I once heard someone say that behind every addict there is a codependent who enables them to stay addicted.
Have you ever wondered who exactly is this person we label as a codependent? And what are the characteristics of a codependent relationship? I found a pretty good definition in this article on the Addiction Network website.
It is an addiction to a relational behavior pattern that keeps the relationship more one sided. It strives to create scenarios where the one partner needs the other and it becomes emotionally and even mentally crippling. For example, an addict will almost always be in a codependent relationship. The codependent person will naturally feed the addict’s mindset that they have been victimized and that they are the only ones there for them.
The addiction of codependency is the addiction to the feeling of needing to be needed. If there was no addiction to make the one person weak and vulnerable; needing to be fixed, there would be no role left for the enabling codependent person to play in the relationship. They will even fabricate drama and delusional slights to be seen as the savior of the situation. It is an unhealthy way of functioning and often stems from a deeply scarred sense of self-worth.
My mother-in-law used to joke about her family being codependent like it was a good thing. She, like many others, did not understand how destructive these kinds of relationships are and how far they are from healthy relationships. She spent almost half of her life married to an alcoholic. She also did not recognize that codependency is a cancer that eats away at a person’s life until there is no energy left for anything else. This is true for both the codependent and the addict whom they are enabling.
I’ve been a codependent for as long as I can remember. Growing up with a father who abused alcohol and me set me up to adopt this way of relating to others. I never understood what it meant to be the person God created me to be. My parents didn’t have the time or energy to teach me this. They were too busy surviving life, and I came to believe it was my responsibility to help our family survive, too. I learned to deal with my problems on my own and not to bother them. I learned if I stayed out of the way and said and did the right things that I could produce a more stable environment for myself. I learned to survive attempting to keep others from getting upset, and this became part of who I believed I really was.
I married a man who grew up in an alcoholic home, who’d spent his lifetime learning how to survive just like I did. It’s a sheer miracle that one of us didn’t become addicted to alcohol or drugs to numb our pain; because between the two of us we had a tremendous amount of it. However, just because we didn’t abuse substances, it did not mean that we were not addicts.
Due to the recent pain we’ve suffered coming out of a spiritually abusive environment, we’ve been forced to look at the root causes that pushed us into the abusive relationship with our former pastor. I have come to the realization that both my husband and myself have been addicted to things that are much easier to hide than a drug or alcohol addiction. In some ways our addictions have the potential to do more damage, because they are masked as “good” things and are harder to recognize.
For as long as I’ve known my husband, he has worked hard – really hard. Not only does he work until he can’t work any longer, but the work that he does reveals a high standard of perfection that is rare. Most everyone recognizes this kind of perfectionism in work as a very good thing. But being a workaholic has been a very damaging addiction in my husband’s life. He pushes himself harder than anyone else I know, and in recent years it’s been about to kill him. He suffers from anxiety and depression and finds it hard to rest at night without the assistance of sleep medication. At some point in my husband’s life, I believe he learned that pushing himself too hard numbed his pain and gave him a sense of self worth he’d not been given by his parents. He also came to believe if he worked hard enough he wouldn’t become like his alcoholic father. Work for him is more than just a job. It’s a huge part of his identity and his ability to control his circumstances. However, as he’s gotten older his body cannot hold up under the pressure he puts himself under and he’s had to learn to slow down.
Because we all like people who are interested in our lives and do things to keep us happy, codependency is even easier to hide, especially in the church. In our young married years, I became the wife who submitted to her husband, putting his needs before my own, and the loyal, encouraging friend who enjoyed listening and fixing others problems. I hid my pathology well, especially from myself. My happiness was based on other’s happiness, and as long as everyone was happy I felt a little bit of peace. But because we as broken humans will always be unhappy about something, my peace never lasted very long. And this addiction sucked the life out of me leaving me feeling more alone and empty than I’d ever known was possible. If my happiness was based on others happiness, it meant I had no life of my own, no source of happiness, purpose or meaning except that I received from others approval who I had no control over. When my husband was unhappy, I felt like a failure. When my drug addict friend spiraled out of control and didn’t listen to my encouragement, I began to believe that not only was I a failure, but that I brought out the worst in everyone.
