The signs and symptoms of codependency are often overlooked or missed.
When a counselor told me: “You are codependent. You should read this book… “, denial kicked in. Nobody wants a label, least of all in front of the person who has wounded you. My husband sat there nodding with a smug look on his face. This seemed to confirm for him that I was the problem and he – the innocent victim who’d been “pushed into her arms”.
Anger welled up in me: I was the victim, not him. He was the one who had the affair and was unrepentant…constantly telling me the affair was “just a symptom”. While I do not minimize my own wounding, this denial severely hampered my healing.
I’d never heard that word: ‘Codependent’ – and had no idea what the heck it meant. When I did read up about it, I grasped at ways to apply this label to him and not me, in my need to self-protect.
What Exactly is Codependency?
There are several symptoms that characterize codependency and it is defined in several ways. The word originated in the 1980s in the treatment of Alcoholism, when outcomes improved by including and treating the family members/spouse of the chemically dependent person. Over time it was noted that there were other groups of people who displayed codependent symptoms, especially those who were in relationships with narcissistic-type personalities (Rosenberg, 2013). I hesitate to use the word narcissism as it is often misused and misunderstood, and feeds into a need to blame.
Melody Beattie, the author of: “Codependent no more” (1992), quotes Robert Subby’s definition as:
“an emotional, psychological and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to and practice of, a set of oppressive rules—rules which prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems”.
Other broader definitions describe it as a collection of self-defeating behaviors in reaction to someone else’s perceived needs. It’s important to note that the oppressive rules as quoted above are as much self-imposed as those imposed by a narcissistic partner.
What Causes Codependency?
Codependence often originates in childhood and becomes exacerbated in our intimate adult relationships (Rosenberg, 2018). Modern cognitive and family systems psychology contends that we are shaped by our family of origin. We learn certain rules about how to relate with others while growing up, which may have served us as children, but are no longer appropriate in adulthood (Corey et al. 2017). For example, we may have learned as a child that if we want parental love and acceptance then unquestioning obedience is required. As an adult, this same behavior leads to power imbalances within intimate relationships, resulting in dysfunction (Goldenberg et al, 2017).
The most significant ‘rule’ that codependents learn in childhood, is that of ignoring their own needs while prioritizing the needs of those they love.
In my case, I seldom asked for anything that involved a financial requirement from my parents, as they were stretched financially. I knew asking for anything would typically cause anxiety for my mother, so I became the ‘Good child’; the one who worked hard at school, was obedient, tidied her room, didn’t ask for anything, and did things for my parents. I worked out that I could calm my often anxious mother by being ‘that child’. Rosenberg calls this the “trophy child”.
Later when I married, I tried to be the trophy wife and seldom considered my own needs. In fact, I had no idea what I even needed. In my world, I existed to make those I loved happy. When I did occasionally do something for myself, I experienced guilt and anxiety as I was constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure those I loved would not be disadvantaged. The result was that I could not find enjoyment in any self-care activity, so I stopped trying.
What Does Codependency Look Like?
Certain types of people, especially those in the caring professions, are more likely to become codependent because of their personality types. Codependents struggle to see themselves as unique individuals in interdependent relationships. As a result, when these relationships disintegrate, as in divorce, the codependent is doubly wounded. They also find themselves faced with an identity crisis on top of the other hurts that have resulted in their divorce (www.fortbehavioral.com).
The codependent expend all their energy on others and in doing so, neglect to care for themselves. People who talk of “losing themselves” and people-pleasers tend to have Codependent behaviors. This pattern of care-taking is not to be confused with normal loving behavior which involves a healthy balance of give and take.
When I got married, I was determined to be a godly wife and mother; a good and noble objective. I believed it was my duty to please my husband in every way. After all, the Bible tells us to love sacrificially- Right? That’s what Jesus did, isn’t it? The difference is that Jesus chose sacrifice from a position of power, not fear. Co-dependents fear rejection big time. Jesus looked rejection in the face and chose us despite the rejection.
