The term “codependency” has become somewhat of a buzzword, with books on the topic lining the shelves of most bookstore psychology sections. It’s also defined in so many ways that it can be confusing to understand what exactly it means and how codependency symptoms may appear when it is present in a relationship.
By general definition, codependency is an adaptive coping mechanism used compulsively by those trying to find personal worth and value by meeting the perceived needs of others. Let’s break it down a little more: Codependency develops in a relationship between two people where one person is, for whatever reason, needy, and the other person needs to be needed.
In a sense, it involves two “half persons” trying to create a whole person, with an unhealthy attachment to each other where they are unable to take responsibility for their lives independently.
One often thinks of the spouse of an addict or abusive partner when one thinks of codependency, but it extends beyond this to other relationships where the codependent person themselves are “addicted” to the relationship – they are completely preoccupied with the other person and their needs that they completely neglect their own.
This is difficult territory for the Christian to navigate, as the Bible does call for us to live sacrificial lives and says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). It is important, however, to investigate the roots of codependency and what motivates someone to focus all their attention on another person, to the very detriment of their own well-being and often sanity.
What causes codependency?
Codependency has been seen to result from pain and suffering caused in childhood, which is then expressed in adulthood. This dysfunctionality may have stemmed from a variety of causes – abuse in the home, a physically or emotionally absent parent, or any dynamic which affected negatively on a child’s emotional development; leaving them stunted in maturity and filled with self-loathing.
As an adult, they find they are unable to enjoy life and their only outlet becomes a codependent situation where they are needed, not because of who they are and their intrinsic value, but rather because the person they are pouring into is an empty vessel with their own broken background bearing down on their adult emotional life.
If you struggle with codependency symptoms in some shape or form, you will most likely also struggle with your basic sense of selfhood – who you are in your inner world and the value of your feelings, thoughts, and desires. Reflecting on this inner world may bring more of a sense of shame than anything else.
If this sounds familiar, be encouraged by the fact that God knows you intimately and loves you more than anyone in the world, and that in Christ there is freedom: the freedom to break through the pain and the distorted view of self that you may have, towards a clearer, truer, and infinitely more hopeful picture.
Perhaps you may be showing codependent behavior because of this broken sense of self and may not have even realized it. The next step is watching out for certain patterns of behavior in relationships.
Common Codependency Symptoms
“Have to help”
Codependency is essentially a confused desire for helping people. If you regularly help people out of a sense of guilt, or feel that you have no choice but to, you might want to note a red flag. Certainly, we need to serve sacrificially, and often this will feel painful at first, but if we are serving in the way Christ wants us to, we will not feel excessively burdened but feel buoyed and help with a voluntary spirit. We should be able to lift others’ needs to the Lord and seek His wisdom on how and if we help; discerning if there is a true need and if we can fill it.
If you are in a relationship marked by addiction or abuse and have a pattern of being “attracted” to these kinds of partners, you may want to question your codependency tendencies. A person who is struggling with substance issues or emotional neediness (or mental illness, irresponsibility, or any number of issues) presents the perfect breeding ground for a codependent relationship to develop.
They are unable to function properly on their own and need to be saved by the efforts of the other person who in their way is saved by being relied upon to the point where their destructive behavior is enabled rather than overcome.
Living in lack
If you live with a lack of love, attention, security, fulfillment, and identity and seek to fill that void through helping others, this may be one of several other codependency symptoms. A relationship, whether it is a friendship, marriage, or even employer-employee relation, needs to be interdependent and mutual; in other words, it is unhealthy if it is “all take and no give” or “all give and no take.”
Again, this can be especially confusing for Christians as it smacks of being self-motivated; in this instance, it is important to take the matter in prayer to God; certainly, we should not be looking to fill the God-hole inside us with the love and approval of others, but God has created relationships to give us a taste of what a sense of appreciation and healthy companionship feels like.
A failure to set or keep personal boundaries is also one of the more common codependency symptoms. Healthy boundaries are like building a wall around ourselves psychologically and spiritually to keep unwanted intruders out. They are necessary to create a safe space for ourselves where we can grow and develop as individuals.
Codependent people struggle with the concept of understanding and implementing boundaries, and as a result get entangled in emotional battles they were never meant to fight and end up feeling constantly burnt out, empty, helpless, and resentful.
Realizing that God wants us to set healthy boundaries for ourselves, and desires for us to be more like Mary (sitting at His feet) than Martha (rushing around frantically) can help us to adjust our view on the foundations of good relationships.
Denying and excusing
If you are the codependent one in a relationship where the other partner shows unhealthy patterns of behavior, your thought life and narrative to others most likely involves diminishing the bad elements and supplying rational reasons for their brokenness. Be honest with yourself about whether you are enabling someone else’s abusive or dysfunctional behavior by not making them accountable for their actions.
Have you, for example, blamed regular verbal assaults on “stress levels,” or played down a spouse’s behavior when they have had too much to drink? The most common codependency symptom is a life plagued by enduring mistreatment at the expense of owning up to another person’s problems.
The lie behind codependency is that, if you stay committed to this person, you will in some way be made whole again. The reality, however, is a life lived in fear. Codependency is a difficult place to break free from, but, as Christians, the only way to made whole again is to find ourselves in our relationship with God.
If you know God but are still battling to unleash the hold that codependency has in your life, it is highly recommended that you contact a Christian mental health counselor who can help walk the journey to freedom with you.
They will help you to delve into the fears – fear of rejection, fear of loneliness – that are keeping you chained to an unhealthy relationship; and let go of that desire to be in control, which is also what motivates a codependent attachment. Letting go of hurt and pain allows more space for God to care for us, space to care for ourselves, and give us the true rest which our souls crave.
“Moment of Affection”, Courtesy of Courtney Kammers, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “I love you”, Courtesy of Sincerely Media, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Loving Couple”, Courtesy of Toa Heftiba, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sharing a Blanket”, Courtesy of John Schnobrich, Unsplash.com, CC0 License