You’re probably familiar with the word codependency. It’s been used both in psychology circles and popular culture for years. In the beginning, it referred almost entirely to the spouse or partner of an alcoholic or another addict. Nowadays people use the term “codependent” to describe any person whose thoughts, emotions, and actions revolve around another person.
What is Codependency?
It’s not easy to give a straightforward definition of codependency, if only because it’s used to describe such a wide range of relationships. In the psychological realm, codependency is not a mental health condition that can be officially diagnosed. Also, it is such a wide-ranging phenomenon that its characteristics can be used to explain many kinds of relationships and situations.
In typical use, “codependency” describes a dysfunctional relationship in which one partner continually sacrifices his or her needs to meet the needs (perceived or real) of the other partner. At its core, a relationship like this is uneven and one-sided.
There are various psychological theories about codependency. Here are a few of them:
- It happens in relationships where one person is an addict, or in dysfunctional families.
- It is a personality disorder.
- It is a behavioral response learned from other family members who modeled codependency.
- It is a pattern of dependency stemming from a desire for approval. The codependent person’s identity, self-worth, and security rely on the approval of others.
- It is a compulsion to be a rescuer or a caregiver while feeling responsible for others’ happiness.
These theories are somewhat distinct but overlap in the sense that they describe a person who is sacrificing, loving, caring, or controlling others from the wrong motives. Codependency happens when someone fears rejection and seeks to please and care for someone else so they can feel loved, valued, or needed.
Like so many other relationship issues, codependency is not a black-or-white, all-or-nothing pattern. Sometimes it coexists along with healthy habits in the relationship. However, over time patterns of codependency tend to progressively get worse, causing harmful effects on the relationship, family, and both peoples’ lives.
How to Recognize Codependency
Although the concept of codependency was first used to describe a marriage or romantic relationship, it can happen in any relationship, in immediate and extended families, in friendships, with coworkers, at church, and elsewhere. Any relationship can become imbalanced and one-sided over time, with one person always seeking to appease the other.
There are many characteristics broadly associated with codependency. The following is a non-exhaustive checklist of symptoms of imbalance that could indicate a lopsided relationship with a potential for codependency. Take a moment to go through each one and see if you identify with any of the statements made about the way people interact with those they care about.
What are some of the characteristics or indicators of codependency?
- An intense need for approval and recognition, along with a deep sense of hurt when efforts to win approval are not rewarded.
- The use of bargaining or persuading to get the other person to do what you think is best for them.
- Always having to apologize first.
- Always going the extra mile in the relationship, while the other person rarely reciprocates.
- Feeling responsible for the other person’s life going well.
- Choosing to give up or give in just to keep the peace.
- Lacking honesty and directness.
- Walking on eggshells around the other person because you fear to make them upset.
- Worrying and obsessing about the relationship.
- Having trouble making decisions.
- Having trouble setting healthy boundaries.
- Having trouble with intimacy.
- Being unable to identify your own emotions.
- Fearing abandonment or loneliness.
- Having low self-esteem.
- Struggling to trust yourself or others.
- Feeling guilty when you’re resting or not accomplishing things.
- Focusing on the needs of others so much that you neglect your own needs.
In most relationships, at least a few of these elements are present. But if you are able to relate to most of these symptoms, you might be prone to codependency. Consider whether you’re currently in a one-sided relationship.
Although codependency is an identifiable pattern, it plays out uniquely in each person and relationship. We can’t draw a straight line from a specific early life experience to a codependent personality. We also can’t assume that a relationship is or is not codependent without examining it more closely.
How Does Codependency Happen?
When you’re caring for someone else for the wrong reasons, you probably don’t care for yourself in a healthy way, either. If you can’t take good care of yourself, this will extend to your relationships too.
If you have an unhealthy relationship with yourself and don’t care for yourself the way you should, you might struggle to love others well. In a codependent relationship, you are treating someone else the way you desperately want to be loved: unconditionally and all-consumingly. This way of relating often stems from past wounds or losses that have still not been healed and needs that have not been met.
When an adult becomes codependent on another adult, the behavior actually points back to their childhood or adolescence. Whatever happened in their family life or relationships at that time caused pain or unmet needs, with the effects not being addressed or detected into adulthood.
When examining codependency in adulthood, then, we should look back to the person’s childhood and early life to see what experiences may have contributed to the development of this unhealthy relationship pattern.
Codependent behaviors can stem from attachment styles, emotional wounds, living in fear, feeling insecure, feeling ashamed, having to keep secrets, experiencing a loss, witnessing unhealthy relationship patterns, or needs being left unmet.
