The Codependency Myth

Personal note: After almost ten years of well-intentioned, but misguided and untrained (read unlicensed) “Christian” counseling, I found myself sitting alone and numb in a coffee shop in downtown Austin last August. Scarcely able to decipher the events of the past five years, all I knew was that I had deeply wounded my family, friends—and myself.

A new friend recommended I have coffee with someone he felt would understand my past. As we began our conversation, I immediately realized this was no average Joe. After sixty seconds of introductions and small talk, upon being gently prompted, I vomited my story as best I could. The articulate, perceptive words with which he responded dripped grace, empathy and firm but loving truth.

As the morning unfolded, I learned the layers of his empathy came from years as a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church (a high profile mega-church just outside of Chicago), and subsequently founding a church in Austin that also has grown to several thousand members. After twenty plus years of unbelievably successful ministry, he resigned—on his own—to teach at a college and pursue his entrepreneurial goals. His story was eerily similar to mine in many ways.

I told him I had been recommended a counselor and upon hearing his name, this new friend vehemently said, “No! There is only one counselor (and believe me, I know them all) in the entire Austin area that will be able to understand your journey, your mistakes, and the unspeakable strains of the mega-church and the demands and wounds of a platform such as ours.” He also said, “You won’t be able to get in, because he is incredibly backlogged, but he is a personal friend, and I will make a call.”

The man he was referring to is a highly trained and licensed psychologist with a doctorate, who happens also to be a christian, Dr. Steve. For the past 13 months we have met on a weekly basis, for the first six months fitting in whenever he had a cancellation. Dr. Steve is one of the most intelligent, empathic, caring and gentle persons I have ever known. Seeing him has been the most expensive, grueling, difficult, painful, yet best decisions I have ever made. And I am ever so slowly but surely healing from the catastrophic wounds I have caused others and myself.

Here are a few life-changing things I have learned (or should I say unlearned):

The Codependency Myth

The codependency movement and other currently popular self-help philosophies portray relationships in a way that is remarkably similar to the views held in the first half of the twentieth century about the child-parent bond.

Today’s experts offer advice that goes something like this: Your happiness is something that should come from within (God) and should not be dependent on your lover or mate. Your well-being (spiritual walk) is not their responsibility, and theirs is not yours. Each person needs to look after himself or herself.

In addition, you should learn not to allow your inner peace (relationship with God) to be disturbed by the person you are closest to. If your partner acts in a way that undermines your sense of security (spirituality), you should be able to distance yourself emotionally “keep the focus on yourself (God),” and stay on an even keel.

If you can’t do that, there might be something wrong with you. You might be too enmeshed with the other person or “codependent,” and you must learn to set better “boundaries (become a better Christian).”

If you develop a strong dependency on your partner, you are deficient in some way and are advised to work on yourself to become more “differentiated (spiritual)” and develop a “greater sense of self (God).” The worst possible scenario is that you will end up needing your partner, which is equated with “addiction” to him or her, and addiction, we all know, is a dangerous prospect.

*The parentheses are words that my previous “christian” counselor substituted.

While the teachings of the codependency movement remain immensely helpful in dealing with family members who suffer from substance abuse (as was the original intention), they can be misleading and even damaging when applied indiscriminately to all relationships.

The above information is from: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.

Dr. Steve has helped me understand that while at first blush this philosophy sounds very spiritual, it is actually contextually unbiblical.

More soon.

Question: What are your thoughts about codependency?

51 Responses to “The Codependency Myth”

  1. To detach who I am from the people that shape who I am just can’t add up. Great thoughts!

  2. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am stronger and better when I’m around other people – they energize me, encourage me, make me believe in myself and my possibilities, challenge me to be a better person, etc. I believe we’re designed to share our strengths with one another.

    I do think there are those who are co-dependant – they can’t be apart from one another. I don’t think that’s healthy. But I know for myself that I truly love being with my husband and want to be with him most of the time! But I can also go out by myself and sit at a restaurant without him and remain secure in who I am. I can also take care of problems by myself (though I usually want to include him in the decision-making).

    I think we’re meant to be together (people, that is). But we also have to be able to retreat and be alone too without feeling insecure. That seems like the healthy balance to me.

  3. For me it has been in personal relationships.
    I have yet to experience on a intimate relationship with a wife. But as I have started to get serious in relationship with my girlfriend I see these tendencies arise.

