Codependency: What Is It?

Living Without Constant Guilt

Jill told her counselor about her efforts to save two failed marriages, both with husbands who struggled with substance abuse and who were abusive and unfaithful. And now her third marriage was playing out the same way.

In the course of their discussion, Jill opened up about her past: Dad had abandoned the family when she was 7, so she was responsible for her little sisters while Mom worked two jobs. “That’s a lot responsibility for a young girl,” the counselor gently affirmed. “Has anyone ever mentioned that having to take care of your family when you were growing up might be affecting your relationships as an adult?”

Codependency Defined

By general definition, codependency is an adaptive coping mechanism used compulsively by those trying to find personal worth and value by meeting perceived needs of others.

Bottom line: Codependency is a mixed-up motivation to help. Helping becomes a have to out of a sense of guilt and survival instead of a want to out of a spirit of voluntary service.

But that goes against God’s instruction: “Each one of us must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7, ESV).

Relationships should be interdependent (to be mutually responsible to each another), not codependent (to be responsible for someone else). That doesn’t mean we ignore legitimate circumstances of children or those who are sick, elderly, or disabled. Instead, it means we seek the Lord’s wisdom about our motives and whether our friend or loved one has a true need.

Causes of Codependency

Codependency is too complex to pinpoint a single cause. However, it often starts in childhood. Children who grow up in a dysfunctional home often find themselves wanting or needing to help others because the adults in the family can’t or won’t.

In Jill’s case, her mother felt like she didn’t have a choice but to have Jill take care of the other two kids. With Dad out of the picture, Mom had to work more. And for any number of reasons, Mom didn’t build strong networks with other adults who could come alongside the family. Sadly, she didn’t realize the long-term harm that decision would cause Jill.

Over time, coping can become compulsive — the idea that “Someone has to be responsible, so it has to be me.” And a child raised in that environment often becomes an adult who feels compelled to fix, rescue, or control others.

So how do we know whether our help is well-founded or given out of guilt and survival? We have to pay attention to signs of codependency and be honest with ourselves about red flags.

Signs of Codependency

You or a loved one might be codependent if you:

  • Are in a relationship marked by addiction or abuse.
  • Take responsibility for helping others at the expense of your own needs.
  • Seek love and worth through helping but live in fear of abandonment.
  • Endure mistreatment and live in survival mode.
  • Excuse and enable others’ ongoing dysfunctional behaviors.
  • Fail to set or keep personal boundaries.
  • Become emotionally dependent on fixing, rescuing, and controlling others.
  • Live with a lack of love, attention, security, fulfillment, and identity.
  • Experience hurt, fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, and shame.
  • Deny the reality and personal costs of staying in unhealthy relationships.

There’s a Better Way

Scripture tells us, “Christ has set us free to enjoy our freedom. So remain strong in the faith. Don’t let the chains of slavery hold you again” (Galatians 5:1, NIRV). If you grew up in a dysfunctional home where you felt enslaved to the needs of others, and you now suffer from codependency as an adult, take heart: You can recover.

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