All of us are shaped by our experiences in childhood. These experiences affect our development and what our personalities and relationship habits become as adults. They aren’t a life sentence, though; the more we learn about ourselves and how our past shaped us, the more we can overcome any challenges and grow into healthier people.
Examining the past isn’t a futile exercise. Uncovering emotional wounds and unmet needs can allow us to bring those painful discoveries before the Lord and find healing and restoration in Him.
Healthy Love Model
God designed relationships to be balanced, for both parties to give, love, and care as well as challenge and strengthen one another. Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”
Relationships are meant to be reciprocal and to balance out over time. “Loving” someone else to the extent that you help them avoid negative consequences for their behavior is not truly loving them, because it prevents them from learning, growing, and facing reality.
“Loving” them by denying all your own needs and excusing them from their responsibility to you isn’t really helping them either; it allows them to exist in a relationship without having to contribute anything. This unhealthy pattern may spill over into their other relationships and attitudes toward life in general.
A one-sided relationship isn’t healthy for either person in the relationship.
Often, especially in Christian communities, there is a misconception that the heart of love is sacrificial, unwavering in commitment, and involves self-denial. Verses such as Acts 20:35 “it is more blessed to give than to receive” and John 15:13 “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” are used to support this premise.
Sometimes Christian communities misinterpret Scripture to facilitate codependency. We know that love is sacrificial and self-denying, but this isn’t a complete picture. We need a more holistic perspective from the Bible. Remember, allowing another person to coast in the relationship while you meet all their “needs” isn’t really serving them. Love gives people what they truly need and what’s right for them, not whatever they happen to want at the moment.
Scripture teaches us to love by forgiving others (1 Peter 4:8), holding each other accountable for sin (Matthew 18:15), giving graciously (Romans 12:20), but showing wisdom in withholding so others’ growth won’t be hindered (2 Thessalonians 3:10), not keeping a record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5), but being honest out of love (Ephesians 4:15).
In a truly loving relationship, we must do our part without trying to control the other person’s response, or make them love us back. This means we must acknowledge their responsibility in the relationship. Whether they choose to take responsibility or not, we can’t cover for them and fill in the gaps. This isn’t really loving; it’s trying to play both roles and contributing to a pattern that is destructive for both people.
It can be easy to start to panic when you realize that you have some unhealthy patterns in your relationships, but don’t let yourself fall into that spiral! Instead, allow yourself to take in this information and gain some perspective on your situation. Here are some gentle reminders for you as you begin to examine and move forward toward healthier patterns of loving:
What if you realize that you are in a relationship that has codependent overtones? You might panic and try to overhaul everything immediately, or you might be tempted just to ignore it and continue along because it’s too hard to change.
Let us encourage you to spend some time considering this information and gaining a new perspective. The following are some gentle reminders that can help you think about finding a healthier pattern:
- Don’t live in denial. If you’ve recognized codependency in your relationship(s), commit to being honest with yourself about it from now on.
- Continue to love the other person. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Much of your love probably comes from a genuine place. The important thing is to consider when you’re loving from good motives and how you can release the unhealthy patterns.
- Don’t blame yourself or others or wallow in guilt. Realizing you’re in a codependent relationship can be overwhelming, but blaming or feeling guilty won’t help you change. Instead, focus on the hope of what your future can be once you have life-giving habits.
- Don’t wait for the other person to change. One of the most important habits to break is feeling responsible for what the other person does. It’s tough to change established relationship dynamics, and you can only alter your own patterns. This is part of the change itself, stopping your focus on what the other person is doing and focusing on your own actions and responsibilities.
- Remember to treat yourself with kindness. Healing from codependency will take time, it will be uncomfortable, and it will be scary at times to step outside of old habits and ways of coping. But making these changes is the only way to grow and find freedom. It will take time and there will ups and downs along the way. Have compassion toward yourself throughout the process.
Treatment for Codependency
Once you’ve realized you may be in a codependent relationship or have codependent tendencies, a Christian counselor can help you gain an objective perspective, and support you as you seek to change these unhealthy patterns and find new ways of relating.
In counseling, you can explore past relationship patterns, the relational styles you saw modeled growing up, and how those have contributed to your habits today. You’ll be able to rediscover your individual sense of identity and implement new ways of relating to others to replace the old patterns.
There is hope for change and freedom as you begin to overcome codependency. Reach out to a counselor today to take the first step on your journey towards more healthy relationships.
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