Codependency was coined in the late 1970’s in the context of treating alcoholism.

September 07, 2018

What is Codependency?

Codependency was coined in the late 1970’s in the context of treating alcoholism. Therapists observed that while alcoholics were dependent on alcohol, family members were dependent on the alcoholic and each other; thus, they were called “codependents.”

Today the word describes a set of characteristics often found among those who are in significant relationships with persons exhibiting any kind of dependency: alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling, spending, perfectionism, success, among others. Those who have an unbalanced sense of responsibility to rescue, fix and/or help the dependent
person are codependent.

Everybody seems to have a definition for codependency:

  • Codependency is bondage to pleasing somebody.
  • It is being controlled by someone and trying to control him or her.
  • Codependency is the responsibility to make others happy, successful and good.
  • It is a hurting child in an adult’s body.
  • It is feeling guilty when you don’t do everything right – and that’s all the time.
  • Codependency is trying to make a sick person well, but becoming the one who ends up sick.

We will define codependency as a compulsion to control and rescue people by fixing their problems. It occurs when a person’s God-given needs for love and security have been blocked in a relationship with a dysfunctional person, resulting in a lack of objectivity, a warped sense of responsibility and in hurt and anger, guilt and loneliness.

Causes and Characteristics:

Rescuing, care taking, and controlling are central characteristics of codependency, but it usually has other contributing characteristics as well. Its root is in an unmet need for love and security. God instituted the family as the primary environment through which those needs are met. When these God-given needs are blocked, family members often emerge with a lack of objectivity, a warped sense of responsibility, a propensity to control and be controlled by others (primary characteristics of codependency), and with feelings of hurt and anger, guilt and loneliness (corollary characteristics of codependency).

Is everybody codependent? No. All people experience the effects of sin and to some degree share the misery of codependent characteristics, but codependents experience these difficulties at a much deeper level.

Are codependents terrible people? Certainly not! They are some of the most sensitive, generous, bright, articulate, efficient, effective and wonderful people on earth. But they are hurting people. Because they want so desperately to be loved, they give up their identities, ideas, dreams and emotions, forcing themselves to think, feel and act in a
way that pleases others.

A poor sense of identity leads the codependent to believe he is a terrible person, unworthy of love. Lacking a sense of value, he tries to gain self-worth by pleasing, controlling and rescuing others. But these solutions ultimately lead to more pain and emptiness because his or her best seldom seems good enough. He needs a new, biblical identity based on the truth of God’s Word. 

Emerging from Codependency:

The Scriptures state often and clearly that a believer has tremendous worth and value. Passages such as Romans 8:1,17,37; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 3:12; 1 Peter 2:9-10 and many others describe our new identities in Christ. God loves us unconditionally. He has accepted us as His own children. We each have been forgiven and granted an eternal purpose.

Many codependent believers can articulate these truths but do not experience them. Why? Productive change requires God’s work, God’s power, His people and time. Only the active work of the Holy Spirit can convince us that Scriptural truths supersede past experience. Often, this occurs in an environment of loving, honest and encouraging
relationships with other believers. Finally, we need time. Our inaccurate perceptions of God and ourselves took time to develop; they will take time to change. In this context, codependents are better able to identify codependent behaviors, detach to be objective about their circumstances and then decide to act in a way that is healthy, independent and productive.

Psychologists have observed that the healing process for codependents is similar to the grief process of the terminally ill. The stages of this process have been identified as denial, bargaining, anger, grief and acceptance. *

This process isn’t neat and clean. It isn’t pleasant or quick. But it is the way to health. Through it, the codependent is able to develop a new identity and a new view of God. Instead of rescuing and controlling others, he learns to love people and let them make their own choices.

In the field of psychology today, codependency often is treated in one of two extremes. One is man-centered. It examines the pain, but gives little hope for progress. The other seems to gloss over the pain and focus on superficial spiritual solutions, like, “Just believe,” or, “Just think good thoughts about God, and you’ll be all right.”

What is needed is a blend: a hard look at the ugly reality of codependency, coupled with profound biblical solutions and solid biblical processes. That combination can provide the content and context for God’s power to change lives. Christians are especially equipped to emerge from the eclipse of codependency. 

* Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1969).