It’s a strange and beautiful thing, becoming one flesh. When two people marry, they begin the lifelong process of intertwining their hearts, growing into each other’s lives, sharing joys, sharing sorrows, finding self-worth through assuming responsibility for each other’s emotions and behaviors…
Hold up. That last part doesn’t belong. That last part describes something we call “codependence,” and it has no place in a loving relationship. It’s very common to find it there, though, because it’s great at mimicking sacrificial love.
What is codependence? In its basic form, it’s a habit of taking on responsibility for someone else’s actions, emotions, responses, thoughts, and obligations.
It’s a maladaptive coping mechanism many people develop in response to trauma. If we’re told as children that it’s our fault dad drinks or mom is always yelling, or if our spouses blame us for their irresponsibility at work or their bad temper at home, we may internalize that blame – and then spend the rest of our lives scurrying around, doing and saying anything that seems like it will stave off more conflict.
Codependence isn’t simply a habit of trying to be helpful; it’s a heartfelt belief that another person’s entire experience of life depends on our behavior – that the sins and failings other people freely choose are somehow our fault, because we haven’t worked hard enough to keep them from happening.
In truth, an adult with free will is the only one who can control how much he drinks, how much she yells, how they behave at work or at home. But abusive people are all too willing to let someone else take on that blame, and then blame them again when they can’t do the impossible and make everything better.
Codependent behavior often feels like love, especially like the radically self-sacrificial, noble love that Christians are enjoined to cultivate. Codependency can look and feel like the great love of giving one’s life over for a friend. It can look like a form of holy martyrdom, mild or violent: “Look how selfless I am! I take onto my own person the suffering I do not deserve, just like Jesus!”
But there are crucial differences.
In authentic love, we are willing to help and be generous, but we do not pretend to have control over other people’s thoughts, actions, or emotions. Sometimes this real love might even look selfish, but in fact it shows respect for the other person’s autonomy, because it gives them credit for having free will and a unique, personal relationship with God.
Codependency, on the other hand, may look generous, but is actually limiting, because it presupposes that the other person isn’t truly in control of his own behavior. It believes that other people can be manipulated into acting, saying, or feeling the right things.
Another difference: authentic love is rooted in healthy love of self, which recognizes that we are made in the image of God. Only trees with deep roots can bear generous fruit, and only firmly-rooted self-love can bear the fruit of unselfish love for others. In authentic love, we firmly believe we have something good to offer, and we’re even willing to suffer through offering it; but we don’t believe our own worthiness comes from our success at changing someone else.
Codependent behavior, though, is rooted in insecurity, fear, guilt, and shame, and a desperate desire to prove that we’re worthy of love. The drive to solve other people’s problems often comes from a deep terror that we may not be useful or necessary.
Sacrificial love brings joy and peace; codependent behavior brings bitterness and resentment.
And codependent behavior is reactive. We respond in the way we feel we must. We believe we’re forced into our actions by the behavior of others.
But loving actions are radically free. They come from a place of acknowledging and deliberately using our free will to imitate Christ, even though we have the choice not to do so.
Christ knew who he was, and that’s how he had the strength to make the unthinkable sacrifice he made of his own life, for our sakes. But first, in the desert, he resisted the devil’s temptation to make him believe he needed to prove his worth; and throughout his life, passion, and death, he acknowledged that not everyone would follow him. He did not set about to change people who did not want to change. He would willingly take on their suffering and the sorrow, but he would not try to supplant their free will.
That is our model of authentic love.
It takes practice to break the habits of codependency. In some marriages, it can be done with attention and a firm, calm resolution to stop participating in an unhealthy habit. In others, where the origins of codependency are old and deep, it may take help from a therapist or a marriage counsellor, and it may take a long time.
In either case, the upheaval that comes with untangling codependence from love can be unsettling, even terrifying. But it is worth rooting out. Like an invasive weed, codependency is not content to live side by side with love, but tends to crowd it out, strangle it, rob the healthy vine of nourishment, and eventually take its place entirely. Freeing a loving relationship from codependence means freeing love to flourish and bear good fruit.
A version of this essay was originally published in Parable Magazine in 2019. Reprinted with permission.
Thanks to Anna O’Neill and Kate Cousino for their help with this essay. Further reading: “Boundaries, Blaming, and Enabling in Codependent Relationships” by Sharon Martin, LCSW; “Codependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response” by Pete Walker, M.A., MFT; and “Learning to distinguish codependency from love” by Anna O’Neill