God has recently been helping me to find the path to healthy relationships. I have discovered that I have a tendency to enter into codependent relationships as the helper. 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 term is often used to refer to a relationship that involves an addict or an abuser, but what I want to talk about here is the “benevolent” form of codependency, where both people are relatively normal and trying to be positive. There are many causes, but some of them are rooted in theology that I need to reject and so I want explore that a bit.
My idea of God’s love has been heavily fashioned by the many sermons I have heard on the unconditional “agape” love of God. God loves you even when you don’t love him back. Therefore, by extension, we are supposed to love others, even when they don’t love us back. This belief doesn’t seem to cause most Christians any trouble because they don’t actually put it into practice. However, If you do put it into practice, and start loving people unconditionally and overlooking their faults, you will quickly find that dysfunctional people surround you. This is because they are unable to form normal relationships because of their off putting behavior, but you overlook their behavior, and thus they quickly stick to you. Both of you think that you are in a normal relationship, but actually you’re not. You’re in a codependent relationship. One person is the doctor, and the other is the patient.
Over time, this will 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. Basically he confronted people’s problems and invited them to enter into a relationship on his terms. While he did and does love unconditionally, relationship is conditional and involves continual shaping. 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 never do more for a person than they are willing to do for themselves. And I stop working with someone who stops taking my advice.
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. Because of your codependent ministry tendencies, you will often subconsciously push your friendships into ministry relationships. You can escape from codependent friendships by not “over-chasing.” If the other person is not showing value in the relationship and reciprocating in various ways, then you stop investing beyond that level. Similar to the matching grant philosophy in ministry, 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. One person chases the other, each person exchanges tokens of admiration and they build a strong connection. Codependent attraction happens 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.
In addition to the “agape love” concept, the codependent marriage has other roots. On the man’s end, we often preach to men how they are supposed to love and serve their wives. This has led a number of men I know down the unhealthy path of ignoring all of their wives’ faults, and simply responding with love and service. We have similar doctrines for women that tell them to heap burning coals on their husbands head, winning 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, they begin to take on the codependent “doctor” role in the marriage.
Hyper-complementarian theology, where the woman exists in the marriage primarily to serve the man is codependent by definition. 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. The long term result of this approach is seen in the recent high profile falls of major promoters of this theology Bill Gothard and Doug Philips. They 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 not an individual, she’s just a house servant.
Fixing the codependent marriage
The codependent marriage is the most difficult of these to resolve. First, you cannot simply walk away as you can in the other relationships. You have to fix whatever relationship you have. 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 with both people are willing. To begin to find your way out of this kind of marital relationship, you will need to put it before God and ask Him to take you on the journey out. It’s going to take time.
Why do doctors play the doctor? Authentically saving someone from a serious problem is one of the most profound forms of love you can experience in this life. The person who has been 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, as the patient gives the doctor access to the deepest places in their lives. This can make two people feel very close, but the relationship is one sided: The closeness can only flow one way. In a healthy relationship both people rely on each other at different time, but in this doctor/patient structure, the patient is not given permission to care for the doctor, and oftentimes does not have the capacity or sufficient selflessness to do so.
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. Playing emotional doctor means being able to be steady through someone else’s mess, and the fact is that your relationship is not 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 some doctor skills in the relationship will require that you can handle the other person having problems in a safe way.
Develop Separate Identities. Part of the 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’s the same thing happens in these codependent relationships. You need to learn to step back and give the other person room to be their own person. The hard part is, that If you have been doctoring them, they probably needed it at least at some level and they will likely experience challenges as you pull back. I look at it as a gradual process of rebalancing the relationship. Doing it quickly, like any radical change can be damaging. Regardless, look for every opportunity to reinforce that the other person is also 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 some independent identity within your relationship, you are also building the potential for attraction. But in order for it to work, you have to decide that you want to be attractive to the other person, which requires effort, the same kind of effort that you would normally put in when you are first attracting a mate.
Do not give up hope. This is a long term process, that will require both of you to grow and change, but it actually can be done. You will both begin to find some of the joy you are missing.