    It feels like in a lot of ways we are all co-dependant. The desire to be known and to be seen seems to be one of the greatest human emotions.
    For me, my codependency comes from a desire to know that I mean something to someone else. But it is also something that I have not processed through completely.

    But approval seems to be hand in hand with dependency

  4. Kyle, you are stating a great truth when you say “It feels like in a lot of ways we are all co-dependant. The desire to be known and to be seen seems to be one of the greatest human emotions.” It has taken me a lifetime to understand this. I’m thankful you have a lifetime to live this life-giving truth.

  5. Louis Tagliaboschi August 29, 2012 at 11:16

    I, like Katie, am much stronger emotionally and mentally when I am around, and or, connected to a group of people that I love and that love me. That is why the Re:Create community has been so important to over the last 5 years.

    Thank you for writing, friend.

    • Thanks so much, Louis. Missed you at the Google Hangout today. Miss you. period. Hope Andrew is okay…

  6. It’s always amazing how things that start off right get distorted into something harmful. The bible is a book about relationships. We need people and iron does sharpen iron. We were created to have connection with God and one another. However, setting proper boundaries has helped have healthier relationships.

    You bring out a great secondary point – go get real counseling not “church counseling” from an unlicensed counselor. It’s made a huge difference to see a christian counselor. I made more progress in 6 months versus YEARS of the latter.

    Great post and I’m looking forward to then next one on this topic.

  7. Wow – how interesting to hear that. My mom talked about codependency a lot, and it always bothered me. I get that we do own some degree of responsibility for our attitudes and that ultimately we need to be givers and not only takers, but the idea that we need to remove ourselves from all dependence on others flies in the face of the fact that God created us to exist in relationships and that He Himself exists in a perpetual state of relationship. God said – even when the world was still perfect and Adam still had unbroken relationship with God Himself – that it is not good for man to be alone!

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s thought provoking to hear a professional counselor pointing out the problems in our ideas about codependency. I hope that you’re finding others there in Austin that you can depend on to provide the healing and rest that you need!

  8. I have an incredible relationship with my wife. I have never considered it to be co-dependant but I guess it is in a lot of ways…healthy ways. We have been best friends for almost 35 years, married for over 32 of them. When we married we became one in every sense of the word. I travel, she travels and we both continue to function. I enjoy and do things that she doesn’t and she does and enjoys things I don’t. We’re good with that.

    The hardest co-dependant relationship I deal with is people of the local church. As a worship pastor and worship leader, I often wonder how it would “feel” to be in front of a crowd of people who really want you to be there. I often “feel” people would rather have somebody else…more like them. Someone who give them more of what they want. It is a lonely place to be most of the time.

    Thx for the transparency.

  9. Weren’t we all CREATED to need another? I mean, Adam had God Himself. He had everything He needed just because He had this amazing, one-on-one, direct relationship with God … yet …. God saw that Adam needed another, and created Eve.

    Then, in the context of marriage, the Word goes on to say that “two shall become one”. How then can you really separate yourself and distance yourself?

    I can understand the principle of the boundaries and the idea that our ultimate fulfillment should come from God … yet, I have to agree w/ Dr. Steve, at least, from what I’m reading … it’s a bit crazy to think that we wouldn’t be impacted by those we love and are close to.

    (maybe my post is a bit confusing, but in essence, I’m agreeing, Randy!)

    • Thanks, Fred, for joining in the conversation. This is a tough issue, because it flies in the face of a lot of accepted psychology—christian or not. I appreciate your words…Missed you at Google Hangout today…

  10. However much I say I need others, I fail to live that since it is not “spiritual” as far as the tapes in my mind declare. When you are in public ministry it becomes even more dangerous when there indeed are people who are not safe and will only take from you. You learn to ask, “what about me” and then that is when things get sketchy in my personal experience. I am a friend when some need something but when do I count? “Well, my ministry is not about me so I don’t.” Somehow this thinking is just wrong. We still need each other and leaders are no different. Thanks for letting us in a bit to your journey, Randy. I am grateful to know you.

  11. Randy, I so appreciate your candid insights…… You are on the right track and I will continue to pray for greater insights of healing. Will post some thoughts on a private facebook. Blessings Friend!

  12. I can’t possibly distance myself emotionally from those closest to me. When they hurt, I hurt. When they smile, I smile. The older I get, the more I realize how much I need my wife (of almost 32 years) to keep me emotionally stable and visa versa.

