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Is It Christian Love or Codependency?

A mother sat across from me weeping profusely one evening.  I had just presented a brief psycho-education session about codependency.  She admitted to me that she had left her previous therapist to seek me out because she thought that a new counselor would support her in her desire to protect her son from the harm of his substance use.

“Aren’t you asking me to judge him?  Doesn’t the Bible say not to judge?” she asked me? “I know my boy loves Jesus,” she asserted, “I just need to help him cut down on his drinking, so he can see that he does.”  “Isn’t that how I show him how much I love him?” We spent the rest of the session exploring one of the adages of the Recovering Community: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.”  This adage addresses common cognitive distortions, as they are known in cognitive behavior therapy, of the codependent.

All too often, Christ-followers, like that mom, make unhelpful personal sacrifices in an attempt to rescue the alcoholics or addicts in their lives and justify their own behavior as “love.” They may point to such scriptures as “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) or the most noble of all, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). But is the effort to rescue users from the natural, logical consequences of their substance use actually Christian love? Or is it codependency?

Almost abandoned now, the term “codependency” has been around since the early 1980’s.  It was coined to label the sometimes controlling and sometimes martyr-driven ways in which individuals in relationship with alcoholics or drug addicts behaved.  While the concept has expanded to include any relationship with highly permeable boundaries, this blog focuses on relationships linked to substance use disorders only and among Christians in particular.

Varying viewpoints on whether Christians should drink at all often arise when talking about how alcohol affects followers’ behavior and how other Christians should respond to individuals who are alcoholics.  Some take Ephesians 5:18 “… And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess…” to mean it is okay to drink, but not to get drunk.  For them hiding bottles of hard liquor or pouring beer down the sinks of loved ones who are alcoholics is simply a kind and loving way to help the alcoholic avoid drinking to the point of getting drunk.  There are convoluted excuses for hiding drunk paraphernalia, too.  What they don’t understand is that substance use disorders are primarily a biochemical issue rather than a social or moral one.

While researching for an upcoming project, I came across the writing of a biblical apologist.  He opined that Christians cannot be codependent because we are called to serve one another.  It occurred to me that perhaps he has never seen the controlling aspect of codependency and the destruction wrought on the lives it touches.  The fear. The anger. The hurt. Maybe he didn’t fully understand that codependency sometimes involves being loyal to an addict to the point of covering up for illegal behaviors. Christians are expressly admonished to avoid that kind of deceit, for example, in the writings of Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 5:11).

In a codependent relationship, rather than serving each other – which is truly Christian love – those involved use one another to meet their own emotional needs.  It might simply be the need to be needed, which can be a kind of selfishness. Philippians 2:3 admonishes the Christ-follower to avoid doing anything out of selfish gain. Such selfishness, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, is not an attribute of love. Most troubling, when seeking at almost all costs to garner the trust of the one upon whom they are dependent, the codependent person is looking to fill a void that only God’s love can truly fill.

Yes, at first glance codependency looks like love.  However, one doesn’t have to look too deeply to see that it is only a masquerade.

How does the codependent rip off the mask? First, as with the addict/alcoholic, the codependent person must admit she is powerless and her life is unmanageable because of her codependent behaviors1.  As Jack Canfield states, “You can’t heal what you don’t acknowledge.”

Secondly, it is essential that the dynamics of her relationship with the addict/alcoholic change. This is true whether the addict/alcoholic is actively using or is in early recovery. For example, the codependent must avoid being manipulated into continually providing money for cigarettes or a coke.  It is not that you are denying the addict/alcoholic these commodities, but rather that you are avoiding their manipulation, a signature behavior of active addiction. The most difficult time will be the first year of recovery.  Both the addict/alcoholic and the codependent are one trigger away from slipping into old patterns of behavior.

Finally, affiliate with a well-established support group in your neighborhood.  Reach out to Al-Anon or Celebrate Recovery.  There could be others. The point is do not go it alone.  One of the wonders of the Christian faith is that we are a family.  Let family help you take off the mask.

References

  1. Al-Anon’s Twelve Steps, copyright 1996 by Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.
  2. Retrieved 09/07/2018 https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/jack_canfield_637654

Pamela A. Bridgeman, LCSW, MAC, MA, has been a member of NACSW for 15 years.  She is a licensed clinical social work and master addiction counselor in private practice.  She owns A Healing Journey Counseling & Consultation in Cartersville, GA.  She is the grandmother of two awesome scholar/athletes, a 12-year-old grandson and a 14-year-old granddaughter.

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