By Carolyn Gird




We are coming across the term ‘co-dependency’ more and more. What exactly is co-dependency?



There are many definitions of this psychological term but none of them capture the whole concept because there are so many ways in which co-dependency manifests itself.


A very broad definition is that co-dependency is a sinful way of relating to one’s fellow human beings. It is a condition that has resulted from a deep and mostly subconscious commitment we have made to ourselves to feel good and not to hurt any more. It is caused by our own natural depravity but made many times worse by poor parenting.



Well that sounds like all of us. We are all sinful and none of us have had perfect parents. Surely we all want relief from pain and to enjoy life? Does that mean that everyone is co-dependent?



I suppose you could say so. On a co-dependency scale of 0 - 100, emotionally healthy people would appear low down on the scale while severely co-dependent people will appear high up on the scale. It is not wrong to want to enjoy life and to want relief from pain. God created us to enjoy perfection. However, when we run from problems that we should be dealing with, we bring pain and destruction not only ourselves, but to others who are close to us. Our culture promotes “quick fix” mentality.



Are you saying that the less co-dependent we are, the less sinful we are?



It is very important to distinguish between emotional health and sanctification. We all know people who are emotionally healthy though they are not Christians. Being emotionally healthy is not going make us sinless. Nor does it get us to heaven. Before God we are sinners saved by grace alone through Christ’s death on the cross


However, children who have not been nurtured and loved in their homes in the way God intended for them, fail to develop a deep trust in God or a sense of worth. Because they have had poor role modelling, they do not learn how to take care of themselves, or to discipline themselves properly. As adults they want someone to take care of them. Because they have not been nurtured emotionally, they do not develop emotionally. They crave the love and acceptance that they have missed out on and they want a ‘quick fix’ for the emotional pain they experience. They therefore become dedicated to controlling circumstances and people in order to get their needs met.


Only God can provide the significance and worth that we all seek. To look for this from another human being is nothing less than idolatry. Others may fail us but God will not. If we can learn to trust Him in this crucial area, we will find Him to be faithful.



If co-dependency is really sin, why do we not call it sin, confess it and get on with the business of living the Christian life? Why give it the label co-dependency’?



Co-dependency is sinful. However, in order to confess our sin we need to know that we are sinning. Co-dependents are unaware of their condition though they may be aware of some of the symptoms such as the fact that they usually end up having stressful relationships; they find it difficult to allow people to get close to them; they feel isolated and incomplete; they may have outbursts of uncontrollable rage or fits of depression, etc.


Labels can be helpful things provided we do not use them as an excuse not to deal with our problem.


For example, if we take our flu symptoms to the doctor, he is trained to make a diagnosis. When he finds that we normally enjoy good health and that a few days back we caught a chill from standing in a draught, and that we have been in contact with colleagues with flu. He can conclude with some degree of accuracy that we have the flu. We no longer have to worry that the bad headache may be the start of a brain tumour, or that our chestiness is possibly the start of cystic fibrosis. The correct medication can be given and, under the watchful eye of the doctor, we wait out the duration of the illness and move on to better health again. (That is, if the doctor has made the correct diagnosis) In other words, the label of flu removes other fears and helps us to focus on the real problem and deal with it effectively.


My sister adopted a beautiful, placid baby boy. Jeremy was a little slower than other babies. When they walked, he was only just starting to pull himself up. At this stage we noticed that he had a rather lopsided stance. An operation lengthened the tendons in his leg and finally he learned to walk. Just before he turned 2, his left eye started to squint. An operation corrected that too. It was only when ail the symptoms were put together that the picture appeared: Jeremy had cerebral palsy. No amount of tending to the outward symptoms could change the fact that he had brain damage. Yet once we knew the truth, the appropriate treatment and education could be planned for Jeremy. We then knew how to help him to develop to his fullest potential.


A comparison can be drawn with the emotions of severely co-dependent people. We can address the symptoms with Christian admonitions but inside the co-dependent there are damaged emotions and extremely painful memories - so painful that the conscious mind keeps them repressed. They cannot recall the memories but subconscious emotional pain causes them to act out negative behaviour. The causes and symptoms of co-dependency seem unrelated and confusing before they are diagnosed. They are expected to behave like an emotionally healthy person but it is like expecting a standard I pupil to pass a matric examination. Telling them to pull themselves together and behave like Christians when their best efforts have failed is crushing.


