• Basic Overview of Codependency – And How Some Christians Misunderstand or Misrepresent Codependency

Christian gender complementarianism shares several of the same characteristics of codependency, so I wanted to write a post giving a basic overview of what codependency is.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression in adolescence by a psychiatrist. I had to see other psychiatrists and the occasional psychologist from the time I was a child and into my young adulthood for depression. I also had (and still have) anxiety and anxiety attacks.

In the years after my mother died – when the major portion of the grief had lifted – I began suspecting that something more than clinical depression had to be at the root of my issues, and it probably had something to do with how my parents raised me.

I got on the internet and started searching various terms and phrases, such as “too nice” and “are Christians supposed to be doormats.”

Through that searching, I initially found the book “No More Christian Nice Girl,” written by Christian authors Dr. Jennifer Degler and Paul Coughlin discussed on a few sites.

Free sample chapters of that book can be read here (all on Crosswalk’s site, Paul Coughlin’s blog):

Additional internet searching brought up the phrase “people pleasing,” and eventually “boundaries.”

After even more extensive internet sleuthing, I found the term “codependency.” The word and concept of codependency described in full all the other terms and behaviors I had been reading about.

I than began reading up on these subjects.

As I was reading the characteristics and descriptions of codependency, I was astounded at how similar they were to Christian gender complementarianism, especially as it is tailored to “biblical womanhood” (or, to put it another way, the teachings gender complementarians insist are God’s design, intent, or role for women).

If I were to make a list of the usual hallmarks of codependency, and another one for the traits gender complementarians believe the Bible spells out for biblical womanhood, the lists would be almost identical.

(I have, in fact, in another blog post I created, a table with a side-by-side comparison of codependency to complementarianism. That table is located at the bottom of this other post.)

Both of my parents were gender complementarians, though they did not use the phrase “gender complementarian” to describe their views about marriage or gender.

My parents believed in a traditional marriage where the wife defers to the husband and the husband is the “head of the household.”  I was raised by my parents to think that this was a normal, healthy, and biblical view of marriage and gender roles.

I was a gender complementarian myself until I arrived to around my mid-30s, when I realized once for all that the Bible does not teach gender complementarianism.

I have always been socially conservative and a registered Republican who disagrees with left wing, secular, feminism on a lot of topics.

I held (and to a degree still hold) a conservative view of the Bible, and took the Bible literally where it’s intended to be taken literally. I read a lot of Christian apologetics from the time I was a teen and older, including works that defend the accuracy, inerrancy, and historicity of the Bible.

How I arrived at rejecting complmentarianism must make complementarians very sad or possibly confounded, because complementarians always assume if a woman rejects complementarianism, it is because of one or more of the following:

  1. she is a left wing liberal who agrees with secular feminism across the board
  2. she has a low view of Scripture and does not take Scripture literally
  3. she does not truly, really grasp complementarianism, because surely, if she did, she would realize how wonderful and beautiful it is and want to embrace it

However, a lot of complementarians, the males especially, assume that a woman who rejects complementarianism just does not understand it, so they take it upon themselves to “man-splain” complementarianism to women – even women who are ex-complementarians.

It’s all quite condescending. Believe me, I more than understand complementarianism, as I used to be one myself and was steeped in complementarian literature and sermons growing up.

My reasons for rejecting complementarianism are not due to ignorance of it, false representations of it, seeing complementarianism implemented incorrectly by men, or by liberal sympathies, or lack of understanding, respecting, or appreciating the Bible.

CODEPENDENCY IS VERY REAL

There are some who dispute that codependency even exists; they call it a myth. I’ve run into these people on various sites around the internet. Their main objection is that they feel the codependency label has been over-used.

My rejoinder: that a diagnosis may have been over-used by some (and at that, to sell a mountain of books for profit) is not an automatic proof that the entire concept is false.

I certainly recognize a lot of myself in the lists, books, and articles about codependency I’ve read over the last 3 or 4 years. Codependency cannot be much of a myth if I can see it’s been at work in my own life for a good, long while.

