Use of the terms codependent and codependency started about 30-years ago in “addictionology.” The original intent was to describe someone whose life revolved around an addict. The addict’s life, of course, revolved around a drug or alcohol. It can be easily illustrated by drawing a simple graphic of three concentric circles. In the small circle in the middle you write “substance.” In the next circle you write “addict” and in the outer circle you write “codependent.” I have often drawn this for clients to illustrate codependency.
Today the term codependent is used to describe just about anybody who is insecure and looks to others to fill them up emotionally. The center around which their life revolves doesn’t have to be an addict. In fact, it’s more likely to be a narcissist, or in some cases, even a “normal”– a non-diagnosable person. In the old days we described those people in official psychobable reports as having “unmet dependency needs.” Today they’re labeled codependent. However, if in fact their life does revolve around an addict they are usually also labeled: “enabler”–meaning they help the addict remain an addict.
Most friday nights I attend a Celebrate Recovery (CR) meeting along with 120 other folks at Northland Church. CR is a totally Christ-centered 12-step program that addresses addiction, codependency and a host of “hurts, habits and hangups.” I ended up in CR almost two years ago strictly out of curiosity but I stayed–mostly because I enjoy the worship and the fellowship. The small group I attend in the program is the men’s codependency group. I haven’t been in a relationship in years but I know that that’s my basic make-up.
In its simplest form codependency is an addiction to a person. I can illustrate that with a tidbit from my own testimony. When I was in my late-20s and early-30s I drank an enormous amount–beer, scotch, wine, mixed drinks–I wasn’t terribly picky as long as it contained alcohol. In fact, over about a six-year period I can recall only one day of total sobriety. It happened because I ended up spending the night in a motel in a county that was “dry.” I didn’t have a bottle in my luggage and when the desk clerk gave me the bad news I panicked and almost checked out. Looking back I can’t believe that I was that far gone but I was. The good news is that about a year later the Lord gave me a wife who was tougher than booze. She didn’t particularly like me drinking (even tho we met in a bar), and over the first couple months we were together I pretty much quit. I was allowed an occasional beer or glass of wine if we were out having dinner and so my annual consumption of alcohol dropped to about what it’d previously been in one night. I didn’t really miss it. What I had done was transfer my dependency on alcohol to my wife.
I thank God for giving me a wife who kicked my butt and who was ultimately tougher than demon rum. However, I had become classically codependent. I was addicted to my wife, and I expected her to be the balm for my raging anxiety and provide the euphoria for my depressed moods as alcohol had done. A person had become the solution for all of my many emotional woundings, chronic sadness and myriad bad habits. But of course my “solution” was not a sound choice. It wasn’t for me and it isn’t for most codependents because of what happens when the relationship ends–usually one’s world falls completely apart. However, that really wasn’t my case. When she finally decided to leave I was relieved. However, over the nine years we spent together I had ceased to grow. I had so totally lived her life that I wasn’t very sure of who I was. BTW, her addiction was horses. Though we were barely able to afford one we had as many as seven at one time.
Codependents often employ nefarious strategies to control their partner and keep them in the relationship. The classic one is that the codependent will allow themselves to be physically or emotionally abused. The trade-off is: “I will allow you to abuse me so long as you never leave me.” This is because the other person has become their life. The codependent usually senses that the addict must remain addicted to their “drug”, and thus codependent on them as well, and so they become conscious or unconscious enablers. Consequently, codependents are often not as innocent as they appear. I said yes to my wife’s horse addiction far too many times and as a result we had many financial problems. Her addiction was as much to money as it was to horses but I suppose as addictions go its less destructive than crack cocaine, heroin or alcohol. You just end up broke, not dead or physically wasted.
A Celebrate Recovery brochure lists 20 characteristics of a codependent. Basically, this is my summation of the important ones: (1) has low self-worth; self-esteem based on the worth of their partner & does not feel in themselves worthy of being loved, (2)feels guilty about having needs & puts other’s needs before their own, (3) fears rejection, is overly sensitive to rejection & sees rejection as catastrophic, (4) mirrors the feelings, needs & values of others, (5) worries obsessively about other’s opinions of them, (6) are doggedly loyal and remain in losing situations far too long.
The CR brochure also points out that many of the codependent’s behaviors are similar to Christian values. We are to consider others before ourselves. We should be hopeful about others and persevering in prayer. We are called to be humble, and often it’s difficult to discern low-self esteem from humility. At times it’s as difficult as discerning the Holy Spirit’s conviction vs. Satan pissing in our ear. I frame that as anything which leads to repentance as the work of the Holy Spirit, but sometimes I think the Lord uses Satan in His perfect economy. What some intend for evil the Lord uses for good (Gen. 50:20).
Today, I express my codependency by collecting people as opposed to just one person. Lacking a wife or serious girlfriend, I have collected over the past twenty years a variety of extremely interesting and loving people–they’re called friends.