Becoming Aware of the Codependency Matrix

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Psychology, Psychology-Relationships

I’m English. It means that one of my best methods of defense, is attack. Not overtly of course, we don’t really do that. We’re much too fond of passive communication. Instead I’m sarcastic. I diminish people with verbal wit with some sort of sly dig, make other people laugh and gain their acceptance… even as I poke holes in their armour. Luckily we all do it, so it goes unnoticed unless I’m faced with a foreign culture. I’ve also played the victim for a lot of my life. Unknowingly. I’ve been a rescuer; I’ve saved people to feed my own self esteem and believed that it was an altruistic act.

In the extreme, none of these roles is healthy. They are what Karpman calls the drama triangle. Having learned to recognize them for what they are and stop playing them, has taken me the better part of 37 years. Now I see others play them. I see them everywhere, day in and day out. Hollywood, my friends and of course I remember them in the original model, my parents. When I realised what I was doing, I started to question why we did it. My discovery kick-started a investigatory path into our biology…

Because it is always. Always. A matter of self-protection, or indeed what we believe to be self-protection… which is why sometimes it seems counter intuitive.

As children we use these roles to protect ourselves, after all as a child we are truly dependent on our rescuers. We also learn them from our society and our parents as they play out their survival mechanisms – their defense systems – as they have done since childhood. We are so often children in adults clothing, walking around having relationships with one another and acting out our protection mechanisms in the drama triangle. Victim. Persecutor. Rescuer.

In his thesis on co-dependence Robert Burney extends the set of behavioural defenses to a total of four strategies we use to shield ourselves from attacks.

  • Aggressive-Aggressive: “The Militant Bulldozer”. Someone who is a survivor of and believer in the school of hard knocks. The superior self righteous individual who despises weakness and is terrified of their own humanity.
  • Aggressive-Passive: “Self-Sacrificing Bulldozer”. Someone who tries to control you by telling you what to do for your own good (and often at the apparent expense of their own needs). They know what is right and feel that they should tell you. This person constantly sets themselves up to be the persecutor.
  • Passive-Aggressive: “The Militant Martyr”. Someone who tries to covertly control you with innocently sounding emotional blackmail. They see themselves as wonderful people who are continually being victimized by those who are ungrateful for everything they do.
  • Passive-Passive: “The Self Sacrificing Martyr”. Someone who projects the image of an emotional fragile victim playing off your generosity and strength. Anyone who even thinks of getting angry at this person feels guilty. Guilt is to the self sacrificing martyr what stink is to the skunk: the primary defence.

Crying is a defense mechanism and during childhood our minds learn very quickly that we can use it to get what we want. Crying quickly becomes not an outlet for real and valid grief, but often simply a strategic tactic.

But if we keep using these methods as we grow and mature, it is a survival technique which can undermine and impede our emotional growth, keep us in arrested development and it can kill off any chance of living a joyful life by trapping us firmly in the role of victim. These structures we build are part of our social conditioning and therefore not ‘innate’, however they are also inescapable as part of our journey from purely unconscious babies who are by definition helpless, through partially conscious and struggling adults and perhaps, eventually, escaping the mind ‘matrix’…or as we call it, codependency.

She said, ‘I know I’m playing these roles, but now I want to stop. But he doesn’t want to stop, I don’t even think he will acknowledge he’s playing them too.’ 

My friend was close to tears. But we had to be jolly because the kids were there. Clambering on our knees and demanding our attention. Playing like there was no tragedy in our lives. So instead my friend and I communicated with our eyes. And I saw her desperation.

What happens in a relationship when you wake up and realise your playing the codependency game with your significant other? And worse, they can’t see it but you can?

She said, ‘I’ve tried to explain to him what’s going on but he looks at me and starts saying I’m imagining things.’

At this I winced. Making the other person believe that they are wrong and ‘crazy’ is one of the best narcissistic passive-aggressive defences you can imagine. In the worst case you start believing them and doubting your own sanity. But at the same time, explaining what’s going on to someone who is trapped within the drama triangle and you only position yourself as the persecutor and the rescuer. By definition.

‘How can I help him realise?’

‘You can’t,’ I said. ‘He isn’t your child. And his journey is not your journey. You can focus on your own growth and healing. That is all.’

It’s easier said than done. When you are with someone who continually tries to put you in one of the three positions, by playing one of the roles, it takes enormous self awareness not to slip back into it. My friend is most often the rescuer. And for her to stop playing her role, she needs to wholly heal the wounds which caused this aspect of codependency in the first place. The fact that she now is able to recognise the game playing means she has done a lot of the work already. Because the only long term way to clear out the emotional process is to grieve and heal the wounds we suffered as children. One process is as follows.

  1. Exposure of wounds to get rid of shame, guilt and secrecy (to a therapist, to a third party, or a journal)
  2. Understand of why what happened, happened and ownership without judgement at all levels
  3. Forgiveness, and absolute unconditional love for yourself.

It is the act of taking responsibility for your ENTIRE life and ALL your experiences of it, that will help you escape the matrix. It is the acceptance of your life exactly how it is, which will help you change it. Because we cannot change the things for which we are not responsible.

But there’s a downside. Becoming aware of codependency and these games, will mean that you try to eradicate one of you nature’s primary protection mechanisms… which also serves to bind people together.  After years of trying to eradicate any form of codependency from my life and stop playing the drama triangle, I also realised that my attempt to eradicate it completely was to make myself less than human. So I believe the ultimate purpose of these exercises is not to completely eradicate what is part of our humanity, but to become aware of what you are doing, why you are doing it and make your choices accordingly. I’ll give you an example.

The same friend is struggling with the role of the victim. At this point in her life she has reverted to childhood patterns and needs loyalty from those around her. Us, her friends, who also interact with her husband on a daily basis cannot both be her confidante and his confidante without some serious cognitive dissonance and stress. Our options were:

  1. Refuse to touch their drama triangle, hear either of them or take any of the burden of their emotional stress
  2. Hear both of them and become utterly conflicted and stressed ourselves
  3. Choose one of them and offer support and empathy in their pain, whilst knowingly sacrificing some part of the relationship with the other

If he were also not playing out his own childhood patterns and was able to be more emotionally mature, perhaps I wouldn’t have lost my friendship with him. But I can’t change him or force him down that path. So I chose option 3 and became her outlet, all the while offering counsel on self esteem, boundaries and all that other good stuff. I didn’t join her in the victim role, but I did choose my battle and my friendship. Afterwards, I couldn’t be his friend anymore but I knew in advance that it was a likely outcome. Being human, means sometimes being codependent because we all have wounds and we all play them out. But the better we can be at being aware of them, the better decisions we can make.