Some authors who are experts on codependency have explained that codependency exists on a continuum: everyone is a little bit codependent.

Being a little codependent is not necessarily wrong or bad – but it can be for people who carry it to extremes.

Gender complementarianism pressures or influences Christian women to live codependency to an extreme and to think that doing so is “biblical.” As such, it’s very warped.

CODEPENDENCY MISUNDERSTOOD BY CHRISTIANS

Some Christians don’t understand codependency and misrepresent what it is on their sites.

For example, in the course of looking for material for this post, I came across a Christian web page on Google about codependency that reads in part:

  • The codependency movement is quickly turning Biblical living into a vice. Those who choose to put Christ and others before their own needs are being told they are sick…

That paragraph, cited on the Christian page linked to above, shows a lack of understanding of what codependency is.

As I explain elsewhere on this blog – and as experts on codependency, including those with phDs or MDs (both Christian and secular) have outlined in their books on the topic – codependency does not consist of true choice.

Christians who are codependent are not “choosing to put Christ and others before their own needs,” but are, rather, automatically, in a knee-jerk reaction, determining their priorities in life.

Christian codependents often times do not deliberately plot or weigh the costs of any decisions they make. Christian codependents live on “auto pilot.”

They do not think about what to do, for the answer is always, “yes, I will put others first.” Most of the time, it does not even occur to the Christian codependent that “no” is even a choice.

If it does cross the mind of a Christian codependent to say no to someone’s request for help (which is a rare situation), their immediate thought right afterwards may sound something like this:

  • “Oh no, I cannot turn down this person’s request for help, because that would make me selfish, other Christians would think me selfish, and God would surely disapprove, the Bible does say I should think more highly of others than of myself, so I had better say ‘yes,’ even though I really want to say ‘no.'”

Serving others, or putting others first, becomes a sort of “pavlovian response” for Christian codependents. Their motives for serving God and other people are wrong.

Codependents act – carry out deeds of kindness and sacrifice – under compulsion, reflex, and-or guilt (rather than genuine, thought-out, freely-made choice), which is something the Bible says God disapproves of.

Christian codependents often burn out physically and emotionally, and may suffer other ramifications, such as depression and anxiety, due to codependency – of stuffing their needs down, not getting enough physical rest, and so on.

CAUSES

There are different causes of codependency, which I shall not spend a lot of time getting into here on my blog. There are many books or free online articles by psychologists who explain the causes in much detail.

While people of either gender can become codependent, codependency is more often imposed upon girls and women by secular culture, but especially by conservative Christian culture, because the traits of codependency are similar to socially expected behaviors for girls and women.

(Some studies I have seen reveal that women and girls who refuse to live by the socially conditioned behaviors for their gender are often penalized for that refusal by co-workers, teachers, and others.

In childhood, girls will ostracize other girls who do not conform to societal expectations of what is appropriate behavior for girls.)

There may be a mixture of reasons as to why a person becomes codependent, while in some cases, there may be one overwhelming factor.

Codependency usually has its origins in childhood and can be continued into adulthood.

Some of the reasons a person may become codependent in childhood include:
having one or both parents who did not meet the practical or emotional needs of the child (e.g. an alcoholic or depressed parent who stays in bed all day or passed out, so the child is left to fend for herself); physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse of the child; and codependent behavior role modeled by at least one parent or adult care-giver.

CODEPENDENCY IN THE BIBLE

The Bible never uses the word “codependency,” but the concept can be found in the Bible.

Traits that are commonly associated with codependency are discouraged or condemned in the Bible.

For example, most codependents have problems with fear and anger.

Codependents are afraid of anger; they are afraid of feeling anger, expressing it, and-or being on the receiving end of other people’s anger.

Therefore, the codependent will be reluctant to “rock the boat” or to “make waves,” to speak up and disagree with someone else.

The codependent will be reluctant to defend herself if she is being treated unfairly or poorly, because she believes defending herself may make her abuser or bully even more angry, or that it may hurt the bully’s feelings. (Codependents frequently put more importance on other people’s feelings then upon their own.)