  13. As a child of an alcoholic father, and mother who desperately tried to save my brother and I from co-dependency, this hits home. It feels natural for my own emotions to be tied to my wife’s. I am super sensitive and can feel when things aren’t right at home, the second I walk in the door from work. I am an empath and because I am, I feel others’ pain, hurt. Does that make me more co-dependent? Probably.

    But growing away from that, also takes me away from the very things that make me who I am. Why do I love music so much? It soothes me, and that pain that I feel. Why do I write music, same reason. In many ways, I don’t want to get better (read: less co-dependent). That might be a damaging view, but I can and want to learn to deal with it, so that I don’t hurt my family in the midst.

    Great post. I am learning so much about all of this lately. Especially since my Father passed away last Summer. It’s forced me to confront and understand all of this stuff. Thanks Randy.

  14. Right on brother.

  15. Randy, thank you for sharing! Hey, I’ve never known anyone to die from co-dependency but I have known people to die from loneliness.

    Let me feel what others feel. Let my passions explode within the borders of personal space. Let me smile into another face. Let me tangle my arms and legs with her. Let a gentle touch of the fingertip arouse the truth that I’m alive. I loosen two fingers to hook a belt loop of her denim shorts. Pull her close. We don’t look at each other. We observe the world around us while joined at the hip. Each set of eyes records life. Separate eyes with the same perspective. I’m alive as when I noticed my first breath at morning. I thought she said something. Perhaps it’s just Jesus speaking between her lips. He catches my attention too. She giggles and asks, “What did you say?” She breaks away and smells a flower. I stare at a lake. Our hands will touch again at sunset.

  16. What Chris said. And Rich said. And Fred said. And Paul said. And Jesus said.

    Let’s not forsake assembling together. Lord know I need it. Like Katie said.

  17. One of the major early breakthrough’s in my marriage (10 years this December – woot!) was choosing to ‘need’ my wife. Growing up an only child with a definite sense, rightly or wrongly, that I was being controlled by my mum’s fears I’m made seismic decisions to be fiercly independant, self-sustaining and to never allow myself to be controlled. It worked for a time. But a few years into marriage it really wasn’t. I prayed with friends and before God unmade that decision for total self-reliance. God answered and I immediately felt a renewed affection and surge of love for my wife. We’re good and we’re “interdependent” and a team in every sense of the word.

    Like anything – the bible, self-help books, psychological theory we always need to understand the context of advice and decisions and not doggedly stick to things rigidly. We always need to be open to correction, to change, to new revelation, and to be mindful of the bigger picture and the long-game. Nothing that’s a quick-fix, done, move on thing ever has lasting value.

    • Beautiful words, Ian. Miss you!! Congrats on ten years and persevering thru your fears.

  18. Michael James Murphy August 29, 2012 at 17:04

    Thanks for your transparency and honesty in sharing this. I’m grateful that your coffee meeting experience was “dripping with grace”…I’m a product of God’s radical grace as well. As far as co-dependency is concerned, my wife of 32 years has stood by me through a few seasons of brokenness – I couldn’t have survived those moments without her love, prayers and “being that rock” for me. It’s also been an amazing experience for me as I passed the 50 yr mark of life to see just how much growing up God began to lead me through. It’s been painful and challenging…and I’ve been dependent on my wife and my God to help me through these difficult journeys.

    Thanks, Randy…grateful to you for sharing your heart so honestly.

  19. Thanks, Michael. Awesome and beautiful words!

  20. Good read and good words from all the other responses.
    It seems like the structure and fences that come with the codependency myth stated here, have a place that serves to help one come out from unhealthy spaces and survive. But the structure is only as good as its timing. Once I experienced a healthy sense of self, something that actually still happens through healthy, life-giving relationships, I have a desire to thrive and not just survive.
    I don’t need my wife to survive, so to speak, but I do need her in so many ways that stir me to thrive. And this isn’t limited to my marriage. Some of my closest friends I know I need, depend on, not to rescue me but mostly to remind me I am not crazy, remind to live as who I am, and not something less. And as for anyone close to me acting in a way that threatens my sense of security, well, there are plenty of times I need to have my security threatened to keep me growing.

    Looking forward to the “more,” Randy

  21. gee, i don’t know Randy, i’m really gonna need you to help me with this one, what do you think?…….luvya bud

  22. To have anything be “co” implies there is more than one. The miracle of the institution of marriage is the union of two. When 1+1=1. The only way to be codependent on your spouse is to have separated yourself from them. When limited to the context of a single unit, it would be like accusing the brain of malfeasance by its dependence on the heart.