Unlike Jeremy’s case, the prognosis for the future of the co-dependent is good if the co-dependent is willing to go through the long and painful process of recovery. Once we know what co-dependency is and what has caused it we can address the root cause of the problem with the correct treatment. The symptoms do start to disappear and healthy relating patterns can be learnt. The label “co-dependency” may never be used as an excuse to continue sinning. We must take responsibility for our actions.


Another reason why we cannot simply confess and progress is that the roots of this sin run deep and far back into our personal histories. I believe that co-dependency is what the Bible speaks of in Exodus 20:5. Children who have grown up in dysfunctional homes know no other way of relating. This is all they know and it seems normal to them. They have had to develop techniques to survive in an abusive environment. Their parents probably also were not well parented and developed their own survival techniques. Co-dependents have to be shown a different and more appropriate way to cope with life outside of their abusive environment. It is a well-documented fact that a large percentage of children who were abused become abusers themselves. The cycle must be stopped.



What is a dysfunctional home?



A dysfunctional home is a home where legitimate childhood needs are consistently not being met and where there are deep-rooted problems that are not being faced.


Perhaps the best way to explain a dysfunctional home is by giving examples.


Example 1

David’s lather is an alcoholic. His mother tries to shield him from his

Father’s problem by assuring him that all is well and that “Daddy is just not

feeling well” when David finds his dad lying senseless in his mess. Despite her deep concern for David, his mother is not facing the situation honestly and dealing with it constructively. David knows there is something wrong but his mother is denying it. Not only does David continue to worry, he also begins to doubt his own correct judgement of the situation and he learns to doubt his judgement in the future and to suppress his feelings. He has to keep up the pretence that nothing is wrong and live with the tension that this brings. David’s home is dysfunctional.

Example 2

Fred is a workaholic who finds it extremely difficult to express his positive emotions. However, he often has outbursts of rage and seems to have difficulty controlling his negative emotions. To his daughter, Jean, he appears distant and unloving. On those rare occasions when he is at home, he seldom talks to her except to reprimand her. He never gives her a hug or tells her that he loves her but he reassures himself that she must know that he loves her because he works hard to provide her with nice clothes, ballet and music lessons and yearly overseas holidays. Jean is always trying to please her dad but he remains distant. Meanwhile, Fred is a regular church goer and is even one of the elders in the church. He insists that the whole family attend (church twice on Sunday. At church everyone seems to think that Fred is a good Christian. Jean is confused by the mixed messages that she is getting and she may experience great difficulty in believing that God is in fact loving. She may grow up trying always to win God’s favour and never knowing the grace of God and His love.



How can I tell if my home is dysfunctional or not? What is a normal home?



Scripture provides us with the norm.


Some ingredients for a healthy,

nurturing environment for children:

Text Box: ·	Much demonstrative and verbalised unconditional love (John 4:7&8)
·	Plenty of encouragement (Col. 3:21)
·	Consistent and loving discipline (Col. 3:20&21 and Prov. 22:6)	
·	Time to listen to the child because this gives the child a sense of significance and worth
·	Activities with the child that the child enjoys
·	Permission to express feelings verbally, even negative ones, so that parents can help the child to deal with them constructively (Eph. 4:26)
·	Promises which are made are kept
·	Instruction by example and words about God and His unfailing love and His trustworthiness (Proverbs 22:6)


When I look at that list I can see that I have often failed. Does this mean that my home is dysfunctional?



All parents are broken and fallen human beings and will therefore make mistakes and sin. The difference between normal human failure and the abuse in a dysfunctional home is the degree and consistency of the abuse.


A good Christian home does not consist of perfect parents. It consists of parents who love God and look to Him for guidance in their loving dealings with their children. When they sin against the child, they ask forgiveness from God and from the child who then learns by example about the sinfulness of humankind, repentance, the forgiveness of God and the fact that God is their source of love and wisdom and will not let them down.


Parents need to instil in children a sense of worth because they are made in the image of God who loved us enough to lay His life down for us on the cross. They need this sense of worth in order to make good choices in life and to become good role models for their children. However, they also need to know the truth that before God we all fall far short of His perfection and need His salvation. Only in Christ we are made acceptable to God who loves us. A healthy emotional environment is a wonderful legacy for a child but this will not make them sinless or give them salvation.