Enter into the picture my codependent pastor, who used to joke with me, too that our relationship was codependent like it was something good. He’d been in ministry for decades and recognizing a needy member was like second nature for him. All of my life I’d been the person helping other needy people, but when I met my former pastor I was questioning everything about myself, and I had become the desperately needy one. My former pastor knew exactly what I needed. He listened to me like no one had before. He caused me to believe I was special, and that I brought out the best in him. And just like in my relationship with my parents, I gained self worth through making this pastor happy. He just fed into the lie that my self worth was based on keeping others happy, and as a result great harm was caused.
The root cause of codependency is that a codependent does not know how to find self worth in being the person God created them to be. Instead they find it through enabling others. Most codependents didn’t learn who they were created to be because of abuse or a lack of nurturing in their upbringing, or some kind of trauma has caused them to lose site of their true selves. My former pastor did not acknowledge that he had any problems. He told me over and over that he loved me, and that he couldn’t help it. I recognize now that what we had was not love, because love wants what’s best for those it cares about. Love wants to see the other flourish simply because they care. Love isn’t about finding self-worth by keeping another person happy. Love does not seek it’s own. Love also does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth, and will tell the truth in kindness even if it makes another person unhappy. Real love is not codependent.
What does real love look like? How do we know if someone is seeking to gain something for themselves through fixing us or keeping us happy? It’s a question, because of my own codependent tendencies, I have to ask myself often. One of the ways I recognized codependency in my own relationship with my former pastor, was when I began to flourish in relationships outside of the one with him, and he became jealous and controlling. He had recently retired as my boss and the pastor (who still attended the church), and the dynamics of our relationship changed in a major way. He became upset with the new pastor who’d become my next boss and criticized the way he was doing things to me and others in the church. He overreacted when my husband or I spent time with this new pastor or his family, because it took away from valuable time with him. He also got upset when I began spending time with others in the church and was relying on him less. It was a very confusing time for me, because I could not understand how someone who really loved me couldn’t just be happy that I was learning to live life without being so needy. But it was clear from his reactions that he wasn’t, and for the first time I recognized what the relationship I was in with him for so long wasn’t love but the sickness called codependency.
It’s been almost two years since I was in that relationship, and I’ve gotten a lot better, but I’m still battling the tendency to find self worth in keeping others happy with me. One of whom is my husband. Resisting the need to do all the right things to keep him happy is a regular battle. Telling him what I need goes against the grain of what I’ve learned to do for so long. Telling him the truth about the things that I see him doing that are not healthy, like pushing himself too much or being critical of himself or others, I run the risk of making him very unhappy. And that’s a very uncomfortable place for me to be. But I continue to remind myself that my purpose in life is not to make others happy, but to know God and glorify Him forever by being the unique person that He created me to be. I definitely don’t have all the answers of exactly who that unique person is, but I know who she is not. She is not a codependent. She is one created to love.
I’ve been greatly encouraged attending a group therapy session every three weeks with a group of other ladies, who just like me, are learning how to deal with life’s difficulties in a healthy way. The counselor leading the group is teaching us how to really listen to one another’s pains so we can truly hear and understand what the other is saying. In this group there is no place for fixing or judgement, but only for the simple relief that listening to one another and telling the truth brings. We’ve all walked through some very difficult places and the love and acceptance we offer to one another has been much like having our worn out dirty feet washed at the end of a very long day. It’s amazing how just two hours every three weeks has already made a tremendous difference in my life.
Jesus said that the world would know that we are His disciples by our love for one another; a love that is patient and kind, that doesn’t envy or boast and isn’t rude or proud; a love that is not self seeking, doesn’t get easily angered and graciously forgives; a love that doesn’t delight in evil, but rather protects, trusts, hopes, and always perseveres – a love that never fails no matter what.
A love that is not codependent…