When our needs for love, security, worth, or significance are not met, we attempt to meet these needs through depending on ourselves, relying on others, trying to control others, or using substances or things to make us happy. Today, in the recovery movement, this is called codependency. This term was originally coined to refer to a person married to an addict who was somehow dependent on the addict continuing to drink or use drugs. However, this excessively dependent or independent pattern is now recognized to be much more widespread in our society and has been identified as the underlying cause of numerous other problems.
Probably everyone in our society has a number of codependent characteristics, but for at least one-fourth or more of our population, these characteristics have become a predominant pattern of coping that result in dysfunctional relationships. In the United States and much of Europe, we teach codependent principles from the cradle up with nursery stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, our romantic and Country Western music, and our movies. After discussing codependency, one pastor who primarily works with lower income families stated, "That's everyone in my congregation." Codependency makes up a large part of the psychological dysfunction that occupies a position between normal or healthy, and the mental disorders described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV).
It is difficult to produce a specific list of codependent characteristics because codependency includes a number of different styles for coping within the same basic problem. In fact, even the most well known books on this subject suggest widely differing traits and definitions. Two of the main characteristics are people pleasing and enabling. This is because they are desperately trying to please others in order to get approval so that they can feel better about themselves. In order to please others they will do for them whatever they feel will get that approval. They will do for others what they can do for themselves, or they will expect others to fix them or do for them what they themselves are capable of doing. From a boundary standpoint, this is the person who allows others to violate her personal boundaries, wants others to carry her load of personal responsibility, or who attempts to carry another's load in order to please them. Galatians Chapter 6 distinguishes between helping others that cannot help themselves and enabling others by taking responsibility for them that they should shoulder themselves. This distinction is clear in Young's Literal Translation: Ga 6:2 Bear one another's (unbearable) burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. 5 For each one will bear [his] own load. (Life's responsibilities) (YLT)
The Codependent Dependent Passive
As we have studied the problem of codependent dependence in more depth in our Christian counseling practice and the classes that we teach at Word of Life Institute, there appears to be two subtypes within this type of codependency. The first I call the Codependent Dependent Passive because she is attempting to meet her needs by being a “good girl” and doing what everyone wants her to do. She allows others to violate her boundaries so that her needs will be met. She is the damsel looking for a rescuer who will kill the dragon of life that is holding her captive and take them both off to the castle to “live happily ever after.” Unfortunately, in many cases these rescuers turn out to be codependent independents who are over-controlling, abusive, or, at least, boundary violators.
The most extensive biblical example of this subtype is found in the story of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Some might object that they have been taught that Sarah is an example of what a Christian woman should be. Like most of the people in the Bible, Sarah did not begin life as a heroine of faith. She progressed step-by-step through faith in her recovery from codependency until she became a definite model of Christian womanhood. Unfortunately, some churches today make the mistake of applauding some of Sarah’s dysfunctional traits as those typifying the ideal Christian woman. I we examine Sarah’s life I believe that the reader will be able to clearly identify her codependent dependent passive traits. Her story begins in Genesis Chapter 11.
1. The codependent dependent passive woman is seeking to live out the classical story of Cinderella in her life. This is suggested by the meaning of her name and that of her husband (before they were changed by God) in the original Hebrew language. Abram means “exalted father” and Sarai means “my princess.” He was to be her exalted father figure or prince to meet all her needs, and she was to be his princess to be taken away to the castle to “live happily ever after.”
2. Shame and feelings of inadequacy are the basis of codependent dependence. Sarai was barren without children. This was a great disgrace during the time in which she lived.
3. Low self-image is a prime characteristic of all types of codependency. Abram’s family lived in Ur of the Chaldees, a region known for false religion and soothsaying. Soothsaying is associated with witchcraft and the use of drugs, possibly suggesting the origin of their codependency. They went to the land of Canaan, which we have already identified as meaning “lowland” or low self-image.
4. The codependent allows her personal boundaries to be violated in order to have her needs met. She usually fears that her “prince” will get angry or might leave her if she offends him by saying no. Abram was afraid that the people of Egypt might kill him to get his beautiful wife, Sarai. He asked her to lie and say that she was his sister. Because she denied that she was married, she was taken into Pharaoh’s harem! Abram was not willing to admit his mistake or make any attempt to rescue her. God, Himself, had to intervene. We are not told that she even complained to Abram even once concerning this clear boundary violation.
5. Codependents try to manipulate their mates and their circumstances in order to get their needs met. When Sarai did not have any children she blamed God by saying, “the LORD hath restrained me from bearing.” (Genesis 16:1) She suggested that Abram should impregnate Hagar, her maid, and she would count the child as hers. In this way, her shame of being barren might not be so obvious to strangers.
