By: Gary R. Collins
I once attended a church where we prayed repeatedly for a family with an alcoholic father and husband. We rejoiced when the man turned from his drinking and got involved in the church, but our joy was short lived because his wife soon plunged into depression. Maybe it was her despondency that started the husband drinking again, but as soon as he hit the bottle, she sprang back from her depression
What was going on? This woman was distressed by her husband’s drinking, but when he stopped and resumed his normal roles in the family, she had no purpose in life and no one to control or care for, so she got depressed. It appeared that she could only stay free of depression if she had a husband or another family member weighed down with a problem and in need of her care. Counselors would say that this woman had a codependency problem. Codependency refers to the behavior of two people who are so dependent on each other that one person has a strong need to control, care for, or manipulate the other. In turn, the other person – who often has a problem like alcoholism, physical illness, insecurity, anxiety, or some other need – remains dependent and controlled, even though he or she might complain about this.
How Do You Know If You’re Codependent?
We have already mentioned several codependency traits. These include:
- Control. Alcoholics, for example, are controlled by alcohol, but their family members also live under the constant shadow, and hence the control, of the problem drinker’s alcoholism. These family members often are deeply affected by the drinker’s lifestyle and try continually to control the drinking and its impact on their own lives.
- Manipulation. Codependent people often are the products of manipulation, anger, and abuse. In response, they tend to manipulate others, often using anger, self–pity, and criticism to get what they want.
- Caretaking. When we see people in need, most of us are inclined to give help and show compassion. But for codependent individuals, caretaking becomes a way of life.
- Low self–esteem and a desire to be people pleasers and rescuers. These give the codependent person temporary feelings of self–worth, respect, usefulness, and sometimes power over others.
- Other characteristics. Often codependents become obsessed with the needs of others, dependent on the people they try to help, unable to tolerate change, and filled with resentment, guilt, and loneliness.
Doing Something About It
Codependency usually takes a long time to build and recovery can be slow. Most often it includes some or all of the following:
- Clarification. Since codependency tends to destroy objectivity and clear perception, we need the help and objective perspectives of others to spot codependent behaviors, feelings, thoughts, words, and action in ourselves.
- Detachment. Since codependent people are overly attached to others, they need to detach. This means to mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically disengage themselves from unhealthy entanglements with another person’s life and from problems they cannot solve. Detachment involves accepting the sometimes painful fact that people are responsible for their own problems, that we can’t solve problems that aren’t ours, and that worrying doesn’t help. Often detachment means leaving the problems of others in the hands of God, who alone knows what to do and is able to intervene.
- Responsibility. The codependent person can learn to take responsibility for making his or her own decisions, can set goals and seek to reach them, can set limits on the controlling demands of others, and can abandon the constant efforts to control others – especially since attempts to control rarely succeed.
- Community. Lasting help comes when we have encouraging and caring friends with whom we can be honest and who model healthy living that is not entrapped by codependency. Sometimes a counselor provides that help; often the help is found in the local church, where believers can love and build up one another.
Jesus left us instructions to love one another (John 13:34-35), and his whole life modeled compassion for and sensitivity to the needs of others. The epistles encourage caring and urge us not to be weary in doing good (Gal. 6:9). Clearly, caring, self–denying behaviors are Christ–honoring and biblical, but codependency is not. Unlike codependent caring, the compassion that Scripture urges is not characterized by manipulation, dependency on people in need, efforts to control others, or striving for approval. The Christian finds his or her identity in being loved, accepted, forgiven, and redeemed by Jesus Christ, not in compulsive, all–encompassing caregiving activity. Our actions should be compelled by the love of Christ and not by attempts to prove ourselves (2 Cor. 5:12-14). Codependent controlling and caring are neither biblical nor healthy.
This article is produced by the American Association of Christian Counselors. For more information, write AACC, PO Box 739, Forest, Virginia 24551, or call 1.800.526.8673. The information contained in this article is provided to AACC members for information purposes only. AACC assumes no responsibility for how this information is used and in no way endorses the counseling services provided by the person or counseling centers that provide this information.