When first coined, the term codependency was used to describe the spousal relationships of families dealing with alcohol abuse. Since then, the concept of codependency has been applied to even more situations in society as many one-sided relationships show similar characteristics.
Despite this, many are still unaware that they are in a codependent relationship or that they exhibit codependent tendencies. Hence, they struggle in life, wrongly believing in the need for continuous self-sacrifice and approval from others.
Though many therapists recognize the existence of codependency in relationships, the condition itself is difficult to classify or diagnose. This is because its characteristics are quite broad and may apply to a number of situations.
However, a common way of viewing it is as a dysfunctional relationship where one person sacrifices their needs for the sake of their partner’s emotional and psychological benefit. Rather than having a healthy give-and-take relationship, one person does all the “giving” because the other seemingly only knows how to do all the “taking.”
The following are some perspectives that various therapists have about codependency:
- It is the response of someone dealing with a family member who is chemically addicted (e.g. alcoholic, drug user).
- It is a personality disorder.
- It is a learned response based on what the person saw from other family members while growing up (e.g. mother taking care of alcoholic father).
- It is a need to seek the approval of others for one’s sense of identity or self-worth.
- It is a compulsion to be the caretaker of others where the person feels responsible for the happiness of the people around them.
While the above views may be different, the common thread is to care, give, or control for the wrong reasons (e.g. fear, selfishness) which is why it is unhealthy.
What is it Like to be Codependent?
While many agree that codependency often occurs in the households of substance abusers, it can also occur in other types of relationships. These include romantic situations, school or work relationships, and even in interactions amongst church members.
Though not fully exhaustive, the following are some symptoms of codependency:
- The person has internal issues about themself. These include insecurities and doubts about their self-worth; fears about being alone or neglected; difficulty identifying their emotions; and problems with decision-making.
- The person often acts or reacts out of fear of what their loved one may do (especially if the loved one is drunk or “high”) or out of fear of rejection for who they really are. This causes the codependent sufferer to pretend to be someone they are not; say the “right” words they might not truly mean; drop an argument to keep the peace; or give in to requests they really do not want to do (e.g. purchasing alcohol or drugs, sexual favors) to keep the other person “happy.”
- The person may have issues with other people. This may mean they no longer trust those around them or they have difficulty becoming intimate with others, possibly due to fears.
While many see the codependent as the “hapless victim,” sometimes it may be the other way around. The codependent can sometimes be the one who is content to be in their situation as they wish to control the other person. The following are symptoms of such:
- The person obsesses over their partner in their thoughts (e.g. always worrying or imagining the worst is occurring) and/or deeds (e.g. always inquiring about their whereabouts).
- The person may feel extremely “responsible” for the welfare of others. If those around are unhappy, the codependent sufferer may feel the burden of righting the wrong. This causes them to go the extra mile for other people’s sake, even if it consumes much of their time and resources.
- The codependent person may also become more manipulative as they try to control the behavior of their loved one. They may use threats or favors to ensure that the relationship stays the same (e.g. preventing an addicted loved one from entering rehab to maintain the status quo).
How Does Codependency Come About?
Loving someone for the wrong reasons can be traced to the inability of the codependent to love themselves in the proper way. A person who loves themselves knows that they can survive on their own as they are, with or without someone special in their life. A codependent, however, does not understand this, which is why their idea of “love” for the other person is also incorrect – even if they really meant well.
Codependency usually comes about because of problems encountered in their childhood or even in adolescence, as these are the foundation years. During such years, a person encounters many elements in their life that mold them into who they are as adults.
These factors include basic needs that were met and those that were unmet, emotional wounds, experiences of loss and grief, genetics, hidden fears and secrets, modelled relationship boundaries, and other forms of trauma.
While many people are able to properly overcome these challenges – often with the help of others, the codependent adapts in a different, unhealthier way. They become emotionally dependent upon the words and actions of somebody else, not themselves.
