While codependency can describe a personal, relational orientation toward a specific addict, it also describes a general relational stance that one can take or assume with anyone. What are the features of codependency and how we address them in our relationships?
1) A Relational Strategy that Seeks Comfort for One’s Own Distress
Codependency is a learned response to others’ problems and pain that becomes a strategy for comforting one’s own internal distress and emotional pain. The reasoning of someone who struggles with codependency is: “If I can help, fix, or please another, then my own pain will be assuaged.” Codependency can be learned in childhood in family systems that ignore inner pain; it is the learned response to an alcoholic parent for whom the entire household adjusts in order to please, appease, placate, control, and help. Codependency can also be a way to survive personal, relational, or observed trauma by caring for others and ignoring one’s own needs.
Codependency is often modeled by adults of adopted children as their own characteristic response to chaos, abuse, or addiction. If one perceives or is told that caring, pleasing, and problem-solving behavior leads to a temporary cessation of hostilities, conflict, or chaos, then codependency can be imprinted upon one’s mind as a useful relational strategy. Codependent behavior brings some semblance of “comfort” to the codependent person because the addict or person avoiding responsibility experiences some semblance of “peace” or a cessation of chaos. The pattern of taking responsibility (or relieving another of their responsibility), followed by the temporary relief of chaos or the numbing of emotional pain, is self-perpetuating. The pleasure, hit, or high of “fixing another” temporarily numbs whatever distress the codependent person may feel. Do you ever notice that in helping others you are actually seeking to soothe your own distress?
2) Taking On Responsibility that Is Not Mine
Codependency is ostensibly taking responsibility for the health and choices of individuals who are capable of making responsible choices for themselves, but whose destructive behaviors suggest otherwise. The drive behind codependency is to control another person and, in so doing, to relieve one’s own personal shame or pain. The fear underlying codependency is the shame of failure. If I do not do this for this person, then he or she will not do it, and I cannot live with myself if they are irresponsible. Those who struggle with codependency are often drawn to help those who have problems with addictions. They take on the blame for the choices, motivations, and consequences of those they see as in need of their help.
There is a major absence of trust in such relationships, for they imply that the addict is incapable of caring for, helping, or dealing with his or her own pain. There is also a lack of trust in others, for they implicitly deny that a community of helpers can contribute to the resolution of problems and pain. The result is a “messiah complex” that grandly supposes that I am the only one who can help or solve this, and that if I don’t do this no one else will. Someone struggling with codependency demonstrates a lack of trust in God to work for good in any other way. Ultimately, the codependent person avoids taking personal responsibility for their own needs, choices, motivations, and consequences and avoids dealing with their own pain. Codependent strugglers lack personal boundaries that define them as individuals in relationship to others. They are unable to acknowledge that their worth is not reflected in the response of the other, but instead they suppose that: “What’s yours is mine to fix so that I can have worth.” Have you ever felt exhausted, burned out, resentful, and unappreciated as a result of your efforts to help others?
3) Unfulfilled Intentions that Perpetuate Unhealthy Relationships
The intention of those who struggle with codependency is to help, and their motivation is often love as they seek to give themselves for another person’s good. But their impact can be to breed resentment from those whom they “help,” as well as to keep them in continued irresponsibility and an unhealthy dependence. This results in resentment from those whom they seek to “help” and their “love” goes unrequited. Both those on the receiving end of codependency and those on the giving end choose to avoid personal pain and responsibility. They both perpetuate personal immaturity. What appears to be noble and honorable on the surface can actually be debilitating and harmful to all parties. Do you find that, in spite of your best intentions, it seems that those you help do not improve or grow in responsibility?
Christian Counseling to Overcome Codependency
Christian counseling can help those struggling with codependency by providing an accepting setting in which to process pain and shame, and to face the uncomfortable and unhealthy relational realities that are ordinarily ignored. Christian counseling can also provide insight into the roots of codependency and provide opportunities to relieve the original trauma that led to it. A Christian counselor can facilitate self-understanding and self-awareness in those who struggle with codependency as they come to appreciate what codependency is. This is the key to identifying and acknowledging one’s own feelings and relational needs. Healthy self-awareness and self-care can be promoted and healthy boundaries can be learned and established. In addition, love and healthy relationships can be explored and engaged from a biblical perspective.
Jesus is the model for our healthy humanity and true, pure love. He took care of his own needs without shame and he allowed others to make their own choices and to preserve their personal responsibility and integrity. He loved without coercion, without strings attached, and from an abundance of self-love and love from God. Christian counseling continues to reference Jesus as the truest lover of people.
We Need Each Other – “Sunset at the beach,” courtesy of Foundry, CC0 Public Domain License, Pixabay.com; Let Me Help You – “Couples in the Grass,” courtesy of Johnathan Nightingale, FCC (CC BY-SA 2.0); Let’s Fly Away – “We have joy, we have fun…” courtesy of Matthias Ripp, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)