6. Codependent dependent passive traits include wanting approval, angry outbursts, jealousy, blaming others, and passive-aggression. When Hagar did become pregnant, Sarai became jealous because Hagar was able to conceive and became angry when Hagar despised her. She blamed Abram even though it was her idea. Sarai treated Hagar so badly that she had to flee. God had to intervene to rescue Hagar from Sarai.
7. The first step to recovery is developing an intimate relationship with God. Without salvation, codependent traits die hard because they are the flesh’s way of coping with life. When God made a covenant (Old Testament salvation) with Abram (and Sarai since she was his wife), God changed their names to Abraham, which means father of multitudes, and Sarah, which means princess of God or noblewoman. Both were to be great, whole persons who relied on Him to meet their needs instead of being so dependent on each other. Through faith in God, their low self-image and inadequacy was to be transformed into complete wholeness.
8. Deliverance from shame, codependent traits, and the development of faith takes time. When God stated that he would take away Sarah’s shame by giving her a son, she laughed; and when she was confronted by God Himself, she denied that she had laughed. Maybe one of the reasons God named the boy Isaac (which means laughter) was because He knew that he would get the last laugh when He proved that nothing (not even infertility or codependency) was too difficult for Him. Again, Abraham asked Sarah to lie and say that she was not his wife. This time she ended up in Abimeleck’s harem. Again, Abraham did nothing to rescue her and God had to step in to deliver her. Yet, she continued to put up with the abuse and said nothing. Codependency dies hard.
9. Deliverance from shame is a key element in recovery. When Sarah conceived, her whole attitude changed. In the same way, when codependents finally realize that God loves them just the way they are and will meet all their needs through faith, the fear of inadequacy leaves, and for the first time they become whole people. In Genesis 21:6, Sarah said, “God hath made me to laugh, [so that] all that hear will laugh with me.” Laughter often indicates that we feel accepted, that we have accepted ourselves as we are, and that we are enjoying life.
10. The second key element for recovery is learning to recognize and use boundaries appropriately. When the son of Hagar mocked Sarah’s son Isaac, she did not just put up with it or attack Hagar as she had previously done. She took the problem to Abraham for resolution. Abraham took the problem to God who directed that Hagar and her son should be sent away. Distance is an excellent boundary.
11. Blessings, spiritual strength, and healthy relationships are the final signs that an individual has recovered from codependency. Sarah died at 127 years old and was buried in a grave at Machpelah (double portion) in Mamre (strength and fatness) which is in Hebron (association or relationships). To me this indicates that she achieved blessed, spiritually strong, and healthy relationships prior to her death. We are told that Abraham wept for her when she died.
12. Victory over codependency is achieved when we overcome our insecurity and learn to meet our needs through faith. This is summed up in the verses below:
1 Peter 3:6 Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well (act righteously), and are not afraid with any amazement (not insecure).
Hebrews 11:11 Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.
This type of client is most easily detected by her excessive neediness and dependence on others. An in-depth study of the life of Sarah usually is sufficient to help the client begin to understand and accept her part in her dysfunctional relationships. Clearly the most important part in recovery is helping her develop a close, trusting faith that God loves her and will meet all of her needs even in the most dire circumstances. She should also resolve any outstanding family of origin issues and establish her worth in Christ. If possible, she should attend a Christian Codependent Support Group to learn more from others who are in the process of recovery and to receive the emotional support that she needs. I believe that Love is a Choice (1989), and its associated workbook (1991), by Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier are the most appropriate additional resources for helping the codependent dependent passive.
Steps for Overcoming Codependent Dependent Passivity
1. The client must understand that the root of the problem is over-dependence on people instead of God to meet personal needs.
2. The codependent is desperately seeking love and approval through people pleasing, trying to be and do what others want, and allowing others to violate her personal boundaries in order to get her needs met.
3. She is a “good girl” and will enable others by do for others what they should be doing for themselves and blame herself if she is taken advantage of, mistreated, or abused.
4. She must realize that her true motivation is selfishness and trying to cope with her own feelings of inadequacy by being good, caring for other people, pleasing, and enabling them.
5. The client must repent of her selfish efforts to meet her needs through people and learn to meet her needs through a close personal relationship with God.
6. The codependent must overcome her low self-image and feelings of inadequacy by accepting her position in Christ and God’s evaluation of her.
7. She must understand that overly depending on others is the sin of idolatry and learn to use personal boundaries to develop healthy balanced, interdependent relationships with others.