What CodependencY Is and Why It’s a Problem
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once commented that he knows obscenity “when I see it.” Codependency is similar. It takes a number of different forms and a single definition is hard to nail down. In her seminal work on the subject of codependency, Codependent No More, Melody Beattie takes an entire chapter to provide bullet point examples of codependency. A working definition I have come up with clients who ask, “What is that?” is simply, fulfilling your need for value and self-worth through excessive care and reliance on the well-being and success of another.
The concept of codependency originated out of the world of alcohol and substance addiction to describe the family members (often spouses) of addicts who overstep boundaries and take on the responsibilities of others in an attempt to keep the relationship, family and/or addict functioning. As with many mental health concepts, once you have heard it or understand it, you start to see it everywhere. In this blog, I’d like to give a very brief overview of codependency and how some of the symptoms are present in our relationships, church, and family lives.
Codependency is a learned behavior. It is an overextension of our natural desire to give ourselves in a gift to others. This is yet another example of how Satan does not always work in lies, but at times will take the truth of what will fulfill us and distort it. I don’t remember where I read or heard it, but vaguely remember an author (perhaps C.S. Lewis in Screwtape Letters) describing the devil being equally pleased when we neglect an interior life of prayer with worthwhile ministries as with earthly pleasures. In codependency, there is a twisting of the desire to serve and Christ’s call to love one another. We pour ourselves out to others without meeting the gospel imperative of loving ourselves first (Mk 12:30-31).
The caregiver in codependent relationships often gets so involved in the lives of others that they are swallowed by their setbacks and failures. They recoil in resentment, anger, and/or disgust. The codependent person invests all their time in another person, while neglecting themselves. We set aside our own calling in order to try to ensure someone else fulfills theirs. How many parents, myself included, do this with their children with sports, education, career aspirations, and the list goes on and on? In reality, when we die, we will be responsible for the ways that we lived out our vocation as a husband, wife, mother, father, friend, confidant, teacher, therapist, pastor, etc., but we will be responsible for our soul alone, and our loved ones theirs.
Do I think a lot of my readers are codependent? Not really. So why do I share this information? Because we all fall into some lesser form of codependency. Beattie highlights how codependency is an attempt to control things and fix the people around us. It is a power play that tries to usurp God’s plan and form our world as we desire. It is a reverberating of the power struggle originating with Adam and Eve, extending ourselves to a realm of control we have no business being in. In doing so we limit God’s power to work in our lives by orchestrating our own meticulously crafted will, and we try to shoulder burdens that others can and should bear themselves. Ironically, as I’ve learned as a therapist, as much as people plead with me to “fix” them, it is outside my power to change anyone or make them happy. When we try to do so, we find disappointment, irritation, and unrest.
Where can we step back from the burdens we are carrying, and allow God and others to step into their proper roles? Doing so is not selfish or negligent but is a gift to others and makes life more satisfying and enjoyable for us.