A codependent relationship is one where the love flow is when the bond is based on one person providing assistance and the other person receiving assistance. In the world, this pairing is usually found between someone who is has low self-esteem and tolerates selfish behavior from the other person. In Christian settings, however, a benevolent kind of codependency can also emerge based on someone’s desire to help another person in obedience to the commands of Jesus.
I believe that this kind of Christian codependency can result when someone grabs hold of the unconditional “agape” love of God. God loves you even when you don’t love him back. By extension, we are supposed to love others even when they don’t love us back. Yet, this can cause you to start loving people unconditionally and overlooking all their faults as if they weren’t there. You overlook the same off-putting behavior which has ruined all their other relationships, allowing them to take advantage of you in various ways. This can lead to an unbalanced relationship. You are interrupting the law of sowing and reaping for the sake of friendship or ministry. Over time, this can lead to you being surrounded by dysfunctional people, often to the detriment of your functional relationships. Unhealthy people are more needy, and you may therefore subconsciously believe that they are more important to God than healthy people. In unbalanced relationships, you feel like you are being Jesus, but in healthy relationships where there is nothing to “fix,” you feel superfluous or unspiritual.
This is Christian codependency. When you are always the doctor, and everyone else your patient, this can become damaging to both parties. The doctor gets taken advantage of, and the patient becomes disabled by not having their problems confronted. This is not how Jesus did ministry or made friends. He confronted people’s problems (gently) and invited them to enter into a relationship, which involved them taking a step toward Him. While He did and does love unconditionally, the strength of the relationship is two-ways. In my book Unlocking the Heart, I talk more about common traps that people fall into in their relationships, and how you can help them out of them. Let’s look at a few kinds of codependent relationships:
Codependent Ministry – This is when a person, usually with a great capacity for love, befriends someone who needs a lot of help. You give and overlook their faults without confronting them. Rather than take your advice they often take advantage of you. Because you believe it is the Christian thing to do, you overlook being taken advantage of and do it again. I have learned to escape from codependent ministry by the “matching grant” philosophy. I do as much with a person as they are willing to do for themselves. I stop working with someone who stops making effort or working with me.
Codependent Friends – This is when one person in the relationship does not do the normal things that make a friendship. Instead of letting the relationship grow distant, which is the normal thing to do when that happens, you just overlook these behaviors and continue. You may subconsciously push your friendships into ministry relationships so you can keep “fixing” and keep the relationship going. You can escape from codependent friendships by not “over-chasing.” If the other person does not value a relationship with you equally or reciprocate in various ways, then you can stop investing beyond the level they have grace for. Similar to the matching grant philosophy, this allows you to stay in the healthy zone of mutual respect and out of an idolizing or codependent relationship.
Codependent Marriage – The codependent marriage is based on one person being the rescuer and the other person being rescued. Normal attraction involves a man and woman seeing someone independent from themselves who has qualities that they like and being drawn to them. They chase each other, with each exchanging tokens of admiration until they build a strong connection. Codependent attraction happens, however, when the flow is all one way. The patient needs a savior, and the doctor needs someone to save. The patient feels loved by being saved, and the doctor feels loved by doing the saving.
Like the other forms of codependent relationships, codependent marriages can be rooted in theological doctrines that are misinterpreted or taken to unhealthy extremes. For example, husbands instructed to “love and serve their wives” may interpret this to mean they should ignore all of their wives’ faults. Similarly, women are often told that they should “submit to their husbands,” and never confront their husbands but rather “win them without a word.” With these ideas, well-meaning couples can quickly push their marriage in the direction of codependency. As one person starts to overlook all of the other person’s faults and never confront them, or ask for what they need in the marriage, they begin to take on the codependent “doctor” role in the partnership.
In some theological circles, the complementarity of the sexes is pushed to such an extreme that the woman exists in the marriage primarily to serve the man. She quickly loses any sense of independent identity, thus rendering it impossible for them to have a balanced and reciprocal relationship, where both parties give and both parties receive. Some major promoters of this view have ironically found themselves in compromising situations with other women. This is the logical result of turning your wife into an extension of yourself; she is no longer attractive because she’s no longer seen as an individual.