You said earlier that co-dependency was in tact a sinful way of relating to one’s fellow human beings. How do co-dependents behave and how is their behaviour connected to the way they were raised?


If a child is reared in a home with few, if any, of the necessary qualities listed, or if these were not supplied in sufficient quantities to make an impact on the child, that child will have grown up with many of his or her emotional and spiritual needs unmet. The child then develops coping techniques in order to survive emotionally.


1.   Manipulation

Unmet needs become a thing of shame to the child because he is not able to

To meet these needs himself and neither are his parents. However, the needs do not go away, so the child learns to manipulate people and circumstances to get the attention he needs. He never learns how to be open and transparent for fear of rejection.


2.   Poor choices

They get the message that they are unloved and believe that it is because they are unlovable. This sense of worthlessness makes them settle for less, and make poor choices for themselves. This in turn reinforces their sense of worthlessness.


3.   Self protection

They build a protective wall around themselves to prevent further pain. They feel isolated and they are not at peace with themselves. Despite the wall that they build around themselves, they have no sense of their personhood boundaries and tend to allow others to walk all over them and abuse them. They may also not respect the boundaries of others and may try to control them.


4.   Relationship addiction

Co-dependents feel incomplete and many search for someone to make them feel whole. Their relationships are characterised by stress. They are driven by their craving for love, which their partner senses. They will go to endless lengths and expense to keep a relationship going, even a destructive relationship, because of their neediness. Their neediness is not an attractive thing and it eventually drives away the love they are after.


5.   Obsessive behaviour

Because they are deeply committed to avoiding pain and want instant gratification, they tend to develop compulsive behaviours such as over-eating, over-spending, gambling, promiscuity, heavy drinking, drugging, obsession with pornography, workaholism, religious activism, etc. They are all anaesthetics to dull the emotional pain. However, this is a short term “fix”, it does not deal with the pain, and in fact creates guilt feelings that increase the pain. It is a downward spiral.


6.   Constant need for affirmation

They constantly seek affirmation. If their marriage does not give them this affirmation, they may seek it in affairs or in fantasies. They are deeply insecure.


7.   Inability to achieve emotional intimacy

A healthy marriage requires emotional intimacy. Because they did not

experience it in their childhood, co-dependents struggle even to understand the concept and may confuse emotional intimacy with physical intimacy. They may become promiscuous in their attempt to obtain the emotional intimacy that they are really after.


8.   Conditional love

They are often very caring but the motive is usually because they need love. They give love in order to receive love. Unconditional love is another concept which they find difficult to understand if they have not experienced it.



The picture you have painted is not a pretty one and Is clearly not God-honouring. What, if anything, can be done about it?



There is hope and our hope lies in Christ.


·         We need to start examining our motives with the help of the Holy Spirit.

·         We need to look at our past, not as an excuse to dump responsibility or to attach blame hut in order to understand why we react the way we do, and in order to progress to true and full repentance and forgiveness.

·         We need to be totally honest before God and totally committed to Him and His will for our lives.

·         We need to stop controlling and manipulating others to make us feel good and, instead, start trusting God to meet our screaming needs.


How would someone even start doing all this?



Dr Larry Crabb has written an excellent book called Inside Out which

is obtainable at most good Christian book shops. To read that would be a good place to start. Another book, which will give you a broader picture of the condition and its treatment, is Love is a Choice written by Christian psychologists Meier, Minirth and Hemfelt.


Draw very close to God. We should always be doing that but now more

than ever you will need to do this. As areas of your past begin to surface, you will experience extreme emotional pain. The temptation is to run from the pain. Run to God with the pain instead, and tell Him all about it. The Psalms are particularly helpful.


Try to find a Christian counsellor or group who arc addressing these

Issues, but make sure that it is a sate and truly Christian place for you to be. The article “Counselling for Co-dependency: A Christian

Perspective” in the next issue of M2M will give you guide lines as to what to look for in a therapy group or counsellor.


Find rest, 0 my soul, in God alone;

my hope comes from him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation;

he is my fortress, I shall not be shaken.

My salvation and my honour depend on God;

he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

Trust in him at all times, 0 people;

pour out your hearts to him,

for God is our refuge.

Psalm 62:5-8

Many to Many Issue 3 February 1993

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