never seem to do anything right. They might feel like their partner is always disappointed in them, and that they can’t ever please them. This often leads to
feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. The dependent also has trouble setting boundaries, because they’re afraid of upsetting their partner or making them angry. They are also always the one blamed when things go wrong, and so
they tend to adopt this identity for themselves, believing they will always fail.

Here are six signs you might be the dependent in a codependent dynamic:

  • You have low self-esteem
  • You doubt yourself often
  • You struggle to set boundaries
  • You have a lack of motivation
  • You don’t think that you are very skilled or capable
  • You blame yourself when things go wrong

How Can Childhood Neglect Lead to Codependency?

When children do not receive the love and attention they need from their parents or caregivers, they may start to believe that they are not worthy of love. This can lead them to seek out relationships in adulthood that reinforce this belief. They may find themselves in abusive or unhealthy relationships where their partner is emotionally unavailable, needy, controlling, or critical. These codependent relationships can feel familiar and comfortable because they echo the dynamics of the neglectful relationships from their childhood.

Case Example: John and Jane

John and Jane have been married for five years. When they met, Jane was fresh out of college and working as a teacher. John was a successful businessman who had his own company and was very charismatic and capable. From the outside, it looked like they had everything going for them. But behind closed doors, their relationship was very different.

While John was preoccupied with keeping Jane satisfied with a good quality of life and creature comforts, he was also subtly critical and dismissive of Jane’s feelings and needs. He would feel threatened by Jane’s accomplishments
because he worried they would take her away from him, (In the same way that his mother’s work took her attention away from him as a child). And so he would belittle her successes with a “joking” form of sarcasm, and tell her that she was lucky to have him. He would encourage Jane to depend on him and his resources, so she would never consider leaving him.

As a result, Jane felt like she could never do anything right in John’s eyes, (which was how she had felt about her father, growing up). In order to please John and avoid his criticism, Jane started to put her own needs aside. She stopped pursuing her dream of becoming a writer, and instead got a job at John’s company so she could be closer to him. She put all of her energy into making John happy, and in doing so, she lost sight of herself.

In time, Jane became anxious and depressed and picked up a drinking problem. And John started to feel overburdened by the responsibility of taking care of her. Their relationship became increasingly strained, and they started to fight all the time. Finally, they divorced. But even after the divorce, Jane found herself unable to let go of John. She would call him constantly, beg him to take her back, and try to do everything she could to win his approval. And John would continue to drag her into court over financial disputes, in order to punish her for leaving him.

If you’re not sure if you’re in a codependent relationship, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I put my partner’s needs before my own?
  • Do I enable my partner’s self-sabotaging behavior?
  • Do I feel like I can’t function without my partner?
  • Do I have trouble setting boundaries with my partner?
  • Do I feel like I’m always the one to blame when things go wrong?
  • Do I feel like my partner is the only one who will ever love me?
  • Do I feel burdened and responsible for every aspect of the relationship?
  • Do I distrust my partner and have an underlying fear that they will abandon me?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be in a codependent relationship. If you’re not sure, it’s important to reach out to a therapist or counselor who can help you explore your relationship dynamic.

How Can You Start to Heal Codependent Relationships?

The first step is acknowledging that codependency exists in your relationship. This can be difficult, because it means admitting that there are problems in your relationship that need to be addressed. But once you’ve acknowledged that there are issues, you and your partner can start to work on.

The first step is to become aware of the codependent behaviors that you are engaged in. Once you are able to identify these patterns, you can start to make changes in your relationship dynamic. This may mean setting boundaries with
your partner or learning to love and care for yourself. If you find yourself always putting your partner’s needs above your own, try to take some time each day to do something that is just for you. This could be something as simple as taking a relaxing bath or reading your favorite book. Remember that you are just as worthy of love and attention as your partner is.

In a nutshell, the three most important steps you should take right now, to stop codependent habits today include:

Awareness: Become aware of the codependent behaviors that you are engaged in. Read books, watch YouTube videos, and talk to trusted friends that can help you see into your blind spots. Most people won’t butt into your business unless you ask them to, and you might be surprised by what they’ve noticed, but haven’t told you.

Boundaries: Set boundaries with your partner. This may mean saying “no” when you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, or learning to communicate your needs in an assertive way. If you are the caretaker, let loose of the reigns a little bit, and let your partner fail, so they can learn from their mistakes and assume some personal agency. If you are the dependent partner, detach yourself from your partner’s opinion, and try doing something on your own. Even if you fail, that’s good information for how to do it better next time, and you are building the skills to become more independently motivated.

Find Therapeutic and/or Emotional Support: If you’re struggling to make changes on your own, seek out the help of a therapist or counselor. They can help you explore the underlying causes of your codependency and develop a plan to address them. You might also be able to enlist a couples counselor, that can help both you and your partner develop healthier relationship skills and communication.

Facing Your Fears

To summarize, childhood neglect is a circumstance in which parents or caregivers fail to provide adequate emotional, physical, and/or intellectual care for their children. This can lead to feelings of worthlessness and not feeling “good enough.” In a codependent relationship, we see the caretaker dealing with this by overcompensating and becoming a fixer”. For the dependent partner, they seem to cope by attaching themselves to someone that they believe makes up
for their failings.

These relationships can be hard to change because the role of “fixer” depends on their partner needing to be fixed! And the role of the dependent partner depends on their partner to be super capable and compensatory. If either one is challenged to step out of these roles, and heal their early childhood wounding – (usually a form of childhood neglect) – then they feel confused and afraid about what love is, and how they should perform in a partnership. Healing from codependency requires facing that fear, and adopting a willingness to redefine what love means to you, and how you want to share it with someone.

If you think you might be in a codependent relationship, it’s important to reach out for help. These relationships can be very damaging to both parties involved. But with awareness, boundaries, and self-care, it is possible to heal these
relationships and create a more balanced dynamic. You deserve to be in a healthy and loving relationship where your needs are met. Don’t settle for anything less.

By Briana MacWilliam MPS, ATR-BC, LCAT / Licensed and Board-Certified Creative Arts Therapist & Attachment Coach

Brianna is a regular contributor to the #1 Online Magazine For Codependency, Codependency Recovery.

To learn more about Briana, click here:

1 Response

  1. Melissa Corbett says:

    This really hit home as the parentified child in my family and then the fixer in my marriage!

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