Back to my story; I did nothing without first considering how it impacted my husband’s wishes. It didn’t help that he enjoyed/expected me to always be available for his every need, so much so that on the odd occasion when I didn’t anticipate his needs, I incurred his wrath. My internal belief system maintained that anger was bad and scary and had to be avoided at all costs. I certainly was ‘not allowed to express anger’, and certainly ‘had no right to respond in anger’. Co-dependents are adept at suppressing anger according to Beattie (1992 ).
Signs of Codependency:
- Take care of others but never themselves.
- Know what other people need or want but not what they need or want
- Obsess about others and covers up for them.
- Pass everything through the filter “what would _________ (fill in the name) do/think/want” without having any idea of what they themselves think.
- Feel like you are just an extension of _________ (name) and are treated as such.
- Do not have their own opinion.
- Have poor self-esteem.
- Are self-critical and perfectionists.
- Controlled by ‘shoulds’.
- Live with constant anxiety, often in a state of fight/flight.
- Become rescuers and enablers.
- Don’t know what they feel but do know what _____ (name) feels.
- Unable to make decisions.
- Afraid of and controlled by _______ (name’s) anger/disapproval.
- Fear rejection.
- Feel guilt or shame when they experience anger at __________.
- Easily angered by other situations that don’t warrant it.
- Organize their lives around not displeasing _______ (people pleaser).
- Don’t say or even know what they mean and struggle to get to the point.
- Have an intense need to control others and situations but end up being the one controlled and manipulated.
- Have weak or no boundaries.
In my case I did not even know what this was, that’s how deep my head was in the sand.
I have listed many of the symptoms that applied to me, but I could go on with the list as there are many, many more. For a more extensive list, Melody Beattie’s book is an excellent resource.
Most of us know that we have a problem before taking any tests. I found Friel’s self-assessment Codependency Inventory helpful in identifying codependence. It can be retrieved at the following website:
What The Bible Says about Codependency
There is no such word as ‘Codependence’ in the Bible, but it does have a lot to say on how we should conduct ourselves in intimate relationships. I believe that many scriptures are taken out of context and that God never requires us to be a doormat.
God tells us we are wonderfully made: “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14).
He loves us and wants to heal us. He also wants us to live our lives abundantly. “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy; I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). A life of Co-dependence is the opposite of abundance!
Jesus stood up for the oppressed and hurting people (especially women) throughout his ministry. If He gives us grace, then we need to give ourselves grace (self-compassion).
When I finally accepted that I had been the victim of this condition, I looked to point fingers at the person who’d hurt me so badly. But God told me that I needed to forgive. That in itself has been a whole other journey. Most Christians know the scriptures that instruct us to forgive and how forgiveness is for our own healing, so I won’t go into that apart from saying I struggled with this. The real battle was being able to distinguish between taking back my power (in a Godly way) without “sticking it to him”. Healing from codependency requires validation of your experience without pursuing revenge. ( See Matt 7:1-5).
“Our lives are always moving in the direction of our strongest thoughts”
Craig Groeschel- “Winning the war in your mind”
The Role of Self-Awareness
The journey to healing begins with self-awareness and challenging our thinking, otherwise, we end up as victims of our own dysfunction. Thoughts lead to emotions which lead to behaviors.
Cognitive theorists such as Albert Ellis have done extensive research on this concept (Corey et al. 2017).
The Bible also instructs us to be aware and to manage our thoughts: Philippians 4:8 instructs us to do just this.
Often the heart is likened to our minds such as in Proverbs 4:23 “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything flows from it”. 2 Corinthians 10:5 says; “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to God”.
This tells us that God created us with the ability to be aware of our thinking. We get to choose whether we allow our thoughts to drive us. Before I learned this truth, I was unaware of how controlled I was by every thought, which leads to emotions, which leads to actions. It is amazing how we can read scriptures over and over and not get the gold out of it. Needless to say, I lived with constant anxiety as a result.
Henry Cloud, author of the well-known book, “Boundaries”, explains anxiety as the clue that we are either allowing a boundary to be violated, or are taking responsibility for something that is not ours. If we are aware of these feelings within ourselves, we can interrogate the origins.