    • “When limited to the context of a single unit, it would be like accusing the brain of malfeasance by its dependence on the heart.”

      Chase, right there you just said a mouthful.

      Making our brains hurt actually thinking is a very good thing.

      Thanks for upping the level of the conversation!

  23. I hate the term “codependency,” yet find it useful in explaining the identity crisis that many experience. We were made for community and to be dependent together.

    The book this philosophy is based on–Codependent No More–was written by a victim of domestic violence, not a scholar so it’s surprising it’s such a buzzword.

    Since I have a Master’s degree in biblical counseling, I do take some offense at your caricature of Christian counseling. Like any field, there are crappy, untrained Christian counselors who fail to understand the facets of counseling and the Bible. Don’t lump all of us non-doctoral counselors in the same category.

    • Thanks, Amy. I certainly do not intend to lump every counselor together, and I don’t believe that was the intent of this post. But if the shoe fits, wear it. Many people have been duped and had their lives ruined by so-called “Christian” counselors. I’m sure there are good and bad psychologists with doctorates as well.

  24. Randy – please give me a call: Tom from In Vino Veritas

  25. Very interesting post. Funny thing is I have been to Willow Creek Church as I grew up in that area of Chicago. :) Another not so funny thing is growing up with that type of religious background, not specifically WC but a more traditional “Bible-based” protestanism (memorizing A LOT of scriptures!), I think the church’s teaching breed codependency. Namely, put yourself last, sacrafice yourself for others, your opinion doesn’t matter, what God (or the authority) says matters. I wrote a blog on it you might find interesting here. The point is that I think there is a fine line between having a healthy interdependent relationship with others and needing them for approval or allowing their behavior, attitudes, feelings and moods to determine your own. I look at Jesus’ example and yes he was in relationship with many, he felt deeply for them, but he did not let their doubt, betrayal or such deter him from his mission. He didn’t have a ‘bad’ day because Peter was depressed…if you know what I mean. He knew his purpose and was not reliant on others to validate him and really showed quite the opposite. See the example I sited in the blog about Mary and Martha. So I see both sides of it…as the Bible says “lay down yourself pick up the cross and follow Jesus” which I think leads to too much self-sacrifice, not necessarily b/c you’re pursuing your God-given mission, but because you let others trample on you and then end up angry, frustrated or resentful. So to me, the main message is to be in touch with your feelings and if they are consistently negative it might be because you have fallen into a codependent pattern. Love people, serve others…as long as you can do it with a happy heart. I’m sorry you suffered under ‘christian’ (ie unlicenced) counseling for so many years.

  26. Hey Randy

    I agree with much of what you have to say about “codependency”. I have always agreed with Willard Harley’s opinion that the “codependency movement” is dangerous to marriages…even devastating. Having been married to Tanya for 23 years (you were there at the start!), I freely admit that I need her, and I consider our relationship a vital component to my very identity. Yes, we are two separate people, and I am not directly responsible for her choices and actions, not is my worth and value based on her. My worth and value comes directly from God, who has spent a great deal of time and effort trying to relay that truth to all of us. However, God also instituted this greatest of human relationships we know as marriage, and His plan in the “two becoming one” is, in my humble opinion, counter to the latest cultural craze of codependency. I believe there is a balance in this conversation that must be achieved…that my identity, value, and worth cannot ever be anchored in how well I can “control” others thoughts and actions; that if I work harder at your life than you do, and make you happy, then I am good. If I fail to make you happy, then I am bad. Even in marriage those lines can be blurred or crossed. That being said, it has been my great pleasure and honor to walk that line with Tanya these last 20+ years. Finding a nice balance in that with her has allowed us to truly love each other and help each other grow.

    • Thanks, Jimmy. Your words mean a lot. I absolutely cannot believe you guys have been married 20 years. Congratulations!

  27. Hello Randy,

    I’m not sure I understand completely what the issue is that brought you to such a difficult place, but it sounds eerily familiar. I would like to know more.

  28. Sounds like you are blaming ‘counseling’ for the decisions you’ve made. Only you are responsible for your actions, you can’t blame these on influences you allowed in your life now, or at any time. Responsibility and accountability are what you need to develop.

    • Jd, you would appreciate this book. It has helped me learn to deal with people who have not walked even a mile in my shoes and yet presume to tell me what I need to do.

Created by Randy Elrod

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