Codependents would rather suffer in silence than stand up for themselves. They will go along to get along, even if it means telling “white lies” so as not to offend, anger, or hurt another person’s feelings.

If a codependent is in a restaurant, orders soup, and the soup arrives with a dead fly in it, the codependent will be too afraid to tell the waiter about it and demand a refund or ask for a new bowl of soup – all because they don’t want to put out the waiter, offend the chef, or anger the chef.

Another example: if the codependent hates Thai food, but you, her friend, suggest eating at a Thai restaurant for dinner that night, the codependent will put on a fake smile and say, “Sure, I’d love to eat at Frank’s House of Thai.”

Even though, secretly, she is thinking to herself,

“I absolutely do not want to go to Frank’s House of Thai. We have eaten at Frank’s House of Thai the last five times in a row!

I would rather eat at Joe’s House of Tacos.

But I can’t tell the truth to my friend, because it might hurt her feelings, or she may become angry at me and dump me as a friend.

And doesn’t the Bible say to put other people before myself? I don’t want to be selfish, so I guess I cannot speak up and state my true wants and feelings.”

The Bible describes situations and persons in the Bible who went along with people and did what others wanted, even if they knew that the behavior asked for was immoral. These people would rather please people than please God.

These people were too afraid of what people would do to them if they didn’t comply; or, they were afraid of being ridiculed, ostracized, or maybe jailed or executed for not going along with what others wanted.

The respect, acceptance, friendship, or admiration of other people meant more to them than God’s opinions, respect, or God’s desires. Their personal safety or comfort meant more to them than what God wants.

Over and over in the Bible, people are told either not to fear others, or are scolded for having “the fear of man,” or are warned against having a fear of man.

Being afraid of people – having a “fear of man” – is probably one of the biggest characteristics of codependency.

The “fear of man” manifests itself in different ways.

If a codependent is afraid or reluctant to tell you her true feelings or desires, she will become very manipulative to get her way, or passive aggressive, or else communicate in very in-direct methods.

The codependent will “beat around the bush” and hope or expect you to be a mind reader and figure out what she wants.

She may go around the house all day, loudly slamming doors and cabinets but tell you “Oh nothing, I’m fine, I’m not angry,” when you ask her, “Are you angry with me? You seem upset.”

IN GENESIS

In the book of Genesis of the Bible, complementarianism (and sexism and patriarchy) is shown to be a a result of sin entering the creation; it was not God’s design.

The first woman was warned by God, as recorded in Genesis, that her tendency after the fall would be to look to a man (usually a husband), rather than to look to God, to get her needs met and to find her value and purpose.

And men have been exploiting that tendency of women to this very day – including many Christians, sad to say. God predicted this would be one outcome of the Fall, but complementarians praise this negative outcome as though it is a virtue and was God’s intent.

Many complementarians have been teaching this incredibly perverted, warped view that women turning to human men to get their needs met, and to be under male rule, is what God meant, planned, and desired for women. It is not.

In the same way, women Christian Codependents, rather than looking to God for their identity, purpose, or value, tend to seek those things via other people: by serving other people, helping others, and by playing “second fiddle” to a husband, and-or by helping the husband get his career or life goals met.

Complementarians compound that sinful tendency of women to tell them that the phrase “help meet” (in the KJV translation in Genesis, used to describe the first woman, Eve, in relation to the first man, Adam) indicates that wives are to be an accessory to a husband and act as a support to a husband, even though that is not what the term means. See also this page, or this page, or this page.

You might see Non-Christian women codependents do this with an alcoholic, selfish, or abusive husband – or even with a nice, caring husband – but the unfortunate situation in Christian circles is that Christian gender complementarians will tell Christian women in their books, blogs, and sermons that it’s God’s duty or will for them to stay and endure the alcoholism, the beatings, being under male rule, and-or repressing their own goals and dreams in life, all to be a maid, cook, sex doll, punching bag, and-or support for the male.