Put the Whip Down
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37)
When Jesus uttered these words, it was second in importance only to loving God. He gives us permission- No – He commands us to love ourselves. Newsflash: Co-dependents do not love themselves! They create harsh rules and impossible standards for themselves, that they do not expect of others. Therefore, a crucial part of healing involves the art of self-compassion. It is well-known that in order to love another person, we need to love ourselves first – We cannot give what we don’t have!
Self-help books are extremely helpful, as are counselors and friends, on our journey to healing.
Sadly, an often-forgotten part of healing is the spiritual aspect. God is the only One who ultimately knows our deepest needs, even when we don’t know our own needs. He is faithful and will never let us down: “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). If we embark on this journey alone, we sell ourselves short. The Bible tells us “There is wisdom in much counsel” (Proverbs 15:22 paraphrased). “Where there is no counsel, the people fall...” (Pro 11:14 NKV).
We need others to make us aware of our blind spots. According to psychologists we don’t know what we don’t know and cannot address issues that wound us; hence the need for counsel (DeVito, 2016). Others can help us to identify those issues. The Johari window, pictured below, illustrates this important concept. Before I encountered the concept of codependence, I had no idea how dysfunctional some of my thinking and behavior was, and thus could not address what was causing me such pain. Below is a diagram that helps us to understand the importance of both self-awareness and allowing others to help us.
This article only touches on the issues that come with codependence. As you look at the list of symptoms you can see that there are aspects, that in and of themselves, are a whole subject and area that requires time to heal. Self-esteem, anger, shame, guilt, and boundaries are among these. There are areas that I did not cover in this article, such as how it can show up in every aspect of our lives, from our sexuality to simple day-to-day functioning. It is important we give ourselves time to deal with all the aspects as they apply to us.
Even as I write this article I recognize areas in my own life that still need attention. As I said, the journey to healing is often ongoing. I wish I could say it is a linear journey; it is not. Just as I feel I’ve dealt with one thing, along comes something else that triggers me. Hence the importance of being aware of one’s own defaults and feelings at that moment.
As with any behavior, it might take time to unlearn it. Remember the internalized beliefs, rules and patterns have taken a lifetime to learn. Give yourself the grace and time to learn new ways. 2nd Corinthians 12: 9 tells us “Hi [God’s] Grace it is enough for us”…And it is. It’s time to see yourself as God sees you.
Beattie, M. (1992). Co-dependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself (2nd ed.). USA: Hazelden Publishing.
Cloud, H. & Townsend, J. (1999). Boundaries: When to say Yes. When to say No: To take control of your life. USA. Zondervan.
Corey,G., Nicholas, LJ. & Bawa, U. (2017). Theory and practice of counselling and psychotherapy (2nd ed.). UK: Cengage Learning.
DeVito, J. (2016). The interpersonal communication book (14th ed.). England: Pearson Education Limited.
Goldenberg, I., Stanton, M. & Goldenberg, H. (2017). Family Theory: An overview. USA: Cengage Learning.
Groeschel, C. (2021). Winning the war in your mind: Change your thinking, change your life, (ITPE ed.): Zondervan.
McKay, M. & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-Esteem (4th ed.). USA. New Harbinger Publications.
Rosenberg, R., (2013). The History of the term codependency. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com.
Rosenberg, R. (2018). The Human Magnet Syndrome: The Co-dependent Narcissist Trap. Morgan James Publishing.
Our Guest Writer is Hayley Lamb, who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Hayley is 55, a mother of 2 adult children and a 15year old son. During her marriage, her husband was financially stable which enabled her to give up work as a registered nurse to raise her children. She was therefore devastated when, 22 years later, the husband she idolized, left her for another woman.
The result was a messy divorce which caused her some of the greatest pain she had ever endured. However, since then she has been on a convoluted journey of wounding, healing, and self-discovery which has led to her passion for healing in marriages.
A few years ago she remarried, and between 2018 and 2020, completed a diploma in counseling and communication. Through everything, God has never left her and has been more faithful than she could ever have imagined.
The scripture: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9) is what has sustained her.
Hayley is working on a few book ideas and although she does not claim to be whole yet, she is in the race!
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