“But when you are dealing with someone who is hurting, remember that your boundaries are both necessary for you and helpful for them. If you have been enabling them to be irresponsible, your limit setting may nudge them toward responsibility.” – Henry Cloud
Codependent. This is a word that has been tossed around quite a bit in western culture lately, so much so that people are self-diagnosing as codependent without fully understanding the concept and what it means. The discussion of codependency began with a focus on those who enable loved ones in their lives who struggle with addiction. Since then, it has expanded to mean something broader.
Codependent meaningMelodie Beattie, an expert on codependency, defines it this way in The New Codependency: “one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”
She continues: “Codependency is normal behavior, plus. There are times we do too much, care too much, feel too little, or overly engage. We forget where the other person’s responsibilities begin and our responsibilities stop. Or we get busy and have so much to do that we neglect ourselves.”
Another helpful definition comes from Linda Esposito: “Codependent individuals ‘share the responsibility for the unhealthy behavior, primarily focusing their lives on the sick or bad behavior and by making their own self-esteem and well-being contingent on the behavior of the unhealthy family member’.’’
Sacrificial care for others is elevated in Christian culture because it is a biblical principle. The counter-cultural concept of Christ-like humility and love for others is found in Philippians 2:1-11 where Christians are taught to “not only look to our own interests, but also the interests of others” and “to count others more significant than ourselves.”
Radically loving others who have hurt you, giving others your time, energy, and resources even if that means going without, giving second chances, and choosing forgiveness are all strongly encouraged in the church.
So where does codependency fall in light of this? Is this even a term known by the church? Should it be? It is also good to remember in light of this conversation that codependency is not a disease or a serious mental illness. It is a pattern of thinking, believing, and behaving that can, when worked through, be overcome and become more balanced. It cannot, however, be ignored.
Where does codependency come from?
Often, adults who struggle with codependent behavior come from backgrounds of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, childhood endangerment or neglect, family addictive behaviors, or other forms of trauma and severe relational defects. However, this is not always the case. Some codependent people are simply more prone to these behaviors due to personality traits or personal insecurities.
It seems important to look at the heart of the issue behind codependent behaviors. What drives this level of care that goes a bit too far? Melodie Beattie says it this way, “All we know is that we feel incomplete. We cling to anyone we can, hoping we’ll find our missing pieces in them.”
Maybe someone believes that she needs to be a mom in her home because her mom is an addict and does not take care of her and her siblings. Being the “new mom” fills the hole left behind, and even enables her to find some sense of identity.
Or maybe someone allows her spouse to repeatedly engage in emotional abuse because she fears to be alone. Or maybe someone constantly rescues his son from the legal consequences of illegal behavior in order to be a “good father” or to protect himself or his son from a bad reputation.
Codependent behavior always seems to be an attempt to fill a void at a deep and often subconscious level, and this distorts Christianity’s message of sacrificial love. The Christian is to love others, not selfishly to look out for his or her own interests.
The first and most important commandment of love to God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength cannot be neglected. He is the one who is supposed to fill the void, not others. Love becomes codependent when it expects the other to be the missing piece.
Signs and symptoms of codependent behavior
Now that we’ve established and explained a codependent meaning, here are some possible signs of codependent behavior. These will vary from person to person, and this list is not exhaustive.
- Taking responsibility for someone else’s actions. (Example: A mother thinks she is a bad mother because her son gets bad grades.)
- Overly worrying about or carrying the burden for others’ problems. (Example: You can’t stop worrying about your son failing his grade in school because he does not turn in his work.)
- Protecting others from the consequences of their actions. (Example: a daughter who repeatedly bales her dad out of jail.)
- Doing above and beyond what is required at home, at your job, or at church to earn approval. (Example: Serving every week in the kid’s ministry so that the pastors will think you are a worthy volunteer and valuable to the church.)
- Feeling obligated to meet another person’s needs without considering your needs. (Example: agreeing to stay late at work without pay in order to complete a project even though your family needs you at home.)
- Manipulating others’ responses instead of accepting them for what they are. (Example: Your dad says he is proud of you, but you think he is only saying that because he has to. You continue to work for his approval even though you already have it.)
- Not feeling worthy of receiving love and being suspicious when it is offered. (Example: Your spouse tells you she loves you, but you ask her daily anyway.)
- Your relationships are built on meeting needs instead of love or mutual respect. (Example: Staying with an addict because he needs you.)
- Trying to be the solution to another person’s problems or always trying to change them. (Example: Believing that you can help someone change, that they will be different with you, that you are what they need.)
- Living based on “shoulds” instead of personal wants or needs. (Example: Believing that you should not get divorced so you stay in a marriage with an unrepentant adulterer.)
- Enabling someone to take your time or resources without your consent (Example: Every time your mom gets out of drug rehabilitation, you allow her to live with you without paying rent or helping with groceries.)
Ask yourself these questions as a guide to determine whether you are in a codependent relationship:
- Does your sense of purpose involve making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner, family, work, or church’s needs?
- Is it difficult to day no when your partner, family, work, or church make near impossible demands on your time and energy?
- Do you cover up your partner, family, work, or church’s problems?
If you see possible signs and symptoms of codependency in your behavior or in your relationships, it is possible to overcome them. You can live in more balanced ways and set healthy boundaries. However, you may need the guidance of a professional counselor in the process.
It can be a difficult road of unwinding your own past hurt and present behaviors, but the unwinding can lead to a more healthy future. It can help you stop depending on others to fill a void in your life and stop trying to fill a void in theirs. In time your relationships can be healthier but do not wait to start. Codependency does not have to have the final say in your life.
Beattie, Melody. The New Codependency. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks: New York, NY. 2009.
Esposito, Linda, LCSW. 6 Signs of a Codependent Relationship. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com. Posted on 19 September 2016.
Bogdanos, Maria. Signs of Codependence Codependent Behavior. Retrieved from psychcentral.com. Last updated on 31 May 2019.
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