The codependent marriage is the most difficult of these to resolve because you cannot walk away as you can in other relationships. You have to fix whatever relationship you have, from where you have it. Secondly, marriage patterns build up over a long time and therefore become deeply ingrained in both parties. This makes them very hard to break, even when both people are willing. To break out of codependency, you will need to put it before God and ask Him to take you on the journey out. It’s going to take time.
What Can Be Done?
Fixing Codependency requires understanding why do doctors play the doctor? As Jesus’ ministry illustrates, authentically saving someone from a serious problem is one of the most profound forms of love you can experience in this life. The person being saved feels incredibly thankful, and the person does the saving feels loved by this thankfulness. When the saving is emotional in nature, they also form a bond because the receiver gives the minister access to the deepest places in their lives which is intimate for both.
This can make two people feel very close, but the relationship is unhealthy because the closeness can only flow one way, from giver to receiver; the giver doesn’t receive, and the receiver doesn’t give. In a healthy relationship, both people rely on each other at different times, but in this doctor/patient structure, the patient is not given permission to care for the doctor, and may not have the capacity or sufficient selflessness to do so. Ironically, one way for this relationship to become unstable is for the doctor to be successful! If the patient gets well, they no longer need care, and that closes the channel through which they were both bonded. If you want out, you’ll have to build reciprocity in the relationship.
First, Recognize that it exists, and work together. If you want out of the codependent relationship, you have to first recognize that it exists. Both partners have to see it and want out of it. It’s a set of interlocking behaviors and beliefs on both ends that causes you to keep it alive. If you are the doctor, don’t blame the patient, if you are the patient, don’t blame the doctor. You both have to change, and you both have to reinforce and support the changes being made by the other person.
Learn to switch roles. Doctors need to learn some patient behaviors, and patients need to learn some doctor behaviors. Doctors need to put themselves into vulnerable positions and ask for help from their spouse. I have found that I am so embedded in this behavior that I subconsciously tend to give care when I actually need care. I do this because I am accustomed to feeling the bond that comes from being the caregiver, but it actually masks a deep need of my own to be cared for. I have to recognize my own need for connection and then seek it out instead of using care as a way to get it.
In the same way, patients need to learn to grow out of their role as the one who is being cared for. This may require developing a whole new set of skills. Patients will have to start to learn the caregiver role. This can be hard, because while the doctor has the hardest time learning to be vulnerable and receiving care, the patient will have a hard time learning to be resilient enough to give care. Being a caregiver means being able to be steady through someone else’s mess, and your relationship may not be structured for that. How would it go if you went to the real doctor’s office and he started telling you about his aches and pains? You would probably go see another doctor! Likewise, developing giver skills in the relationship will require that you can handle the other person having problems in a safe way.
Develop Separate Identities. Part of doctor behavior is to jump over normal boundaries. Real doctors get in your business in a way that other people aren’t allowed to, and that can happen in codependent relationships. Givers have to step back and give the other person room to be their own person. They need a boundary, and it may be your responsibility to enforce that boundary for awhile, even while you dislike it! Most receivers experience challenges when givers pull back, which tugs both back into the codependent relationship.
I look at it as a gradual process of re-balancing the relationship. Look for every opportunity to reinforce that each person is an individual with their own choices. If you are the patient, you may never have had a very strong sense of self to begin with. Your tendency is to absorb yourself into others and allow them to make your decisions for you. You need to start discovering that you are your own person. You have your own ideas and thoughts. In a marriage, those thoughts have to be blended, but in a healthy marriage, it should start from a recognition that there actually are two unique people with unique desires and perspectives at work.
Build Other Bonds. In addition to learning to switch roles, you have to also build other forms of bonding and attraction. You can bond by supporting each other in your life endeavors. Being supported in your own unique interests and pursuits can be just as bonding as being saved in a crisis. You can bond by doing things together that you both enjoy, and most of all by enjoying one another for the things you like about each other. Attraction is based on uniqueness. As you reassert independent identity within your relationship, you are also building the potential for attraction.
Do not give up hope. This is a long term process, that will require both of you to grow and change, but it can be done. Ridding a friendship, ministerial relationship, or marriage of codependency means you will both begin to find some of the joy you are missing.
For more on pastoring people who are in codependent relationships, and other pastoral challenges, you may be interested in my book Unlocking the Heart.