No one likes being considered “codependent.” It’s a word that has been overused and carries a negative connotation, especially in Christian circles. On one hand, as Christians we should want to help and support others. What’s wrong with wanting to please others, to help them become better, or to show them the correct way of doing things? Of course, being helpful is good, but when that helpfulness becomes a compulsion, when we become enmeshed in relationships, or when we strive to rescue someone from the consequences of their own behavior, we have swerved into an unhealthy relational dynamic that is often referred to as codependency.
When talking about codependency, we are really talking about behaviors that come from a trauma response. These behaviors usually begin at a point in our lives when we felt unsafe—when the safety and security of our environment was reinforced by our behaviors. The problem comes when the unsafe situation passes and we are still stuck in our protective behaviors, keeping us from healthy relationships.
Those of us who struggle with codependent behaviors tend to demonstrate a lack of objectivity: an inability to see the reality of a situation.97 Additionally, we have a warped sense of responsibility, which makes us think we need to control those around us. In the moment, we may feel as though we are motivated by love, but in reality, this is a form of manipulation, fueled by fear. This can come from a need to feel safe and take control.
It is important to realize what is motivating our need for control. Are we obsessing over another’s behavior because we need to feel safe or do we want to control the outcome of their behavior? If safety is the motive, then we are probably reacting out of a sense of trauma. However, if the danger has passed and control is now the motive, then codependency is probably the root.98
It is common for women who struggle with compulsive and addictive behaviors to exhibit codependent symptoms; however, not all women with codependent symptoms have an addiction. As we continue to move toward health, it is important for us to recognize and address issues related to codependency, such as early childhood trauma and abuse.
Recognizing our own unique codependent behaviors is only half the battle. We need to change our behaviors—not only for ourselves, but for those around us. We need to understand in a practical way what it looks like to manage our relationships.
Codependency is also known as a “relationship addiction.”99 People who struggle with codependency often form and maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive, and/or abusive. Codependency is learned behavior, often modeled or perceived through a dysfunctional family system.
Codependency is a byproduct of low self-esteem. We look for external validation by helping others. We rely on feeling “needed” by others. Although we often enable those around us, we develop a sense of satisfaction and self-worth by our compulsive caretaking behaviors. We have good intentions, but our codependent behaviors have some very strong characteristics:100
____ An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
____ A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people we can pity and rescue
____ A tendency to do more than our share, all of the time
____ A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize our efforts
____ An unhealthy dependence on relationships—a codependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship to avoid the feeling of abandonment
____ An extreme need for approval and recognition
____ A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
____ A compelling need to control others
____ Lack of trust in self and/or others
____ Difficulty knowing who we are—becoming who others want us to be.
____ Fear of being abandoned or alone
____ Difficulty identifying feelings
____ Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
____ Problems with intimacy/boundaries
____ Chronic anger
____ Poor communication
____ Difficulty making decisions
None of us plans to become codependent. In fact, most of us don’t even realize how codependent behaviors become such a strong part of our life. Understanding and recognizing the core characteristics of codependency is the first step in changing our codependent behaviors.
On the list on the previous page, put a “T” next to the behaviors you think are a trauma response. Put a “C” next to the behaviors you think are codependent.
I am married with four kids and work a part-time job three days a week. Every morning, after the kids and I are ready to go, I quickly get them in the car, drive through my favorite coffee shop, and drop them off at school. Three days a week, I go to work and the other two days I run errands and clean house.
I look forward to seeing my husband each night when he comes home from work. We were best friends long before we got married and always have fun together. I tend to set high expectations for myself and one of my goals is to always have a home-cooked meal on the table when my husband gets home at 5:30 p.m. Occasionally, he calls to say he is running late and that we should eat without him. This makes me angry.
Immediately, my mind fills with negative thoughts: “I can’t believe he values his work more than his family! Doesn’t he know how hard I work so we can all have family time? We set a schedule and we stick to it, to make the most of the time we have together. How could he devalue the work that I put in each day? How am I supposed to explain to the kids why their dad isn’t here? This is all my fault.” These thoughts repeat over and over in my mind, but I never tell my husband how I feel.
When he comes home late from work, I always put on a smile but remain distant. It really doesn’t matter why he is late—I was depending on him to be home on time and he wasn’t. Although I feel frustrated, as I fall asleep, I remember to be grateful: he came home and he has not abandoned me to raise our four kids alone.
As with many behaviors, codependency appears in various degrees, ranging from mild to severe symptoms, not necessarily on an all-or-nothing scale. The following statements are designed to identify symptoms of codependency; however, only a qualifiedprofessional can make a diagnosis of codependency.
Place a check mark next to the statements that are true of you and your behaviors. If the statement is true now or has ever been true in your lifetime, mark it. Don’t spend too much time evaluating or overthinking each statement.
! 1. I keep quiet to avoid arguments.
! 2. I’m worried about others’ opinions of me.
! 3. I have lived with someone with an alcohol or drug problem.
! 4. I have lived with someone who hits or belittles me.
! 5. The opinions of others are more important than my own.
! 6. I have difficulty adjusting to changes at work or home.
! 7. I feel guilty setting limits on my time.
! 8. I doubt my ability to be who I want to be.
! 9. I am uncomfortable expressing my true feelings to others.
! 10. I often feel inadequate.
! 11. I feel like a “bad person” when I make a mistake.
! 12. I have difficulty taking compliments or gifts.
! 13. I feel humiliated when my child or spouse makes a mistake.
! 14. I think people in my life will go downhill without my constant efforts.
! 15. I frequently wish someone could help me get things done.
! 16. I have difficulty talking to people in authority, such as the police or my boss.
! 17. I overextend myself, then feel upset that I have to do everything.
! 18. I have trouble saying “no” when asked for help.
! 19. I have trouble asking for help.
! 20. I have so many things going at once that I can’t do justice to any of them.
! 21. I feel rejected when my significant other spends time with friends.
! 22. I often feel confused about who I am or where I’m going with my life.
Now that we are aware of our behaviors, we can take proactive steps to change our future behaviors.
Choose one codependent behavior that you struggle with and devise a plan. This will require a double bind exercise. Start by asking yourself, “What behavior do I want to change; what fear do I have to face?” Then work through the process : “If I don’t change, I will continue in my codependent behavior. If I change, I will have to face my fear of…” This will help you determine what change is needed.
Then, identify a new behavior you can implement that will keep you moving forward on the path toward health. If you cannot think of a new behavior to implement, ask your group for help.
Codependent behavior: I have trouble asking for help. I fear that others will think I’m not perfect. New behavior: When I feel overwhelmed with household chores this week, I will ask my husband and kids for help.
Codependent behavior: I fear what others’ think of me, so I don’t share my thoughts and opinions. New behavior: In my college class, I’m going to share my thoughts and opinions during class discussion.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes raising awareness to the behaviors that keep us stuck in our compulsive and addictive behaviors. It takes a process of unraveling the messiness of relationships, one day at a time, one step at a time.
Complete the FASTER Scale, Group Check-in, Self-Care lesson, Thoughts/Feelings
Awareness Log, and Change & Growth Analysis in your Unraveled: Weekly Tools before
the next group meeting.