The Model of Healthy Love
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.
As seen in Holy Scripture, relationships are designed to be mutually beneficial to those involved, allowing them to grow in love and maturity. People are supposed to encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11); pray together about concerns (James 5:13-16); share their material resources (1 John 3:17-18); show genuine love, care, and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32); and even rebuke each other should someone go astray (Matthew 18:15).
Though there may be times when sacrifices are made, it is NOT supposed to be all the time and NOT for all occasions. Unfortunately, many codependents misunderstand the idea of “Christian love,” thinking that sacrificial love to the point of full self-denial is the “best” kind of love.
In a codependent relationship, self-denial makes the codependent emotionally weak and vulnerable as they rely on the need, love, and thankfulness of their partner. Moreover, their “helpful” actions are actually hindering the growth of their loved one as they may be covering up their loved one’s wrong actions (e.g. making excuses for those who inquire); assisting their partner in their vice (e.g. buying alcohol or drugs); or intentionally preventing their partner from seeking real assistance (e.g. rehab) as they wish to stay relevant to their loved one.
The Bible is very clear that everyone needs to depend upon God. Proverbs 3:5-6 reminds us all: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” And in John 15:5, Jesus tells the disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
But instead of making those involved stronger, more loving, and closer to our Creator, codependency does the opposite. Its stranglehold must be broken for the sake of all involved.
What Can Be Done
Thankfully, there are things a codependent can do once they have realized that they are in a codependent relationship.
- Take ownership of what has happened. Denying what has happened or blaming someone or something else will make it more difficult to move positively forward. The person needs to own up to the truth so they can then seek the help they need.
- Don’t stop loving. Though codependency is an unhealthy relationship, not all the love given is wrong or debilitating. The person just needs to figure out what is healthy and what is unhealthy in the relationship and continue giving healthy love.
- Make the first move. Although it might seem scary and difficult to alter the dynamics of the existing codependent relationship, it is important for the codependent to make the first move by stepping back, knowing that the current relationship is hurting both of them. The codependent must refocus on what is lacking in themselves, as they are NOT responsible for the problems of their loved one. Once this begins, it will now be possible for them both to find better ways to help themselves.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. The first steps toward healing are very hard. The codependent may feel even guiltier of letting go of “their responsibility.” It is necessary then to be gentle to oneself so that the codependent can continue forward and not return to their former ways.
Christian Counseling for Codependency
Many times because of fear, ignorance, or lack of willpower, a codependent is unable to break free from the codependent relationship on their own. In such a situation, it helps to seek professional help via Christian counseling.
In Christian counseling, the counselor will examine the dynamics of the relationship and give needed advice to correct what is happening. Furthermore, the Christian counselor will provide insights about the person’s codependent tendencies (e.g. desire for approval, lack of self-worth) to help them improve as an individual. And should past trauma be involved, the latest in therapeutic techniques will be used to help the person face their inner fears.
But most importantly, the faith-based counselor will reconnect the codependent to God, through prayer and meditation on Scripture, so that spiritual and emotional healing can truly occur. It is only by really knowing God’s love and mercy through Jesus Christ that the person will understand that they do not need other people to become “complete,” they just need God. He is the only one who can fill the God-shaped vacuum that everyone has inside.
However, since God’s people are meant to live in harmony with one another, expressing the love of God towards each other, the Biblical concepts of loving others will also be discussed. This will allow the person to know what to strive for in their current and future relationships.
If you or a friend has codependent tendencies or is in a codependent relationship, seek Christian counseling soon. There is a Biblical way to love oneself and others so that all involved are emotionally healthy and strong.
“Help,” courtesy of Cristian Newman, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bicycle ride,” courtesy of Sabina Ciesielska, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lean on me,” courtesy of Rosie Ann, peels.com, CC0 License; “Without Wings”, Courtesy of Mohamed Nohassi, Unsplash.com, CC0 License