The name and person of God is invoked by Christian gender complementarians to defend their Christian version of sexism, of female subordination. This misuse of God’s person or name to uphold the repression of women may be an example of “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

Further reading on complementarian misinterpretations of Genesis:

SOME ADDITIONAL ROOT CAUSES OF CODEPENDENCY

Other than possible abuse or neglect in childhood:

At the root of a lot of this codependent behavior is a fear of loss, a fear of rejection, and a fear of being alone.

The codependent would rather, to a point, accept rudeness and terrible behavior and even abuse than risk rejection by standing up for herself.

She thinks standing up for herself may entail the relationship coming to an end or manifest in an angry confrontation – having you break up with her, divorce her, or drop her as a friend, or scream at her in an angry outburst. All of which she desperately wants to avoid.

To the codependent, being in a crummy, horrible relationship feels safer than being in no relationship at all.

If the codependent was raised in an emotionally or physically abusive family of origin, this mistreatment she receives in her adult relationships may feel comfortable, in a manner of speaking, because it feels so familiar to her. Being treated kindly and with consideration may feel foreign or uncomfortable.

It’s not that codependents enjoy being treated poorly or abused, but the fear of being alone and abandoned is often greater than the dislike or pain of the abuse or mistreatment.

LOW SELF WORTH – LOVE HAS TO BE EARNED

Furthermore, the codependent thinks she has no value in and of herself, and she believes you will not love her for who she is: she feels she will only be valued if she does nice gestures for you.

Codependents believe they have to earn your love or friendship by doing things for you, or by giving you presents or money. (They will feel greatly uncomfortable accepting money, assistance, praise, favors, or presents from other people.)

So, if you ask a codependent to loan you a hundred bucks, give you a lift to your job tomorrow, or to mow your lawn this Thursday, even if she has no desire to do any of these things, and she secretly resents you even asking her to do so, the codependent will automatically say to you, “Yes, sure, of course I will; I would love to.”

The Bible addresses this codependent habit when it tells believers to let their yes be yes and their no be no (Matthew 5:37: “Instead, let your message be ‘Yes’ for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ for ‘No.’ Anything more than that comes from the evil one.”).

What codependents need to accept is that if they really want to turn a favor down, they are to flatly say so and not agree to do something they really don’t want to do.

Codependents think they have to earn your friendship, and that they have to work to keep it.

That is why they will fork over the $100 you asked to borrow, or to drive you to your job, or mow your lawn, even though they don’t really want to do any of those things.

Codependents have said “Yes” for so long to so many requests from so many people that being agreeable and saying “yes” to requests become compulsions rather than true choices.

Codependents do not genuinely weigh the choices before them. They may not even realize they have a choice to say no.

Some codependents are so accustomed to saying “yes” to every favor asked of them that comes their way, whether from spouses, siblings, friends, children, church members, or co-workers , they are absolutely at a loss at how to say “no.”

(There are books out there for codependents and free articles by psychologists who will teach you how to say no to people, if that is something you need help with.)

CONFLICT AVOIDANT

Codependents lack practice at handling conflict, which is because they never learned how to deal with conflict when in childhood. They were probably discouraged from dealing with conflict by their parents when they were kids.

In my own family, for example, my mother did not believe in conflict or else was uncomfortable with it: if you had a problem with another family member, you had to keep it to yourself.

At the very least, my mother was fine with avoidance (that is, mom was fine with you avoiding the person you were upset with), or, you could engage in Triangulation: gripe and complain about the object of your displeasure behind the person’s back – but never to that person’s face.

Complain about the object of your displeasure behind their back as much as you like, and as viciously as you like, but never, ever tell them to their face what you really think.

Codependents also feel it is selfish for them to say “no” to people.

However, being able to say “no” to people is a very basic boundary.

Often times, their reputation as an extremely nice, giving, loving person means so much to them, that Codependents will exhaust themselves – mentally or physically – by looking out for the needs of everyone around them. They are horrified that others may think of them as being greedy or selfish.

