Weeding codependency out of Christian love

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. 

 

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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 

 
Image by simonwhitebeard from Pixabay

Doesn’t anyone vote against their self-interest anymore?

Today the Supreme Court will begin to hear a constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act. I don’t know how to talk about this without coming across as unbearably self-righteous, but mainly I just want to know that someone else knows what I’m talking about! Here’s the situation.

The ACA is what is making my family’s life tolerable right now. My husband and I are both self-employed, and even when one or the other of us worked for some company that offered employer-sponsored insurance, we couldn’t afford it. So, except for me when I was pregnant, we both went for nearly two decades without health insurance, and therefore with very little health care. This meant we always had the choice between risking bodily or financial ruin. We got away with it, more or less, because we were young. Now we are both 45, and the ACA, and the expanded Medicaid it funded in our state, came along just in time to save our bacon as we begin the long downhill slide into decrepitude. 

So I am following these hearings with fatalistic interest — interest because the decrepitude is speeding up, and fatalistic because there is nothing I can do about what the court decides. If the ACA is found unconstitutional and repealed, all I can do is petition my state reps to work out something else. That’s not nothing, but it’s not much. 

Here’s the part I’m having trouble conveying without sounding crazy. Several of my more liberal friends openly insisted that I oppose the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court specifically because they believed she would certainly favor ACA repeal. They made it clear that I was doing something bad to vulnerable people by not taking a stand against Barrett. And never mind that there was literally nothing I could do to change the course of events — and that events were by no means set in stone. The question of whether or not the ACA is constitutional was deemed irrelevant on the grounds that it’s very hard to be poor; and the fact that I know what it’s like to be poor just made my point of view more offensive in their eyes. I offended them just by not being personally angry at Amy.

I have a confession to make: I think the ACA is unconstitutional. Or it may be. I don’t really know, because I am a housewife who knows how to type, and those are my qualifications to speak on the topic of constitutional law. I very much hope our legislators find a way, with or without Barrett, to keep the ACA in place. I hope the courts decide it is constitutional, or that they can preserve the constitutional part that is useful to poor people. But I also hope that Supreme Court justices see it as their job to figure out whether something is constitutional or not! I’m really attached to this idea! 

There is no power on earth or under heaven that will keep you from instructing me, in the comments, about why I’m wrong about constitutional law, so go ‘head. But that’s not really my point. My first point is that I would never vote for a president based solely on the likelihood that he will appoint a judge who is likely to make a decision that I think will benefit me. This is partly because there are too many variables in play, and I’d much rather vote based on things that are indisputable, rather than things that are hypothetical.

But my primary point is that that every adult should vote against his self interest from time to time, and I will never stop being dumbfounded at how many people can’t accept this as normal, everyday virtuous American behavior. When I say, “I think so-and-so will happen, and that will likely hurt me, but thus-and-such is indisputably true, so I’m going to proceed based on that,” people look at me like I’m some kind of moron, and the want to argue with me that so-and-so will be BAD for me, BAD, you see. But I don’t make all my decisions on whether they will be bad for me or not, because I am not a psychopath. 

Don’t think I’m saying it’s only liberals who make these arguments. Conservatives do the exact same thing, just for different issues, and they’re just as baffled that I would ever vote for someone who has promised to do something that might hurt me. 

Am I missing something? Didn’t it used to be a quintessentially American thing that we cared about what was right, even if it wasn’t personally good for us? Didn’t there used to be such a thing as ideals that are separate from self-interest? Or am I laboring under some kind of penumbra of American Catholic masochism, wherein things that are hard and unpleasant automatically seem more virtuous? Or what?

I already know that I’m some kind of impossibly starry-eyed idealist because I still care about the separation of powers. Whatever. All I know is people I used to respect are straight up making arguments like “This vote is necessary to protect my stocks” or “I heavily depend on the coal industry, so I’m proud to give him my vote.” 

Don’t misunderstand. I get making compromises. I can’t remember the last time I went through a day without making compromises, political and otherwise. But I don’t get being okay with it. I don’t get pretending like it’s not a compromise. Making compromises should make you unhappy, either because it hurts your conscience or it hurts your bottom line. Voting should make you unhappy! Why aren’t more of you people unhappy? That’s what gets me. 

Maybe we really should be restricting who gets to vote — not based on land ownership or bank accounts or education, but based on your ability to even consider voting against your own self interest. Maybe voter registration should be designed like one of those wretched social experiments they perform on kids: You can eat this piece of candy now, or you can give two pieces of candy to your mommy. Except your mommy is the constitution, and the candy is your self-respect.

Listen, whatever party you belong to is going to screw you over eventually, because that is what parties do. If you think your party is going to always help you out all the time, that’s a sign you’ve become an absolute amoeba, and have simply learned how to brainwash your own self into believing good is bad. Voting against your self-interest is like swallowing something prickly because you’ve been gorging on pudding so long, you’re in danger of forgetting how to chew. Snap out of it! Especially if you make a big deal about honoring the founding fathers. It’s as if people think the point of democracy is so everyone gets their chance to be their very own King George III.  

Voting against your self-interest reminds you that no system will save you. The constitution won’t save you, either. But at least it’s something outside of yourself. You do remember there’s something outside yourself, right? 

Remember the scene in The Silver Chair, when Puddleglum stamped on the witch’s fire, and the children woke right up? He broke the spell partly because the magic fire was out, but also partly because the room now smelled like burnt Puddleglum. That’s what democracy should smell like: A nice, pungent stink of self-sacrificial burning flesh, that breaks the trance and reminds us we’re not in paradise here and never will be. More Puddleglum, please. 

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Image via Pxhere. (Creative Commons)