Codependents almost always put themselves last. They will often feel guilty if they say “no” to people, or take a break for themselves and get their own needs met, or do something for themselves that they find enjoyable.

Codependents are extremely “outward focused.” They are experts at reading people around them, and figuring out what other people’s moods and needs are. They will then scramble to meet those needs, or to even anticipate what others want before they even ask.

Because codependents spend so many years focused on what other people want and need, they lose touch of their own identity.

They do not know who they are, what they are feeling, and sometimes, they are unsure of what they want and need.

They may try to obtain an identity for themselves as being someone’s attachment: they may think of themselves only as mother, wife, sister, or employee.

HEALTHY SELF INTEREST IS NOT THE SAME THING AS BEING SELFISH

There are Christians – especially ones who harbor an irrational distrust of and paranoia against psychology or psychiatry, rubrics under which topics like codependency may be discussed – who cling to this mistaken idea that all persons love themselves too much and need to be taught to think lesser of themselves.

While there are certainly people in the world who are egotistical or self serving, there are also plenty of people who grow up with very low self-worth, who think they are not worthy of being loved by God or by others.

Christians who dislike psychology or the concept of self-love mistake a person having healthy self-interest with being selfish.

The reality is that having healthy self interest and boundaries is not anti-biblical, un-biblical, nor is it selfish.

The Bible tells others to love others as they love themselves. There is no assumption in this Bible verse that everyone already loves themselves. What the Bible is saying is more along the lines that it’s okay for you to love yourself in the first place, and if you do not or cannot, you won’t be able to love others and serve others.

If you don’t love yourself (and there are in fact people who don’t love themselves and who actually dislike themselves), you won’t be able to love others as the Bible calls you to do.

Another point to consider is that not even Jesus said “yes” to every one at all times – he either could not or did not.

Jesus did not meet the needs of every person who approached him (contrary to what Word of Faith preachers teach).

The Bible records instances of Jesus leaving the crowds to get his own needs met: to go off alone to pray, or to catch up on sleep. Here are a few examples:

  • But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:16)
  • One day Jesus left the crowds to pray alone (Luke 9:18)
  • Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea. (Matthew 8:18)
  • Now when Jesus heard about John, He withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself; and when the people heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities. (Matthew 14)
  • Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)
  • And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He wondered at their unbelief. (Mark 6:5)
  • As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, “This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. (Luke 11)
  • When day came, Jesus left and went to a secluded place; and the crowds were searching for Him, and came to Him and tried to keep Him from going away from them. But He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.”… (Luke 4)

As you can see, Jesus did not always do what other people wanted or needed. Sometimes Jesus walked off and left crowds of needy, sick, or hurting people so he could get some rest or spiritual solitude.

If you’re a Christian, Jesus is supposed to be your role model: if it was okay for Jesus to grab a nap or go off and pray, rather than help some poor, woman hobbling around on a crutch, it’s okay for you do the same and not beat yourself up in guilt over it.

You have to pick and choose when and if you can help other people, because you do not have infinite mental, financial, and physical resources and energy from which to draw. There is only so much you can do for others in need, and there are only oh so many people you can help before you become burnt out and overwhelmed yourself.

If you are on the edge, if you are financially strapped, or emotionally drained, or physically spent, you are not in a place to safely minister to other people – and that’s okay.

You may not have the physical, mental, or financial resources to help other people, and that is okay.

You need to determine how much you can help other people and when or if it’s safe and healthy for you to do so, and also determine if you truly want to help them.

The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver – he doesn’t want you helping others out of a sense of obligation or guilt, or else it will build resentment.

Rather than go into detail about some facets of this myself, I will direct you to read some of the following books (one was recommended to me by a reader at another blog):


For additional reading (on other sites):

What Makes Codependency Qualify As Christian Codependency?

Three Causes of Christian Codependency

Top Ten Indicators that You Suffer from Codependency

Symptoms of Codependency

27 Codependency Characteristics (Person Addiction) 

Recovering from Codependency: The Truth About People-Pleasing

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